Sense of Decency

Listening to others, seeing things through their eyes.

Sense of Decency

The author and his daughter, Ruth, just above a sharp left turn on a rapid nicknamed “The Wall” on the Black River, Quebec, 2011. The wall of rock is not particularly friendly to canoes being forced hard right.

Push Day


Seven portages already, muskeg up to here

Big water, stiff headwind all day

Hands hard, good mates, no fear

Where’s the site, you say

Around the bend and through the narrows

Sun baking down, visions of a place

Esker topped with pine, plenty of space

Shoulders sore, fading daylight

Where, where’s that site

Round the bend and through the narrows

Hailstorm of insults, hate all round


Rights pushed underground, free press?

Where — oh, where — is that new sight?

Round the bend and through the narrows

End of another river day, 1971. Three pots going, and bannock in the reflector oven. Author, foreground, who guided…

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This is one of many heart sculptures in the Playas (beaches) of Tijuana, Mexico. In the background is a section of border wall separating parts of Mexico from the United States. A mural on the wall honors those who have been deported from the U.S. or are in danger of deportation. Photo © Jim McKeever, September 2019.

Bleeding Heart


The very idea
that someone thinks
calling me a bleeding heart
is an insult
is at the heart
of our inability
to understand one another.

If my heart did not bleed
for the pain of others
if it did not boil
hot inside my chest
at the sight of a child
being separated from her mother
if it did not send thick blood
rushing pulsating throbbing
to fill my head with
a deafening static
at the news of shots
ringing out in a sacred place

Then I would wish my heart
to stop.

Because after all
what is the alternative
to a bleeding heart?

One made of stone?
or ice?
or paralyzed
by a hard shell of hatred?

My heart may bleed
but it continues to beat
and as long as it does …

I will bind up my wounds
so I can tend to the wounds of others
I will get close enough to the cold-hearted
so that my heart’s warmth
might melt their own
I will cushion the landing
as others fall on hard times
so that hearts of stone cannot crush them.

Yes, I am proud of my bleeding heart.

Maybe I’ll even wear it on my sleeve.

From the author:

I wrote “Bleeding Heart” during a time when the news was filled with images of kids in cages, separated from their parents, lying on cement floors, unable to be touched. My heart was already so full from news of daily atrocities, from the stoking of so much hatred, from so many lives lost or destroyed.  

One day, I pulled a T-shirt from my drawer. I had purchased the black shirt at a recent talk by John Pavlovitz (author of the blog “Stuff That Needs to be Said”). On the front is a red anatomical line drawing of a human heart and the words: “I’d rather have a bleeding heart than a dead one.” As I pulled on the shirt, I got to thinking about how the phrase “bleeding heart” is so often hurled as if it were an insult. And I was moved to respond.

Debra Rose Brillati received her BA in Literature from Bard College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Tufts University, and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Andover Newton Theology School. She is enrolled in a 2-year Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. She lives in Auburn, NY, and is involved with the Social Justice Collective, Celebrate! Diverse Auburn and the Harriet Tubman Boosters. She is a certified spiritual director and a lay pastoral minister at St. James Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, NY.

The author and his daughter, Ruth, just above a sharp left turn on a rapid nicknamed “The Wall” on the Black River, Quebec, 2011. The wall of rock is not particularly friendly to canoes being forced hard right.

Push Day


Seven portages already, muskeg up to here

Big water, stiff headwind all day

Hands hard, good mates, no fear

Where’s the site, you say

Around the bend and through the narrows


Sun baking down, visions of a place

Esker topped with pine, plenty of space

Shoulders sore, fading daylight

Where, where’s that site

Round the bend and through the narrows


Hailstorm of insults, hate all round


Rights pushed underground, free press?

Where — oh, where — is that new sight?

Round the bend and through the narrows


End of another river day, 1971. Three pots going, and bannock in the reflector oven. Author, foreground, who guided a 50-day canoe trip to Hudson Bay via the Attawapiskat River, opens a can of corn for dinner for 10.

Reaching Hudson Bay by canoe – after 50 days of paddling – takes a bit of work. Even a push day or two.

No roads. And no tolls. Except two-load portages, clouds of black flies, and splitting standing dry wood for 150 meals.

This poem, born by a river in early 2017, is dedicated to journeys that matter. Around the bend and through the narrows. Perhaps we’ll get there.

Mike Fish, former reporter for The Post-Standard of Syracuse, is Assistant Editor of Nastawgan, the quarterly journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association in Toronto.


