Perfection

I’m not sure if it was a leaf-blower or a leaf-sucker, but the man I saw wielding it on his suburban lawn, over Thanksgiving, was doing so with intent. His target was the last stray leaf on his still-green half-acre. He wanted that leaf gone.

A recent op-ed piece in the local daily also touched on the subject of perfection. The writer was talking about the dangers posed by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. His point was one I second. But he phrased one passage interestingly, intimating that giving up pesticides would leave us with “slightly less perfect produce.”

Interesting because even so passionate a critic of industrial agriculture as this writer accepted on some level the idea that “perfection” in produce equates with nothing but the industrial-agricultural sort of perfection we’ve been sold.

The supermarket apple, for instance, will be such and such a size, with a uniformly smooth skin that has the coloration only “of an apple.” Banished will be the harmless specks, spots, rough patches and bumps familiar to anyone who’s been fortunate enough to see and taste an organic apple.

It was only a few generations ago, of course, that all fruit was “organic.” Synthetic pesticides scarcely existed before the middle of the 20th century. Almost all apples would have had such “blemishes.”

But someone started marketing perfection, and the chemicals to help proliferated. There are even chemicals that change the shapes of apples (making the sides of red delicious apples, for instance, longer) because those are the shapes that we supposedly like and will more readily buy.

Meanwhile, back to lawns. The green, manicured expanse of a lawn consiting of a single kind of grass, unmixed with crabgrass or dandelion, is also a figment of modernity. But now the woods are cut to give us lawns, and we lose the protection of soil, and against flood. And we lose the animal habitat that the trees afford. Then the lawns are cut, burning gasoline for no good reason, the clippings shipped off like exiled convicts to rot in a landfill.

And the fertilizers and weed-killers that are sprayed to keep the grass monolithic soaks into the soil and seeps into the groundwater, or washes straight off into the sewers. It all ends up in the rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.

It’s one big reason waterways like the Chesapeake Bay are increasingly unable to support aquatic life: The fertilizer, for instance, causes algae blooms that sucks the oxygen out of the water. And the hormone-mimicking compounds that are in most weed-killers are one likely reason for things like reproductive abnormalities in fish and frogs.

Suck up that last leaf. It used to decay into new soil, and feed the forest that fed and sheltered animals (and people). The cycle took awhile. But perfection, apparently, doesn’t have that kind of time.

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