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Relationships with the Land: An Interview with Izzy Bailey

Margaret Wilson Merritt | Rural Youth Organizer: Kennebec County

This is the first of a series of interviews about how we relate to and treat the land. I’ve embarked on this project to try and get to a human perspective that is often lost when we talk about the environment and its changes. Here, I spoke with Izzy Bailey, a resident of Fairfield, about the effects of PFAS pollution on her family, the interconnection between environment and community, and paying respects to the land.

This interview was done on June 24th. On July 12th, the Portland Press Herald reported that the Maine state legislature adopted a $70 million plan to help farmers prevent PFAS contamination.

What was your first major memory about the environment?

I grew up in the Kennebec valley and I spent most of my time outside as a child. We had some acreage in Clinton that led down to a beautiful brook. I didn't really have access to TV or Internet growing up, so I learned very early how to spend my time in nature in a very solitary way and enjoy myself. That is a skill I find myself using all the time, so it's hard for me to come up with a singular memory. I grew up with a very intense belief in fairies, and so I think that was my way of creating friends. I would leave little offerings like berries when I was a kid, and I think that was my way of unknowingly developing my skills of reciprocity and my relationship with nature. So, I still have those same feelings, whether I attribute it to some sort of overarching natural spirit.

How do you give back to the land?

Bearing witness. I feel it's very important to develop a relationship with the land. It could be a piece of land; it could be your backyard and just watching how that place changes through the seasons. I take pride in collecting secret spots that I go to and visit and pay homage to. I think that it’s important just being there, taking time – I feel like it's paying respects. But to me, what feels the most sacred is just showing up with that idea of reciprocity and respect.

How have you been personally affected by the environmental changes (climate change, pollution, etc.)?

I grew up like most young people with an overwhelming fear of climate change, and I think it has been invalidating. I'm 27, so I think when I was a kid it was still very much ‘In the future we'll see this happening’. I think now if a child is receiving an accurate climate education it's like ‘Oh these things are happening’ so to grow up with that sense of impending doom and then reach where my brain is getting close to fully formed and seeing the climate change around me has been terrifying.

This is a personal subject for me, and it's been hard to find an outlet that is fully appropriate, because it's not necessarily related to climate change, but for me it feels very close. I live in Fairfield now and there is a massive health and environmental crisis happening in Fairfield specifically. It’s all over Maine, but Fairfield has very significant numbers in terms of PFAS in the water. I feel crazy sometimes because this is something I think about 100% of the time, and I don't think people are talking about it. In a way that I don't think anyone — including myself — has a holistic understanding about what this is doing and will continue to do to our quality of life and how serious it is. I lived with my mom on the Ohio Hill Road, about a quarter of a mile South from Nye’s corner, and the numbers for PFAS in the water should be something like 20 parts per trillion on the state level. Some of the numbers in that area are in the 10,000 range — it’s insane.

My mom lived there for about a decade, and she doesn't have any family history, and she is in a significant battle with breast cancer right now. Months before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, they added breast cancer to the list of things that could potentially be caused by PFAS contamination. She’s not the only case in the area, so there’s some correlation. [The CDC] has seen some correlation between cases of breast cancer and PFAS levels, and there's no way I know of to test for it. I lived there with her for almost a decade and there's no way for me to test if I have my previous levels. In navigating having frankly terminal breast cancer, she has not received any counseling or support. And testing for PFAS levels is just not widely available. I asked my doctor personally, in Albion, who is supportive and believes me and she's like I don't know a way of getting confirmation. The support just is not there, and the data isn't there either. I know as a community member there are probably five separate families, unrelated, all within a quarter mile of each other who have cases of pancreatic cancer. How is that possible if not because of environmental contamination?

It's hard for me to talk about my relationship with the land, because not everyone here recognizes it, but I feel like that area of the city is very beautiful. I drive through Fairfield center, and it just breaks my heart. Because I drive through there now, and I see deer, because there's a ‘do not eat’ advisory for the deer, so now there are a lot of them, obviously. I see these herds of deer grazing, and these natural systems still happening every day. It's hard for me to see it and not think: ‘this is all poisoned’. Because of people in power making decisions, this is ruined, and people and animals are going to die because of it.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I think a lot of times in conversations about the environment, people tend to forget that we are not separate from the environment. We are part of that space. Humans are just another iteration of a creature in the environment, and I think because of the industrial revolution — because of how we have changed the environment, presumably as a form of protection — I think we have lost our sense of the ways in which we are connected.

We're always going to be a part of the food chain. We're always going to need to breathe clean air, (I say as we have smoke rolling in from Canadian wildfires), so we can't live separately. We must reimagine our place within this system in a way that is not trying to fight back, beat it back like you're placing a trail. I think approaching conversations holistically [is important](?). To me, part of showing respect and showing kindness to the environment around us is showing kindness to ourselves.

I would like the conversations that I spark and, I guess, my legacy to just be a reframing of the conversation. I guess also as someone who works in public health, a realization within that actions have consequences.

What’s changed about your connection to the environment?

I don't feel like there is the intentional sense of community that humans were evolved to participate in. I think that part reflects our fractured relationship with the environment. I think, especially in our culture, there's this very rugged individualism, everyone has their own set of things, like everyone must live separately, so that they can escape from the outside. Of course, I think everybody should have their basic needs met, like water, shelter, and air, but I think a lot of people have lost their sense of ‘we're in this space together’ and the idea that we should be in community, not only with other people but with our environment.

I think of a garden. I have a whole sustenance vegetable garden in my backyard, and I’m trying to explore some of the basics of permaculture. For example, any permaculture books I’ve read state this value that forests and functioning ecosystems don't need pesticides to be successful. There are relationships maintaining balance.

I think people believe they have outsmarted their way out of the ecosystem. They've used their intelligence to buy their way out of participation in these communities, and what is the point of being here if you're not in community with the world around you and your neighbors?


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