Dedicated to the memory of Gary Van Dusen.

A good copy editor is hard to find. If she’s a great copy editor, you never even know she’s been there. Instead of leaving tracks, she erases them, leaving a trail of words that’s easy for the reader to follow. She smooths the bumps in the road, removes the debris and paves the potholes. After a good copy editor is done, the reader has an open road ahead and can settle in for a pleasant ride.

I’ve had the good fortune to have known and worked with some great copy editors. I’ve worked with some great writers, too. But all writers need copy editors like pitchers need catchers. In the end, the pitcher gets the win, the save, the glory, but it’s the catcher who called the game. Behind a mask. Like a copy editor. The better either one does the job, the less you even know they are there. You don’t believe it? Name any of the seven catchers who caught a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. No cheating.

Copy editors come to mind because one of the great ones died recently. He and another great copy editor with whom I worked were both quiet, unassuming perfectionists dedicated to their craft. They never bragged about how they made a story better and were rarely credited with having done much of anything at all. They were viewed by many writers the same way factory managers view OSHA inspectors. Picky pains in the ass. But they saved a lot of asses.

Quiet and unassuming and avoiding the limelight are not in vogue now. We celebrate those who yell the loudest, who shout “Look at ME!” and it doesn’t matter if what they shout is true or not.

Yet the vast majority, the silent majority, if you will, are just that. People who are not on the front lines, putting themselves out there for the cause. They are going quietly about their lives as best they can, many doing good when no one is looking. And they don’t brag about it. But they are there. Like copy editors and catchers and supply chain managers and a million other jobs that go unnoticed, they do good work for the sake of doing the work and get little or no credit and often not much pay.

Poet John Milton, who lost his sight as an adult, concluded his sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” with this oft-cited line: 

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Many of us are blind to what is happening and it is good that the national dialog is opening eyes to the ills that surround us. But just because someone isn’t putting themselves out there doesn’t mean they are not doing good. 

The pandemic has made us more aware of the millions of “essential” workers we have taken for granted. Let’s hope that a lasting side effect of the Corona crisis is that we don’t forget them when the virus is beaten.

Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency. He has been a reporter, editor and critic for newspapers and teacher of Spanish at Syracuse University. Below is a segment of the author’s rendering of a fictitious news story in the hands of a diligent copy editor.

Broadway, between Canal and Howard, Manhattan, Friday April 10, 2020 at 11:50 a.m. Photo by Eric Tortora Pato.


By the summer of 2020, America seemed to be roiling in escalated conflict after an unrelenting Spring of Coronavirus sacrifices. From the Friday the 13th shutdowns in March, the pre-pandemic planning failures, crisis healthcare responses, sluggish research, inconsistent governmental policy decisions to the widespread commercial and educational interruptions, there seemed to be little relief to our existential struggles. The growing economic crisis and tragic mortality tolls set a grim stage when the temperatures began to rise, and the tumult of civil unrest began. 

Americans had been asked to bring functioning society to such a screeching stop that the ripple effects will take decades to comprehend. The hallmarks of modern life were unceremoniously canceled. No school. No work. No church. No public transportation, No social events. No weddings. No graduations. No sports. No salon visits. No leisure shopping and no clear sense of when the restrictions would lift. 

For a couple of months, a wave of charity seemed to unify Americans around service to offset the terrifying daily numbers of infected, dead and intubated. People spent their days researching preventive measures to battle the deadly virus, socially distancing and stockpiling cleansers and paper products. The mental impact was devastating, and the collective consciousness turned to admiration for the most valiant among us.

Towns posted signs cheering on healthcare workers. Shoppers in surgical masks and rubber gloves tipped their grocery cashiers. They dusted off grandma’s forgotten sewing machine and got to work mass producing face masks to distribute to their neighbors. Internet groups formed to connect people with needed items that were in short supply. Families began connecting by digital screens in order to avoid spreading the virus. The nation’s school children recorded musical performances by Zoom to soothe our grieving souls. 

Supportive signs in Fayetteville, NY, March 29. Photo by Jim McKeever.

But as months passed, the realities of widespread hardship under a record-setting unemployment rate and a slowing ticker of both deaths and the spread of disease fomented a call to return to work. Loud voices called to reopen the American way of life. In phases, communities unlatched their doors to invite the public back into their marketplaces with a few requirements. The avoidance of closed, confined spaces unless each customer wore a protective face mask and maintained a six-foot distance, certainly seemed a small request if the alternative could contribute to an increase in deaths. 

You would think. 

