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As an ecologist, Sandra Steingraber spent her professional life observing how living things interact with their environments. Now, 38 and pregnant, she had become a habitat?for a population of one.
Having Faith is Steingraber's exploration of the intimate ecology of motherhood. Using her scientist's eye to study the biological drama of new life being knit from the molecules of air, food, and water flowing into her body, she looks at the environmental hazards that now ...
As an ecologist, Sandra Steingraber spent her professional life observing how living things interact with their environments. Now, 38 and pregnant, she had become a habitat—for a population of one.
Having Faith is Steingraber's exploration of the intimate ecology of motherhood. Using her scientist's eye to study the biological drama of new life being knit from the molecules of air, food, and water flowing into her body, she looks at the environmental hazards that now threaten pregnant and breastfeeding women, and examines the effects these toxins can have on a child. Having Faith makes the metamorphosis of a few cells into a baby astonishingly vivid, and the dangers to human reproduction urgently real.
Never before has the metamorphosis of a few cells into a baby seemed so astonishingly vivid, and never before has the threat of environmental pollution to conception, pregnancy, and even to the safety of breast milk been revealed with such clarity and urgency. In Having Faith, poetry and science combine in a passionate call to action.
In early April the silver maples are knobby with buds, and I quit sleeping. The robins wake me first, singing their slurred triplets over and over into the gray air. Then come the cardinals with their loud and liquid phrases, which, as a world-weary teenager, I heard as insightful commentary: To wit, to wit, to wit: what cheer? what cheer? To wit: what cheer? Finally, the mourning doves begin their soft question-1 lave who? who? who? just as light fills the win- dow.
Of these three species, I consider doves the real harbingers of spring. Their flocks arrive sometime in early March. So do the robins, but some of them stay the winter as well; members of their ranks can be seen parading around front lawns on the occasional warm day in January. The corn-crunching cardinals are bona fide all-season residents, although, ecologically speaking, they arrived only recently, having extended their range into northern Illinois about a hundred years ago just in time to be appointed the official state bird. Illinois is also the winter home for a few species that, weeks from now, will migrate further north. The studious little insect-eater called the brown creeper is one. Creepers are bark-colored and mostly silent, but they can be identified easily by their work habits. They spiral methodically up the trunk of a tree, stopping to chisel spider eggs out of the crevices. When they get to the top branches, they fly down to the base of the next tree and spiral up again. It goes on like this all day-fly down, spiral up, fly down, spiral up. One has been foraging all winter in the scrim of trees that lines the alleyway. Nuthatches also pry insects out of tree bark but bring a whole different approach to the task. They race upside down while laughing weirdly to themselves. They, too, will soon be leaving for points north.
One morning, in the middle of a predawn testimony to the mirthfulness of robins, I hear fluttering right outside the bedroom window. I lift the blind, expecting to see either a creeper or a nuthatch. Instead, a trio of tiny olive-green birds stares back at me. One hops closer, blinks, then bobs his head, the top of which is painted bright pink.
"Well, who are you?"
As if in answer, the bold one bows to show me again his splendid little cap. Then more fluttering and prancing around at the ends of the maple branches. Then all are gone. I know I won't sleep again until I can identify them, so I pull back the blankets and pad out to my study. Somewhere in the stack of boxes on the far wall is my bird book. As I'm pulling boxes down to find it, I'm aware of my belly-harder now and rounder, not just thicker. The window on this side of the house is still dark enough to be a mirror, and, backlit, I can see an obviously pregnant body through the thin white cotton of my nightgown. "Who are you?" I ask for the second time before sunrise.
I make a good guess with the boxes, and find my grubby field guide to the birds wedged between two stacks of textbooks. I start flipping through the section on songbirds. It doesn't take long. There is only one olive bird with a pink spot on its head, and it is famous both for its fearlessness and for fluttering around at the ends of twigs: the ruby-crowned kinglet.
