It’s my great privilege to share an audio interview of Oregon environmental activist Carol van Strum by novelist, memoirist, and recent Esalen Institute writing teacher Joyce Thompson.
I’m back from a four-day visit with Oregon eco-warrior Carol van Strum, the woman whose relentless activism drove the banning of pesticide use in US national forests in the early ’80s. Carol’s work, begun in the ’70s, galvanized a community, shook a bureaucracy, and culminated in the citizen lawsuit against the US government that stopped the aerial poisoning of community watersheds with defoliants chemically identical to the dioxins used and finally banned during the Vietnam War.
Sierra Club Books commissioned Carol to “write the book” about the crusade. They wanted the human stories of community activists who joined the fight. They wanted to exploit the heart-rending poignancy of the fact that Carol and her husband’s home and four children were lost to an arson fire set while they were at a community organizing meeting.
In the course of writing of the book, using the skills she’d built plying the Freedom of Information Act, Carol and her East Coast journalist colleague Peter von Stackelberg uncovered evidence that proved that the EPA test results that permitted the use of dioxin-based defoliants were systematically falsified and/or suppressed.
All of the assurances citizens received from their government about the safety of whole portfolios of chemical products developed for warfare and converted to civilian use to save industry investment in production plants were deliberately fraudulent. And Carol and Peter could prove it.
Carol devoted half her book, A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights, to telling that story. The Sierra Club published with reservations. Within a month, they removed the book from their catalog and declared it out of print. It disappeared without a trace.
In all the intervening years, living primitively in the garage left after the fire, Carol has subsisted and persisted. She and colleagues drove FOIA suits to uncover EPA malfeasance in testing and supporting products and practices dangerous to human life and reproduction by paper and plastics producers, nuclear waste dumpers, and other multinational corporations.
Carol stored close to 200,000 pages of documentation in her barn. Earlier this year, she and von Stackelberg cleaned, scanned, and “published” these archives as The Poison Papers. Columbia University has taken custody and is seeking funds to index them and make them searchable, a huge but essential task.
A new edition of A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights has just been released by Jericho Hill Publishing—essentially Peter, Carol, and the scanners they invested in to preserve the Poison Papers archives. It’s available in print and on Kindle—an excellent and horrifying read.
Carol is still brilliant, funny, fierce, and lucid.
She’s a Berkeley grad and former co-owner of Cody’s Books, and she was long a book reviewer of record for The Washington Post and USA Today, as well as a frequent reviewer for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.
Listen to the full, unedited interview here.