As it turned out, the time that had been spent sequestering people into a forced isolation with nothing but fearful news alerts and the toxic friendship only Twitter can provide had taken a toll on the emotional well-being of too many Americans to count. As people stepped out of their shelters, there seemed to be daily cellphone videos documenting abusive interactions between people who appeared stunted and frozen in the anger stage of their grief for the “normal life” that had been placed on pause.

Then, at the end of May, when a cell phone recording of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd in a nine-minute show of sadistic brutality emerged, the dam that had held any reservoir of civility broke. The other deadly epidemic of black deaths by cop had tragically claimed another life. 

In the fog of reactive protests that were mostly peaceful, some found a new combat theater to act out on all the frustrations of the past months.  When riots and looting in cities broke out, the foundation of American lives cracked at all the well-worn politicized fault lines. Raging intolerance kept communities segregated in parallel ways to those that had been unjustly red-lined. Political parties bunkered to their sides ready to pin blame for the unrest on the opposing ideologues. Those most marginalized by the lasting effects of America’s racially oppressive history were, by far, suffering more severely under the lock down measures. The virus had been ricocheting through densely populated communities that had less access to mitigating services. Daily demonstrations were being met with increasing push back and under the leadership of President Trump, military tactics were used to disperse public crowds. 

I like to think that the choice to open vacation resorts and bars in states like Florida, Texas, Nevada and Arizona was less a failing empire’s attempt to distract the plebs, and perhaps a hopeful invitation for raging Americans to go out, pour a cold one and take a stress break. At least, the economy could advance some first rehabilitative steps.

You might think.

One of many New York State signs asking for cooperation.

Unfortunately, Coronavirus had other ideas. Throughout the summer, infection numbers continued to rise, and the country sprouted new epicenters of the pandemic. Defiant citizens who seemed to have had enough of other people, in every possible way, took to social media to announce what was canceled. This time it was not just Junior’s two weeks at summer camp but also greedy corporate brands, bloviating public figures, racist monuments, and generally anybody who disagreed with a burgeoning Tik Tok star.

The way this mood manifested itself in real life was not to be believed.  People engaged in heated public arguments, invoking Jesus Christ about how wearing masks was a loss of their civil liberties. Others joined white supremacist human shields under the auspices of rising to defend fully riot-armed police forces. Organized boycotts spread in all directions and cell phones recorded more outrageous behavior around the map. All the while, the virus infected more than three million people and claimed upwards of 135,000 lives.

The nation stayed stuck in the ANGER stage of grief.

By July, fireworks events were canceled but tensions around Independence Day felt combustible. Those of us sidelined by caring for the vulnerable in our families despaired of a return to decency. If the pandemic had exposed the places in our society in most urgent disrepair, where had that original spirit of sacrifice and heroism faded to now that the cure relied on a communal sense of responsibility? The virus hitched rides on young people to wreak havoc on the frailest among us and the country was sorely lacking a moral voice to unify the mission. 

In the absence of more contemporary counsel, I found solace in the advice of American scientist, George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery, survived the 1918 flu pandemic, contributed to the field of environmental sciences and died in 1943:

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.

It is my hope that Dr. Carver’s wisdom reaches new minds, now when we need it once more. 

Ana Morley is a freelance writer and editor living in Fayetteville, NY.

The author’s husband, Matthew, walks their boxer-hound mix Martin past a mansion in Savannah’s Ardsley Park neighborhood. Photo by Jenna Bower.


I took my dog on a reflective walk this morning. I left our house, a recently renovated bungalow standing in contrast to the dilapidated rental properties home to my neighbors, most of whom are black.

Some people have lived here for generations. My husband and I moved into this house two years ago because the rent was affordable and it had a backyard for the dogs. This morning as I set out on my walk, like almost every other morning, I crossed the street from my neighborhood into the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Ardsley Park.

After hundreds of these walks around my and adjoining neighborhoods, I’ve started to notice that no one else seemed to be crossing the street into my neighborhood or vice versa.

Bull Street is just a street in Savannah, Georgia. But if it is just a street, then riddle me this: Why do the people on either side of it not cross to get to the other side? There is a barrier here, and it is reflective of the more significant racial divide we have in America — and have always had.

Gentrification is My White Housing Privilege

My neighborhood is called Bingville. If you ask any Savannah resident where Bingville is, I doubt they would know.

From the stories I’ve gathered from my neighbors, Bingville has been a historically black neighborhood. I have no explanation for the fence with enormous bands of razor wire encasing our backyard. Either someone installed it to keep intruders out, or to keep someone in. Clearly, I have a bleak understanding of where I live.

