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Green Barbarians

Live Bravely on Your Home Planet

About The Book

Sandbeck preaches a return to a more primitive way of life—a life with more joy and fewer household products. Green Barbarians demonstrates that by mustering a bit of courage and relying less on many modern conveniences, we can live happier, safer, more ecologically and economically responsible lives..



I got the idea for this book as my husband and I were eating a picnic lunch in front of a bonfire in our back four. (We own five acres. A back forty is beyond our capabilities.) My husband, who is more domestic than I, brought a tray loaded with a lovely post-Thanksgiving feast: hot spiced apple cider in a jar; capicola ham; smoked cheese; homemade bread; goat cheese; apples; and pumpkin pie. I was happily contemplating the prospect of enhancing my garden beds with charcoal dust from the soon-to-be-quenched fire, and wondering whether I should wipe the capicola grease on my husband’s pants, since he had forgotten to bring out napkins, and his pants were dirtier than mine, when it occurred to me that a barbarian would wipe her hands on her slice of bread. So I did, and as I did, I realized that it might be time to resurrect the concepts of bread-napkins, trenchers, and other premodern conveniences. After much labor, and many more than nine months later, this book was born. It is filled with domestic strategies both ancient and modern—many delicious, all amusing—that I hope will improve the lives of ecologically minded people, and perhaps serve as a guide to the more feral side of life.

Those who walk the wilder, less-trodden path have always served as scouts for the rest of us. These venturesome souls are the explorers, the discoverers, the early adopters who help blaze the trails that will eventually take the rest of us where we need to go. Human survival has always depended upon intrepid individuals who cannot wait to discover what is just around the bend, on the other side of the river, or beyond the hills. They call to us from cliff tops, treetops, and mountaintops, saying, “Look! We’ve just found a new food or water source, a good place to make camp, or tool-making material.” Nowadays, many of these seekers wave to us from bicycles and skateboards, from cars that belch french fry–scented exhaust, from thrift stores and rooftop gardens, even from Dumpsters.

Almost immediately after the atrocious attacks in September 2001, the Powers That Be strongly urged us to go shopping; they informed us that our economy rested upon the backs of shoppers, without whom our entire culture would collapse. This may have been the first time in recorded history that a government deployed shoppers to protect a country from attack. Now perhaps the renegades among us who delight in thumbing their noses at (and sometimes even sticking their thumbs into the eyes of) the agro-pharmo-military-industrial complex may reasonably be considered members of a new tribe of barbarians: the Green Barbarians.

The classical Greek and Latin definitions of barbarian simply meant one who was not of the dominant culture, and who was therefore considered strange or bizarre. Green Barbarians are those who define themselves by what they do and what they create, what they save and what they preserve, rather than by what they buy and what they consume. Thus the horde of Green Barbarians marches firmly upstream, against the flow of consumerist propaganda.

Taking the free advice Big Business so generously provides has enticed us into a trap baited with toxic food, drink, and playthings. Maybe it’s time to learn from the wild ones who are searching for a way out of the trap. Advances in science and technology have given us ways to live longer, healthier lives, with a greatly reduced incidence (in the First World) of infectious diseases caused by poor sanitation. However, we may have made a mistake when we threw the barbarian out with his dirty bathwater. That bathwater probably contained everything from beneficial insects, to immunity-building bacteria, to inoculating dirt that could have protected us from asthma, allergies, and autoimmune disorders. In some ways, our hypersanitized, consumer-product-driven culture has made us sick. Ancient barbarians may have lived short, brutal lives, but it is highly unlikely that they suffered from asthma, hay fever, diabetes, or ulcerative colitis. Nor were they beautifying themselves or their surroundings with products so full of hormones that they polluted the waters and forced male fish to fully explore their feminine side.

If you’ve lain awake nights anxious, worrying about how clean—or unclean—your house is, this book is for you. If you’ve ever wondered “Are these leftovers safe?,” this book is definitely for you; if you would like to spend less time cleaning your house and more time doing things that you really enjoy, this book will show you the shortcuts. If your dog is having inexplicable coughing fits that last most of the day, this book is for you. (Note: The dog may be reacting to that plug-in “air freshener.” Unplug it and throw it away.)

