Of Sister Innocentia, Georgia-Pacific, and Me

Since childhood, I have kept a small plaque depicting two apple-cheeked children who stand on a mountain path and gaze at the crucified Christ within a rustic shrine.  My plaque represents one of a great many images produced by German artist Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel in the 1920s-1930s, and successfully marketed, as prints and figurines, ever since.  In these images, tow-headed children ramble joyfully amidst wildflowers and pine trees, occasionally regarding their fellow small creatures—deer, toads—with simple wonder.  My family is Alps-Catholic, a culture that first entered the American imagination via the singing von Trapps.  And as an Alps-Catholic, I resonate with the small-scale and domesticated kind of nature celebrated by Sr. Innocentia.  This is nature as family farm, or backyard garden.  In the summer, young children and goats can safely meander its mountains, and in the winter, it will send a Saint Bernard to find you underneath the snow.  It calls the human to a humble sort of industry, much like that modeled by the trademark Hummel bee.

My actual childhood environment, however, was Baileyville Township, a Georgia-Pacific pulp-and-paper mill town in Maine’s north woods.  Growing up, I encountered my own small-scale wonders—chickadees in the snow, kittens in the crawlspace, and apple blossom time.  The Hummel vision did not aid us in interpreting, however, the yellow suds that choked our St. Croix River, or the sulfur smell in our air and that of “stinkin’” Lincoln, the next milltown down the road.

At that time, we did not know that “bleach kraft” paper mills such as those located in Baileyville and Lincoln, because of their heavy use of chlorine,  were putting a powerful toxin–dioxin–into the St. Croix and other Maine rivers.  We did not know that industrial incinerators were also dispersing dioxin into the air, where it could fall down on our meadows, be eaten by our dairy cows, and pass into our milk.  (And yes, we did receive milk deliveries direct from our local farmer, and in reusable glass bottles no less).  And we didn’t know that fish could be “sponges” for dioxin–soaking in a level of the chemical that can be as much as 25,000 times that found in the fish’s environment.  (And yes, we did go fishing.  It was customary for our parish priest, in fact, to take a group of boys ice-fishing every winter.)   Dioxin, of course, can cause cancer.  It is also an endocrine disruptor.  Even now, bald eagles in the Penobscot River watershed lay eggs containing a level of dioxin that is sometimes 85 times the “safe” level.  And scientists have recently found that successful reproduction among those eagles can dip to a level that is just 40% of the statewide average.

Pulp-and-paper remains a mainstay industry in Maine.   Maine, in fact, is a relatively “poor” state–a state which, despite its optimistic “Vacationland” image, has a median household income that is 33rd in the nation.  (At the time that I was growing up,  my area of Maine–Washington County–was the poorest region on the Eastern Seaboard outside of Appalachia.)   It would be out of the question, therefore, for Mainers to forgo the jobs made possible through the state’s  forest product industries.

There is one action that you can take, however, that would support both Maine’s forests and those of Maine’s rural  families who depend on the paper mills:  Buy only TCF (Totally chlorine-free) paper products.  The TCF manufacturing process eliminates the chlorine used in the longstanding method of manufacturing  pulp-and-paper.  And it is no longer necessary to rely on chlorine to produce white paper.

And while you are being environmentally conscious–try to remember to buy only products that are certified by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  Don’t be taken in, in other words, by the industry’s own certification body, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

At the time I lived in rural Maine, it seemed to be in the very “nature of things” to for just about every wage earner to be hard at work manufacturing pulp-and-paper.  In Baileyville Township, it would be many years before we would let go of our innocence, and take another look.

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About Mary Anne Ashley

As a fourth-year doctoral student in Theology (Ethics and Social Theory), I focus on a Christian environmental ethics that is specifically sociocentric. A sociocentric environmental ethics takes the human being, as possessing a fundamental capacity for relationality both within and across species,as its usual starting point. View all posts by Mary Anne Ashley

One response to “Of Sister Innocentia, Georgia-Pacific, and Me

  • Brian

    Thanks for your post, Mary. Good use of imagery and personal narrative to make an ethical point. As is attributed to Dostoyevky “beauty will save the world.” I hope the beauty of your childhood memories will be restored to Maine soon, and more truly, i.e. without the dioxins.
    PS, on another note, I don’t know if it appears for you, but where I pushed the button to say that I like your post, a little angry face appeared. I would have expected a happy face, but its an angry face and I can’t change it. I will have to look into how to make it nicer looking.

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