My white privilege is in having enough economic mobility to move into any neighborhood that I want to live, without having to have a historical understanding of that place or what it means for me as a white person to be living there.

Our landlord, and we, are a part of the gentrifying force of this small neighborhood in Savannah. Or maybe it’s the other way around, or perhaps it’s cyclical. If our names on the lease application had sounded more ethnic, more “black,” would we have been accepted as renters?

My white privilege is in being trusted to be a good renter based on the whiteness of my name on an application and the whiteness of my skin during a home tour.

The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has student housing units that take up massive swaths of land on Barnard Street, which happens to run directly through the center of our neighborhood. This plays a significant role in the gentrification of this neighborhood as well. Since I moved to Savannah to attend SCAD in the first place, to attend a prestigious graduate program that I could only afford due to the inheritance of generational wealth, that is also my white privilege.

My white privilege is having access to generational wealth that allowed me to get my undergraduate and graduate degrees, debt-free.

A home in the Bingville neighborhood in Savannah, Ga. In the distance is the entrance to Ardsley Park. Photo by Jenna Bower.

Barriers in Crossing From East to West

Many of the streets where I live don’t have sidewalks, which is probably the result of historic city planning that prioritized vehicular traffic over pedestrian safety. Yet after all these years, these streets have not been updated with sidewalks to protect pedestrians. Why is that? Our street is one of the only ones with a sidewalk, and it is a recent addition that is only on one side of the road.

So why would anyone from the east side of Bull Street want to risk their safety by coming to walk on streets with no sidewalks? 

That’s the rational explanation. But there are others. 

The median household income in Ardsley Park is $75,272, and homes for sale range anywhere from $250,000 to over a million dollars. In Bingville, the median household income is $20,774, which is $18,000 lower than the median income in the city of Savannah as a whole. Bingville is 57.5% Black and 30.5% white compared to Ardsley Park – Chatham Crescent, which is 82.8% white and 3.9% black

Culturally, white Americans have been conditioned to view people of color as more dangerous than whites. Of course, the white person wouldn’t cross the road to get to the blacker side. 

And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the East to the Westside.

Barriers in Crossing from West to East

In comparison, all of the streets on the east side of Bull Street have sidewalks. They not only have sidewalks but lush green pocket parks where white people can bring dogs to frolic in the joys of this alluring historic city. My husband and I got married in one of these parks a few months ago. I walked in my wedding dress across Bull Street to the park where the ceremony was held. Cars stopped, honked, and waved at me as I hobbled in my high heels across the road.

Why don’t I ever see my neighbors from the West side of Bull Street walking across the street to enjoy these beautiful public spaces? This is probably because underneath the charming Spanish moss dripping with morning dew and gorgeous Live Oaks draped with resurrection ferns, they do not feel safe there.

As a woman, I always bring my largest dog with me on long walks – even through the wealthiest Savannah neighborhoods. In the morning, in the afternoon and at night. I look around at these affluent neighborhoods, and I see safety personified, but I am always on guard.

Whenever a man walks down the sidewalk toward me, I cross the street, whether he’s black or white. And I know when I cross the road away from a black man that he sees my racism in action, and so sometimes I will stay the course to smile and say hello. 

But as a white woman, if anything were to happen to me on one of these residential streets, it’s safe to say that another white neighbor would come to my rescue and call the police.

However, if my black neighbors were to take a leisurely walk across Bull Street into Ardsley Park, I imagine their fear would be much higher than mine. They would get peered at through windows and surveilled by predominantly white homeowners. Some of the more entitled neighbors might question them as they walk through their neighborhood.

They might ask, “Who do you work for?” – mistaking them as gardeners, landscapers, or house cleaners.

They might ask, “What brings you here?” – assuming that they’re “up to no good” or about to commit a crime because, in our culture, people of color are perceived as more dangerous than whites.

Or they might not ask anything at all, and instead call the police to report “suspicious activity” from the safety of their homes.

And so – no one crosses Bull Street from the West to the Eastside.

Reckoning with my White Privilege 

My white privilege is being able to cross this street. 

My white privilege is being able to rent a house in a predominantly black neighborhood while having unencumbered access to public spaces in the mostly white communities adjacent to us.

My white privilege is being able to cross the street and be welcomed into a neighborhood that is not my own because I am white and not viewed as a threat to the white homeowners.