If your idea of a ripsnorting good time is to don heavy clothing, a hard hat, and safety goggles, and then run at high speed through pitch-black woods until you fall over, this book is really for you! If you pride yourself on your ability to eat bizarre foods; if your loyal gym socks stand up by themselves in a corner of your room until you need them again; if you only clean before company comes, and sometimes not even then, this book is for you. If you’ve ever tried to clean the mineral deposits out of your toilet bowl with a power grinder, this book is for you. If your cat refuses to enter your bathroom in order to use its litter box, this book is for you. If you are already a barbarian, this book will help you become a Green Barbarian. (Note to self: Would a paste of woad and turmeric turn the skin green? Investigate.)

Our home planet is, after all, planet Earth, not planet Just-cleaned-deodorized-disinfected-shined-bleached-and-polished. Life here can be a bit scary. It is frequently dirty, grimy, and gritty, and it is, and always has been, bacteria-laden. These are not sufficient reasons for letting the advertisers scare us into emptying our pockets and poisoning ourselves. Use what you have at hand in new and innovative ways. Take stock of what you have in abundance. Frustrate and thwart the powers that be. Use your mind, hands, and heart to make a better life for yourself and for those you love.

© 2010 Ellen Sandbeck



To believe yourself brave is to be brave; it is the one only essential thing.

—Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

When I began doing the research for this book, I thought I had a fairly good idea of what I would find. I could not have been more mistaken. I thought I understood that Big Business is only interested in money, not in improving their customers’ lives, but when I really began digging, I was deeply shocked by the astounding depth, breadth, and density of Big Business’s indifference not only to their customers’ well-being, but also to the common good and the survival of our biosphere. I hunted down leads for days, trying to make connections between maternal diet and birth defects, and was successful in making these connections more often than I had any right to expect. I was nauseated for a week while researching and writing about the health effects of some hair care products. I read scientific papers that made my hair stand on end, and my hair is thick, heavy, and a foot and a half long. I discovered the truth, and the truth is that Big Business does not give a damn about you or your family, and it never has.

Big Business does not care whether you are alive or dead, it just wants your money, and the main tool it uses to empty your wallet is fear. You may think you are buying that face cream, shampoo, deodorant, or fancy purse because it will make you more attractive and more desirable, but the real message underlying the advertising is that if you are not beautiful enough, or don’t smell good enough, you will be lonely. You may think you are buying that fabric softener, bleach, dish liquid, air freshener, floor wax, or “weed-and-feed” product because you love your family and want your home to be pleasant and attractive, but the advertisers’ underlying message is that if you don’t keep your home up, your neighbors will disapprove, and you and your entire family will be lonely outcasts. You may think you are buying that antibacterial aerosol air freshener because you want to do the best thing for your family, but the underlying message is really that if you don’t kill all the bacteria in your home, you will die.

Much modern advertising is pure fear-mongering. You can save your money and your health by educating yourself so you can distinguish between a real threat and an advertising ploy, and then you can act accordingly. Whenever someone tells you that you need to be afraid of something, and that person conveniently happens to sell the perfect product to defuse that threat, you can never go wrong by asking yourself whether the threat is real or whether it is just a sales pitch. Advertising has made us fearful, and fear is dangerous. I hope this book will help people pry themselves away from harmful products they don’t need and the environment can’t afford. I also hope readers will take away the message that people who are willing to dig deeply and in the right places can unearth information that can dramatically change their outlook.

I do not consider myself a particularly brave person, and I am generally quite sanguine when confronted by utter harmlessness. But I do try to keep myself well informed so I can be appropriately cautious when faced with real danger. This attitude obviously leaves me quite far from the realm of heroism, but I lead a fairly quiet life that rarely necessitates actual bravery.

