Shy-Drager Dearth

It’s not a Star Wars character, nor the name of a deep sea creature. It’s a neurodegenerative disease that attacks the central autonomic nervous system. It’s caused (as much as is known) by long exposure to herbicides and pesticides. It’s a major player in Mary Rockcastle’s new novel, In Caddis Wood.

Over the weekend I dipped into DuPont land, better known as Delaware. Beautiful country with flat plains and copses of trees, plus one of my favorite bird-watching spots in the country: the National Wildlife Refuge called Bombay Hook. There my adorable oldest living relative Eleonora and I watched hundreds of ducks and Canada geese paddle in tidal pools, a few great blue heron hunch at the edge of swift-flowing tidal creeks, and a weird fox, surrounded by wary Japanese bird-watchers, cross and recross the road. A sign at the beginning of the refuge warns against getting too close to the resident foxes: they may have rabies.

“If we but knew when we delve and hew…” sings Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Irish poet. Mary Rockcastle’s novel is set in the Wisconsin woods and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/Saint Paul. It’s always curious and strange to read the works of friends–there are familiar names and places (such as the Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus) which are lifted from their usual associations and burnished in a fictional world. The family in Rockcastle’s novel is struggling with multiple accidents and diseases, yet their world is lush with artistic discovery, creature comforts, and with Rockcastle’s evocation of Upper Midwest woodland plants and climate, as well as the fate of Captive Island near Fort Myers, Florida, after a hurricane.

I honor her work, subtly revealing how choices to hack and hew have long-term effects on health and happiness. Carl, the father, has torn open the woods in front of the elaborate edifice he, as an architect, has built for the family in Caddis Woods. There he’s planted what could pass for an English garden, full of roses. Casually year after year he sprays the roses with pesticides and herbicides. As the novel opens, he’s beginning to experience the onset of Shy-Drager, though we don’t find out what’s really wrong with him until the middle of the book. With consummate skill, the author takes us into his disintegrating yet fantastical world with its whisps of recurring ghosts, its strange blackouts and its sudden weakness. Before he loses sight and speech, his experience of the natural world becomes acute, beautiful, and strange. What is certainly at heart a cautionary tale becomes also an evocation of an altered state, the last gift of life to a talented artist.

When he and his wife, a poet, tear out the rose garden and resoil and seed the plot with native prairie plants, I breathe a sigh of relief. Yet, the author withholds judgment. She is a tender chronicler of their troubled yet enduring love, as well as the many attendant family lives they touch. By the end, a project of remediation–to render useful a dump named Pig’s Eye on the Mississippi–becomes another reminder of human skill at curing what humans have deeply tainted.

As I drive away from Delaware and catch Highway 95 toward the Philadelphia airport, I’m reminded of efforts to initiate “fracking” in the Delaware River basin and Chesapeake Bay. Fracking is shorthand for extracting natural gas from shale buried deep in the earth. The process not only destroys the surface growth and soil–thousands of acres of boreal forest have been upended in northern Alberta, Canada–but it uses an enormous amount of water, which then becomes tainted with heavy metals and other contaminants. I’m completely and utterly opposed to this process anywhere, but especially in a rich tidal ecosystem such as the Delaware River Basin and Chesapeake Bay. I want Bombay Hook and its birds and animals to enjoy a healthy rest stop, and I want my loving Eleonore to live our her days without the threat of new environmental contaminants. Not to mention the young men and women who take care of her, and their children, and children’s children.

We need a stronger, more ecologically sound energy policy, here and globally.

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