When we first moved into this neighborhood, it seemed we were the only white people on our street. We bought a Ring security system to protect us and our belongings from the unknown. We have never had any break-ins. However, our security alarm went off on multiple occasions because we forgot to disarm it before opening our front door. I’m sure our neighbors had a great laugh at the young white people who moved in and continuously set off the security alarm at their own house.

I’m embarrassed that we ever purchased it.

The unknown, it turns out, was a street filled with kind neighbors who always say “Hello!” or “Good morning!” and ask about our day – even though we are actively a part of the force that is gentrifying their neighborhood.

They’ve checked in with us during the Coronavirus pandemic, they’ve invited us to have beers outside with them, they’ve let their children come over and say hello to us and play with our dogs, and they congratulated us as we walked back from our wedding in the park across the street.

We don’t need a security system, because we have good neighbors who spend their time hanging out with their friends in their front yards, having eyes on the street. They know us, and we know them.

So what am I to do now, with all this insight? I don’t know yet. But I do know that insight without action is wasted, and so I will figure it out.

Jenna Bower is a designer and writer living in Savannah, GA with her husband and three dogs by way of Rochester, NY. She holds an MFA in Design for Sustainability from the Savannah College of Art and Design. When she’s not writing, reading or marketing for her day job, she serves on the board of Keep Savannah Beautiful and feeds baby raccoons at a local wildlife rescue.

Author Ed Griffin-Nolan, with loyal pup Gracie, aboard the Carol Ann in 2017.


When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that shopping Malls in New York would not be allowed to open until they cleaned up their air supply, I immediately thought of Che Guevara. I’m sure you did as well. Che, the Argentinian Doc who fought in Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war to overthrow a Cuban dictator, didn’t coin the  phrase, “el hombre nuevo” (the new man), but he gave it a certain sexy (and sexist) twist that turned the heads of utopian thinkers and idealistic young people around the world half a century ago.

The “new man,” Che told the Woodstock generation, would be a selfless, introspective, socially conscious citizen dedicated to the socialist principles that Fidel preached, the ideals that Che fought for in Cuba and Angola, and in Bolivia, where it got him killed. The revolution, Guevara believed, would not only transform our social structures but our very essence as people, redirecting our motivations and our passions, from service to self to promoting the common good.

Around the same time, less idealistic American capitalists were creating a new man and a new woman, shaped not by a revolution or an ideology, but by an enormous enclosure and a slapdash collection of cash registers, plate glass windows, food courts, boutiques, arcades, parking lots, and stale air – the Shopping Mall. 

Since the 1950s, the essence of what it is to be American has been to shop. Not too long ago, when shopping involved procuring necessities, it was called going to market. It was done as infrequently as possible and with the minimum expenditure permitted by law. For most people in the United States of today, shopping has become a pastime, a hobby, entertainment, and an addiction.

Shopping in lieu of living is a soulless pursuit. Like most addictions, it produces no fulfillment, only a greater hollowness that begs for repetition of the experience, in hopes that the next exhausting trip to the big box that holds all the big box stores will give us a lasting jolt. Failure is as predictable as indebtedness.

Onondaga County in Central New York is a beautiful piece of land dotted with lakes and drumlins and parks, golf courses, ski slopes, and picturesque neighborhoods. It is home to a city with sports arenas, libraries, museums, theaters, a world class zoo, and more. Yet the No. 1 reason that people visit our county is to shop at the Mall. Buses cross the border from Canada to buy our wares. We are a city on a lake but most of us never visit the lake; we’re too busy finding a place to park near the Best Buy. 

Gracie, aboard the Carol Ann, in 2017.

And then, in a flash, the Coronavirus caused us to quit our Mall habit cold turkey. Many of us turned to online purchases to fill the void. A good number of us, however, found this unfulfilling. We turned to other pursuits. Reading. Conversing. Learning a language. Picking up an instrument. Taking children on hikes. Riding bicycles. Making masks. Supporting the front-line workers. Saving money. Protesting racism. Painting our houses. Living.

The virus and the Governor may have conspired to remind us that we were not just born to shop. Those stale air facilities known as Malls have sucked up the days and the lives of too many people over these many decades. I wonder, now that Cuomo is allowing many Malls to re-open, if maybe we will just be over that phase. Maybe we will have found that we have evolved, moved on to other pursuits. Maybe that next pair of shoes or earrings will have lost some of its appeal in a world that confronted death at close quarters.

Sixty percent of people polled recently say they are still too worried to go to a Mall. I would say that’s a healthy fear. The Governor’s demand that Mall owners remove the virus from their air supply is a fantasy –- I hope he knows that. There is no technology yet proven to remove the threat of breathing in the virus in an indoor space that recirculates the air we breathe.