I am not generally afraid of spiders (spider-bite fatalities in the United States in 1997: zero) nor am I frightened of most snakes (snakebite fatalities in the United States over a recent twenty-year period: 97). Even the West Nile virus does not particularly alarm me (161 deaths in the United States in 2006). During the panicky season of 2002–2003, I was quite optimistic about my chances of surviving SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed 801 people worldwide, and no one in the United States. And I’m usually not worried about shark attacks. Shark-bite fatalities in the United States average one per year or fewer, though in Minnesota, where I do most of my swimming, the annual number of shark attacks is generally zero. (Although in August 2004, an eleven-year-old boy who was wading in Island Lake needed eleven stitches after he was bitten by either a muskellunge or a northern pike.)

Though I am brave in the presence of spiders, I have a healthy fear of handguns (gun fatalities in the United States in 1998: 30,088). I am terrified by incapacitated drivers (drunk driving fatalities in the United States in 2004: 16,694) and by drivers who are talking on the phone, eating, smoking, reading the newspaper, drinking coffee, and shaving and/or applying makeup while driving. (According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Institute and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-misses involve drivers who were distracted within three seconds of the event.) And since we moved to our rural home in 2000, I have begun to flinch at the sight of an oncoming gravel truck. We have had four windshields cracked by projectiles ejected from uncovered gravel trucks; I reckon that every time we head toward town, we have approximately a 1 in 750 chance of a gravel strike.

But what really frightens me, in a lasting and permanent way, is the ongoing degradation, destruction, and poisoning of our environment. This fear is, unfortunately, rather all-encompassing, since environmental degradation, like greed, easily crosses geographical boundaries and political barriers. A study released by the World Health Organization in October 2006 estimates that air pollution causes the premature deaths of two million people every year. More than half of these victims are poor and live in developing countries, and up to 750,000 of those victims were Chinese. The Chinese government unsuccessfully attempted to suppress this dismal statistic by pressuring the World Bank to delete the mortality numbers from the formal draft of the 2007 report “Cost of Pollution in China.” As Shakespeare wrote, “in the end, truth will out.”

Before we climb onto our high horse to look down upon China’s pitifully polluted soil, water, and air, we should ask ourselves whose filthy lucre finances that pollution. It turns out that more than $232.5 billion worth of China’s environmentally costly goods were exported to the United States so that Americans could buy dirt cheap whaddyacallems. Unfortunately, cheap is not simply “1 a: purchasable below the going price or the real value,” it is also “3 a: of inferior quality or worth … b: contemptible because of lack of any fine, lofty, or redeeming qualities” (Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition).

In 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a final ban on lead-containing paint on toys and furniture in order to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in children. Between 1977 and the end of the twentieth century, there were a total of six recalls of toys due to excessive lead content. The largest was in 1994, when 996,547 individual boxes of Chinese-made coloring crayons plus 430 cases of the same types of crayons were recalled. The pace increased in 2003, when 1.4 million lead-based children’s necklaces from India were recalled. In 2005, several thousand lead-based children’s bracelets from China were recalled. In 2006, there were 5 lead-induced recalls of toys—4 of the recalls were of Chinese-made toys, and 1 was of toys from Hong Kong. So far, the biggest year for recalls of toxic children’s toys was 2007—by November, more than 5 million toys had been recalled because they contained enough lead to harm or kill children who sucked on or swallowed them.

“There is no safe dose of lead.”

—David Jacobs, former director, Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Recent studies suggest that children’s IQs drop six points even when their blood-lead levels are well below the levels the CPSC considers too high. And adults should not be too complacent about their own risks from lead: Some studies suggest that a failing memory may not be a normal sign of aging, but rather a sign that one has ingested too much lead, and a study published by the American Heart Association in 2006 links high lead levels to an increased risk of stroke.


The much-heralded Aqua Dots toy, one of the leading contenders for “gotta have it” toy of the 2007 Christmas season, was recalled in November 2007 because children who swallowed the little beads had fallen into comas. When swallowed, the water-soluble glue in the beads metabolized into gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), the “date rape” drug. (And who could possibly have predicted that children might swallow small, brightly colored beads?) An overdose of GHB can cause seizures, coma, or death. The Aqua Dots factory is located in Shenzhen, in the province of Guangdong in China. GHB’s precursor chemical, gamma-butyrolactone (GBL), is a solvent that is used in floor-cleaning products, paints, metal-etching solutions, batteries, nail polish, pesticides, and superglue removers. The Chinese manufacturer had substituted the toxic but cheap solvent for a much more expensive water-soluble glue that was in the toy’s original specifications.