The next morning there is a new song in the mix-a thin little violin voice calling Old Sam Peabody, PeabodyO.with a plaintive fade-out at the end, as if further searching would be futile. This is a white-throated sparrow, a bird I know by heart. I peer out the window to see if I can locate it. Instead, I find the maple branches full of kinglets. Dozens of them, all tipping their caps and bouncing on the bud-swollen twigs.
There is the white-throat song again, even closer. And then again. Old Sam Peabody, PeabodyO.But I can't find the singer. I'm looking for inconspicuous black and brown feathers, a gray breast, a white throat. Nowhere
"What have you done with Mr. Peabody?" I ask accusingly of the kinglets, but if they know anything, they're not talking.
The next morning I wake at 3 a.m., absolutely convinced I hear a veery singing. I lie in the darknessyet undisturbed by robinslistening for it again. Nothing. Finally, I pad back to my study to check the bird guide. The veery, like the robin, is a thrush. Its call is officially characterized as "a descending flute-like song," but that description does not come close to capturing its otherworldliness. The first time I heard it-in a Minnesota pine forest-I froze to the spot. The veery's song is a wild, electronic, downward spiral of notes. "The song that will be playing when the alien spaceships land" would be a more apt description. According to the book, it's not possible that I just heard a veery. Its earliest known arrival date in central Illinois is April 20-two weeks from now. Also, it's a bird of deep woods, not backyards. Also, it doesn't sing in the dead of night. I must have been dreaming.
I climb back into bed but can't sleep. In the fourteenth week of pregnancy, I've entered a new phase. Torpor has given way to a stated high alertness. I'm more watchful, and my sense of hearing seems to have become more acute, too. With my new powers of perception, I try listening for the sound of songbirds migrating.
This isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Serious bird scholars often go out on damp spring nights and listen for the faint chip chip chip of birds calling to each other as they pass by, a thousand feet overhead. Master birders can identify them to species just by the pitch and timbre of the distant flight notes. I'm nowhere near that good, but I try to imagine them out there anywaywarblers, flycatchers, thrushes, hummingbirdsfollowing the Mississippi Flyway north. Some of them are crossing the Gulf of Mexico tonight. Some are over Arkansas. Some are directly over my roof. Some are still in the mangrove swamps of the Caribbean and the mountaintops of El Salvador, waiting for a tailwind, judging the cloud cover.
A lot of mystery still surrounds the migration of songbirds. For one thing, they only travel at night. For another, most are too small to wear radio transmitters. Therefore, most of what we know about their spring and fall travels comes from radar, which can only track groups, not individuals. Before radar, researchers estimated the intensity of songbird migration by moonwatching. This was a quaint but highly skilled practice that involved counting the number of birds seen flying across the face of the full moon. It required clear skies, a telescope, and elaborate calculations to account for angles of entry, altitude, and percentage of night sky occupied by moon. Moonwatchers made fantastical claims: 200 bird silhouettes crossing the lunar window in an hour meant that three million migrants had passed by Which meant that billions of birds were on the move during particular nights of the year. There was a lot of skepticism about these extrapolations until they were confirmed by radar operators.
I must have dozed off because I suddenly become aware of robins caroling. And then Sam Peabody, Old SamO .I creep to the window ledge and let my eyes adjust to the dimness. Empty branches. No sign of the kinglets today, and no white-throated sparrows. Either I'm a truly incompetent birder or the tree itself is singing.
Jeff stirs in the bed.
"Sandra, what are you doing up? Are you worried about something?"
"Hang on a minute.
Silence. More robins.
"Shh. Just listen with me."
Old Scam Peabody..
"Did you hear that? I think we're having a son."
On the night of the full moon, I am fifteen weeks pregnant and in Boston, having flown here for an amniocentesis. This was a huge decisionwhether to have the test at all, and if so, where. Actually, the where question was easier to answer. My so-called health maintenance organization refuses to pay for non-emergency health care outside of Massachusetts. And I am living five states away for an interval of time long enough to require routine prenatal care but not long enough to win local health insurance coverage. The result is that buying a plane ticket to see an HMO-approved gynecologist in Boston is cheaper than paying Dr. Dan to do an amniocentesis in Bloomington. Since I'm fond of my Boston gynecologistwho is my age and gender and is not predisposed to exam table jokesthis situation is somewhat a relief. But it does mean that I face the procedure alone. Buying another ticket for Jeff, on top of paying Dr. Dan for monthly check-ups, is out of our budget.