I am secretly hoping that instead of chasing the virus from the air conditioning vents, the virus may have chased from our psyches the notion that only by constant consumption can we live fulfilled lives. Maybe Che, like Oscar Wilde before him, was on to something with that sexist notion of a “New Man.” But the joke is on Che -– it won’t be a socialist revolution that led to his “hombre nuevo.” 

It was a tiny bug that made us look at the world and our lives in a new way. 

Years ago, Ed Griffin-Nolan managed a restaurant and a toy store in a shopping mall. More recently (in 2005), he was arrested at Carousel Center, now Destiny USA, for suggesting to two police officers that they stop beating up a young Latino. Ed lives, writes, runs and sails near Syracuse, NY. He wrote this essay a week before Gov. Cuomo decided to allow malls outside of New York City to open. Ed’s book, “Nobody Hitchhikes Anymore,” is forthcoming from Rootstock Publishing.

A grandfather hands his granddaughter a dandelion “parachute,” or pappus, on a pesticide-free lawn. Photo © Michelle Gabel.


The color of the sun, perky and plentiful, the dandelion evokes emotion, usually a negative one. Brought to America by European settlers, the once prized dandelion is now perpetually rooted up and sprayed with chemicals. In a culture where curbside appeal equals the two-inch grass of a golf course, the starry shaped dandelion has become a symbol of neglect.

In upstate New York, I walk around my yard and watch the chubby, wild rabbits feast on the bright yellow “lion’s teeth,” as bumblebees and butterflies clumsily pollinate the early spring flowers. Chipmunks eat wild strawberries as robins and Carolina wrens wrestle worms and grubs out of the soil.

I wonder at the life all around me. In a time of worldwide environmental vulnerability, I feel peace with the biodiversity flourishing in my yard. I don’t think of the sturdy, deep-rooted dandelions as troublesome weeds, but as fertilizer for the grass, food for wildlife and first aid for my family.

When my husband and I moved here from New York City 13 years ago, we weren’t sure how to take care of our new yard. We saw the neatly trimmed lawns of our neighbors, heard lawnmowers going from morning until night, spring until fall. We weren’t excited about mowing the lawn every week, but we definitely felt a pressure to maintain the standard look of the neighborhood, and I admit I was ashamed of the quickly multiplying dandelions.

We watched as lawn care companies patrolled the neighborhood, knocked on doors, sprayed lawns with chemicals and put up yellow signs warning passersby to stay off the grass for 24 hours. As our toddlers played outside, and tumbled off bicycles and scooters into neighbors’ yards, I felt worried about the pesticide signs.

I knew enough about science to know that chemicals don’t break down right away. They can aerosolize, drifting across the lawns, or wash into storm drains, nearby creeks and the water supply during a rainstorm. But even if they remain put, the chemicals do more than kill weeds: they destroy the microorganisms that live in the soil, affecting the health of the soil and ultimately everything that depends on it.

At the grocery store, organic food sales have reached almost $50 billion in the United States. Consumers spend extra to buy fruit, vegetables and grains grown without pesticides yet paradoxically they buy 59 million pounds of pesticides for the lawn. The most popular and heavily applied is glyphosate, which is used on more than 100 food crops and is the active ingredient in many weedkillers, including RoundUp. 

Weedkiller exposure is linked to harmful biological effects in mammals. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Introduced in 1974, glyphosate has been considered a low hazard to mammals for decades, although in 2015 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) re-classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” based on epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies. Other agencies, such as the EPA, have stated that “there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used according to the label” but admit that glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) may be more toxic. 

It’s not easy to figure out the ingredients of weedkillers. Aside from the active ingredient, all that’s listed on the label is “other ingredients.” In several studies glyphosate-based formulations have been shown to negatively affect mammalian biology. Exposure has been associated with kidney and liver damage in rodents, arrhythmias, endocrine disruption and electrophysiological changes in rats and rabbits. 

There have been many studies on the effects of GBFs on humans, and despite a couple of studies that found a statistically significant positive meta-RR for B-cell lymphoma, the consensus is that there is no determined causal relationship. Despite this, tens of thousands of lawsuits have been filed against Bayer, the company that sells RoundUp. On June 24, Bayer agreed to pay around $10 billion to settle the cases. RoundUp remains on the market.