According to the U.S. State Department’s report on China, “respiratory and heart diseases related to air pollution are the leading cause of death in China,” and “every day approximately 300 million residents drink contaminated water.”

China is the ultimate destination of 70 percent of the computers, TVs, cell phones, and other electronic waste (e-waste) that is recycled in the United States. A study led by Ming H. Wong tested the dioxin levels at an e-waste recycling site in China, and found that they were twenty-five times higher than the World Health Organization’s tolerable daily limit for adults. (Since dioxins are produced when plastics and other chlorine-containing compounds are burned, the contamination at this site was probably the result of burning the plastic insulation and plastic casings off of wires and electronics.) Exposure to dioxins disrupts the endocrine system; impairs the immune system; interferes with reproduction; reduces men’s testosterone levels and decreases sperm production; causes birth defects such as spina bifida; causes developmental disabilities; increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; and increases the risk of childhood leukemia.

But eventually what goes around comes around. Chinese air pollution does not obediently stay put over China; instead, it goes wandering all over the planet, and eventually darkens the skies over the United States, precipitating out in the form of mercury-contaminated acid rain. And products produced in China wander all over the world as well.

Jeffrey Weidenhamer, a chemistry professor at Ashland University in Ohio, studied the cheap, lead-based Chinese jewelry that has been recalled in the past few years in the United States, and found that some of these baubles were made of mixtures of lead, copper, and tin that closely matched the metal mixtures found in the solder and circuit boards in computers and other electronics. Other cheap jewelry that Professor Weidenhamer tested was made of metal that strongly resembled the mixture of lead and antimony found in lead batteries. Obviously, banishing our dangerous trash to the other side of the planet is no guarantee that our poisons will not come back to haunt us. We need to insist that manufacturers produce goods that are safe and nontoxic at every stage of their lives, including after they have ceased to function; and we need to insist that all imported goods be subjected to meaningful, comprehensive safety inspections before they are allowed into the country. There is no such thing as “away.”

There is no such thing as a free lunch, and generally there is no such thing as a cheap and healthy one either. Cheap is usually cheap for a reason. Is it really so surprising that Chinese manufacturers do not care about the health of little American children? Over the past several years, American consumers have made it abundantly clear that the lowest possible price is of the utmost importance. The Chinese factories are just giving us what we want. To paraphrase Pogo, “We have the met the polluter, and he is us.”


Why are we so hell-bent on buying cheap stuff? I think some of it has to do with America’s real national sport: competitive shopping. Often when I bought things for our children when they were small, I would casually mention it to an acquaintance, who would then launch into a song-and-dance number: “Oh, I can’t believe you bought that for that much! I just checked out all the stores and bought one for half that!” That competitive shopper had probably spent many hours and wasted a lot of gasoline in order to save five dollars. I would much rather spend a little more money and far less time and energy to get what I need. Better yet, I’d rather save up and buy something that is well made by workers who are paid a living wage by an industry that produces as little pollution as possible.

My own career as a competitive shopper ended before it had even begun: When I was a teenager, I went to an après-Noël sale at a ritzy department store in San Francisco with my mother. I was casually approaching a sales table, and must have gotten too close to something that a little old lady coveted, because she hit me over the head with her handbag. There are no material goods I want that desperately. I can wait.

A Harper’s magazine survey conducted in October 2001 found that 52 percent of American women prefer shopping to sex; 93 percent of men prefer sex.

The lust for more and cheaper stuff endangers both human and environmental health. But because consumerism/materialism has crept very close to the space often occupied by religion and patriotism, some bravery may be required if one is to break free from the siren call of stuff.