The question of whether to do it at all is more complicated.
Amniotic fluid is the ocean-like substance unborn babies float in. It offers fetuses buoyancy, protection from trauma, and oxygen. Like semen, amniotic fluid is comprised of two basic elements: living cells and the liquid they're suspended in. In this case, the cells represent sloughed-off fetal skin and bladder tissue. Amniocentesis means puncturing a pregnant uterus and aspirating about 30 millilitersone shot glass fullof amniotic fluid, which is...
So I turned my scientist's eye inward and began to study in earnest the biological drama of new life being knit from the molecules of air, food, and water flowing into a woman's body from the outside environment. I looked also at the environmental threats to the bodies of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. How do toxic chemicals cross the tough sponge of the placenta? How do they find their way into amniotic fluid? How do they enter the milk-making globes in the back of the breast? What are the effects of these earliest encounters with synthetic chemicals? The answers to these questions seemed essential to my new responsibilities as an expectant mother. And they all pointed to a simple truth: protecting the ecosystem inside my body required protecting the one outside.
This book is the result of that most personal of ecological investigations. Part I describes the unfolding events of fetal development, month by joyful month, with each chapter named for the calendar's corresponding full moon. Along the way, I explore various mysteries: the puzzling malaise of morning sickness; the his torical failure to recognize fetal toxicants; the euphoric experience of holding in my hands a tube of my own amniotic fluid; the origins of birth defects; and the ways in which certain chemical contaminants can sabotage fetal brain development. As birth nears, I turn my attention to the ecology of the birth process itself. As I try to plan for a natural childbirth within a large research hospital, another one of my identitiescancer survivorplays a key role in my decision-making.
Next, Having Faith takes a close look at the symbiosis of breastfeeding. Part II thus begins with the re-establishment of the biological bond between mother and child as the breast takes over from the placenta the task of nurturing the infant. In Part II, I also take a close look at the evolutionary origins of human breast milk, with its disease-fighting properties and unsurpassed ability to guide the brain development of nursing infants. Finally, I examine how the goodness of breast milkand indeed a mother's very ability to produce itis now being compromised by the presence of toxic chemicals in the human food chain.
The source notes at the end of the book will direct readers to the many hundreds of scientific papers, monographs, reports, and texts that informed my analysis. Those interested in more detailed biological descriptions can seek them here as well. All this research, however, can really be summed up in a few simple sentences. In the words of Native American midwife Katsi Cook, a woman's body is the first environment. If the world's environment is contaminated, so too is the ecosystem of a mother's body. If a mother's body is contaminated, so too is the child who inhabits it. These truths should inspire us all-mothers, fathers, grandparents, doctors, midwives, and everyone concerned about future generations-to action.
January 31, 2001
Ithaca, New York
Posted July 9, 2010
Thank you Ms. Steingraber for having the knowledge and the gusto to write this amazing work. Growing up environmentally contious and cautious about what I put in and around my body I picked up this book inquisitively hoping it would be what I was looking for. As a first time expectant mother, it was everything and much more.
It wasn't just another how-to guide or cautionary work. This book is honest and raw, terrifying and touching. It tells the story of an extraordinary woman scientist and her journey into motherhood. She portrays the wonders and doubts of every pregnant woman and presents the real dangers to human health that seem inescapable. Her insight to the frightening world of particle pollutants and views about the importance of protecting the sacred act of breastfeeding floored me. For all mothers and those seeking a brighter future for our children, and children's children, please pick up this book. You will be ever grateful.
Posted December 19, 2003
This book is insightful and informative without being boring drabble. It is honest and frightening, but in the way that it should be, not in a way that causes one not to continue reading the story or to fall apart in sheer panic. I read it because a friend told me I should and I have bought it now for several friends or family members because I think everyone needs to read this.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 19, 2010
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