As a result of herbicide use, lawn care companies and homeowners often use synthetic inorganic fertilizers to bring nutrients back to their lawns. Unfortunately man-made fertilizers containing nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium are risky to the environment. Not only are they often derived from oil products, but they are then mixed with ammonia, urea and formaldehyde.

While the EPA says synthetic fertilizers are safe to use as directed, overuse and runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous into wells, lakes and oceans have led to oxygen depletion. Babies exposed to contaminated well water can literally be starved of air by developing a condition known as methemoglobinemia. Lakes and oceans can develop “dead zones” where fish cannot breathe because the overgrowth of blue-green algae consumes oxygen faster. Cultural or human-induced eutrophication is due to an increase of phosphorus mainly, but also nitrogen, as it builds up in fresh waters from fertilizers and sewage treatments. 

While individual use of weed killers and fertilizers on the lawn once or twice a year isn’t the sole cause of damaged ecosystems, sick wildlife or cancer, it’s the cumulative effect of many individuals and big agriculture that is worrisome. According to the EPA, the U.S. uses over a billion pounds of pesticides a year. We should all be concerned that there are pesticides in our water, on our food and inside our bodies.

In a study conducted by the EPA, 46 pesticides were found in groundwater in 26 states due to agricultural applications. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, deduced that around 70 percent of U.S. produce contains pesticides. According to the National Institute of Health more than 90% of the U.S. population has pesticide biomarkers in their urine or blood. With so much chemical exposure outside of our control, the question becomes why add more chemicals to the mix by spraying our lawns with toxic herbicides?

There’s 40-50 million acres of private lawn in the United States — that’s a whole lot of potential for creating healthy ecosystems. Without pesticides in the grass, lawns become a safer place for children, who are more susceptible to chemical exposure, to play with beloved pets. It’s true that dandelions will flourish, as do strawberry plants, clover and all kinds of native plant species, but consider the insects, birds and mammals who will benefit.

Daisy rests on a pesticide-free lawn as she keeps an eye on a bee hovering around nearby dandelions. Dandelions benefit bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Photo © Michelle Gabel

Let’s think of the sunny dandelions as a gift, a reminder that there’s a whole lot of work to be done in learning how to care for our green space naturally. With the future health of the Earth and ourselves in mind, the dandelion can once again be a symbol of patience, love and healing. But every once in a while, feel free to manually pull out a particularly big one or squirt it with a dose of vinegar.

Tips to keep your lawn healthy without chemicals

  1. Cut the grass more frequently at a higher setting (don’t remove more than one third of the leaf).
  2. Return grass clippings back to the lawn to add nutrients like nitrogen.
  3. Aerate turf when soil is moist, not wet, to allow air to into the soil, to improve drainage and breakup compaction. Better aerated soil has more microbial activity reducing thatch and stimulating root growth.
  4. Add garden or leaf compost, topsoil, sand or charcoal to the lawn for extra nutrients when soil is dry during growing season. Take care to brush it in evenly so you don’t smother the grass. 
  5. Intermix native perennial plants and flowers with the grass to enrich soil with billions of microorganisms (fungi and bacteria). Legumes such as clover attract nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which convert atmospheric nitrogen to fertilizer.
  6. Check your soil’s pH. You can buy a test kit at the hardware store or contact your local Cooperative Extension Service. Slightly acid to neutral pH (6.5-7.0) is good for most grass types. You can add sulfur to make the soil more acidic, lime to make it more neutral. 
  7. Water consistently or don’t water at all.

Risks of glyphosate-based products

The pesticide glyphosate is the active ingredient in many weedkillers. 

The EPA has set the glyphosate limit at .75 mg per kilogram body weight per day, but there is no safe limit determined for chemical mixtures. A recent study by the National Toxicology Program at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found genotoxic activity in glyphosate-based formulations (GBFs) with diquat dibromide, metolachlor and mesotrione. 

It’s not just glyphosate-based herbicides that have disturbing health risk associations. Another popular one, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), has been linked to a higher bladder cancer risk in dogs and risk of Parkinson’s disease, immunosuppression, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, hypothyroidism and lower sperm counts in humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the human health effects from 2,4-D at low environmental doses are unknown but that it has “low acute toxicity.” 

Allison Sklaney teaches design and digital illustration at Syracuse University. Passionate about the environment, she thinks dandelions get a bad rap.  

Jamal Johnson, second from left, outside a House of Representatives office building in Washington, DC, last week after completing his fourth Stop Killing Us march from Philadelphia. Photo by Mary Anne Bucci.

Jamal Johnson, 63, is a retired postal worker and Marine who lives in Philadelphia but travels wherever his activism and passion take him. He’s been to Mexico to deliver food to migrant shelters; to Minneapolis, Seattle and Birmingham, Ala. to support Black Lives Matter protesters, and to California where he took part in a desert water drop for migrants crossing into the U.S. (The three Sense of Decency co-founders volunteered with Johnson in California and Mexico last September.)

Each of the past four summers, Johnson has walked from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., on his Stop Killing Us (SKU) march to call attention to the disproportionate number of killings of Black people — by people within their own communities, and by police. 

He wrote this essay June 25 as he neared the end of this year’s march. 


I am on the next-to-final day of the march that began June 5 from Philadelphia Police Department headquarters to address the ongoing police brutality that the Stop Killing Us (SKU) organization has been marching and bringing to the attention of lawmakers in DC for the past four years. 

Of course, with the untimely death of George Floyd, it seems to have more support and recognition than in the past three years. But this has also been the most disappointing of the past marches and I would like to share why.

We black people in this country are in a moment of change like no other. The whole world is now claiming to feel our pain. They have come to realize, at least on the surface, the pain, abuse, humiliation, and degradation that we have been victims of for over 400 years. 

Jamal Johnson in Minneapolis during Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd.

As a result, those who don’t look like us and are the majority in this country are leading protests, tearing down statues, and are getting in direct physical confrontations with police. And that’s all well and good, except for one thing. Where are we?

Our numbers in most of these marches don’t compare to the 14% of the population that we comprise in this country. I’ve participated in marches across this country and stand alongside people that don’t look like me. These same people are occupying and burning buildings, setting up street communities, and setting the narrative of our struggle against police brutality and systemic racism. 

Meanwhile, what are we seen doing across television screens every night? Looting the stores that our parents and grandparents patronize and continuing our self-genocide in our communities by decimating our own communities with continued murder and mayhem.

Our so called self appointed leaders, kings, and protectors of the black race are nowhere to be seen or encouraging the looting which will only hurt those who use the stores and now can’t. The computer cowards and armchair activists are telling others what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what to do about it, but they are not on the streets leading anything. 

But they don’t hesitate to share their conspiracies from their self-imposed thrones. They talked revolution and now when the atmosphere is ripe for it, they are nowhere to be seen. As a result, those who have become woke by their knowledge are sleeping on the job of changing things.

We need to lead this, whenever possible, because when it’s over, it’s over. Stop Killing Us (SKU) has been presenting standards of police reform for the past four years, in person and after walking over 140 miles, to the Department of Justice and the Congressional Black Caucus, and has gotten nothing but a deaf ear. 

Jamal Johnson in the California desert, September 2019, during a water drop with Border Angels. Photo © Michelle Gabel.

If these standards had been attended to and put into law since 2017, those like Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and George Floyd may never have been murdered. But if we let others lead our fight and don’t participate in changing things and holding others accountable, then we are no better than the officer that kneed George Floyd to death.

It is time to take the reins of this moment and make it a movement, and continue this fight until laws are passed preventing the death of us at the hands of others. We must also take charge of our communities and stop our hypocritical cry of police brutality while we continue our silence of the murders of each other, by each other. 

People are watching how we address this moment in time and if we don’t capitalize on their assumed empathy and concern, not only will we be disrespected further, but our sincerity of our complaints will be questioned, which is why it has taken so long for this to happen in the first place.

“… the only means of fighting a plague is — common decency.”

— Albert Camus, 1947

Sickness surrounds us. It’s more than the physical and emotional assault of the pandemic that afflicts us; we suffer daily under a spiritual assault of conflict with and rejection of those with whom we disagree. The onslaught coarsens us, wears us down, makes us reduce our enemies to something not human, but something to be ridiculed, crushed, and destroyed. And destruction begets destruction and in the end there are no winners.

We’d like to try to change that by offering here a free and respectful discussion of contemporary life, on any subject that shines a light on who we are. Common decency will be the common denominator. By decency, we mean taking the time to listen to others, seeing things through their eyes.

We’ll still disagree. But we will listen to and hear those with whom we disagree and take a moment to think about their interests, their dreams, their desires. Why do they think like that? Why do we think like this? What is it we have in common with all people? How can we move forward?

If we can talk to one another rather than about one another, we may be able to look beyond our faults to find our common virtues and from there move toward a better world for all of us.

More than 65 years ago, Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Should we ever be asked the same question, we hope to be able to answer in the affirmative.

— Dennis Harrod, 2020

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