The shopping scene has certainly deteriorated since I was a teenager. In the last several years there have been several shopping melees around the world that have caused injuries and, on a couple of occasions, deaths:

In 1996, in Frederickton, New Brunswick, three hundred people who were infected with Tickle Me Elmo fever waited outside a Wal-Mart store for five hours, then, when the doors opened, trampled a store employee so badly that he was sent to the hospital.
In December 1998, Furbys were the hot toy of the consumer season. From coast to coast, customers lined up in the wee small hours of the morning in order to purchase one of the talking furballs. Two shoppers were injured in a stampede at a store in Nazareth, Pennsylvania; a thirteen-year-old girl in O’Fallon, Illinois, picked up a Furby and was promptly bitten on the hand by an “adult” female who wanted it; and a woman in Des Moines, Iowa, sustained minor injuries when she was trapped against a Wal-Mart door at six a.m. when the store opened and the stampede began.

The toy-induced incidents begin to seem almost quaint compared to what has occurred since the turn of the millennium:

In November 2006, enormous crowds of video gamers, some of whom had been camping outside stores for days, waited impatiently for their chance to buy the Playstation 3 as soon as it was released. The waiting was risky: Queued-up shoppers in Kentucky were shot by someone with a BB gun, a man in line at a Wal-Mart in Connecticut was shot by robbers in the middle of the night, and there were miscellaneous minor melees all over the country.
When the stores finally opened for business, there was a stampede at a Best Buy in Fresno, California, and a crowd in Wisconsin catapulted a nineteen-year-old into a flagpole.
At 4:55 a.m. on Black Friday, 2008, at a Wal-Mart store on Long Island, thousands of shoppers who had been waiting since nine p.m. the previous evening for a sale scheduled to begin at five a.m., broke down the doors, crumpling the door frame and shattering the glass. The surging mob knocked down a thirty-four-year-old Wal-Mart employee and trampled him to death. Other employees who tried to aid the victim were also trampled. Eager shoppers streamed past emergency workers who were trying to save the victim’s life. At least four other people were injured. Disappointed shoppers complained bitterly when the store was closed because of the fatality.

If you are willing to trample a man to death in order to get the best possible price on a fifty-inch high-definition TV, there is a hole in your soul that is too large for even the largest television set in the world to fill.


I would like to believe that heroes are not immune to fear, because fear, like pain, is a signal necessary for survival. If there is no fear, can there really be courage? If there is no fear, can there be a rational, functioning mind? A small child playing on railroad tracks despite an oncoming train is not brave, he is oblivious; while an adult risking life and limb to save that child is certainly brave, because he knows enough to fear the awesome destructive power of an oncoming train.

Though it is possible to be a hero when one is afraid, it is difficult to be a hero when one’s fears are irrational.


Researchers are learning that fear itself is harmful to health. A study conducted by Sonia A. Cavigelli and Martha K. McClintock at the University of Chicago demonstrated that male Norway rats that were fearful and hesitant to investigate new environments died sooner than their braver littermates. The researchers tested infant rats’ responses to changes in their living environments: The rats that actively explored their environment were categorized as “neophilic” (enjoying novelty), and the rats that stayed hunched up with their fur standing on end while trying to ignore their unfamiliar surroundings were categorized as “neophobic” (afraid of novelty). The researchers studied groups of littermates, pairing scaredy-rats with their brave brothers, then studied these siblings as they lived out their natural life spans. The researchers found that the fearful rats were 60 percent more likely to die at any given time than were their bolder brothers. The average life span of a fearful rat was 599 days, while the bolder rats lived an average of 701 days; none of the fearful rats lived longer than 840 days, while the longevity record for bold male rats was 1,026 days.

The researchers attributed this difference in life span to the chronic, fear-induced stress suffered by the timid rats. It is known that chronic stress can impair the immune system, cause atherosclerosis, induce diabetes, impair ovarian function, and shrink the hippocampal region of the brain. (A companion study showed that timid female lab rats died an average of six months earlier than their braver sisters. The average fearful female rat lived 493 days, while the average bold female rat lived 640 days. The female longevity records were 620 timid days versus 932 brave days.)

How does one go about becoming brave? Though researchers found that rats that were timid as infants continued to be timid throughout their lives, it would be nice to think that we humans, unlike rats, are capable of changing our mind-sets.


Some may question whether bravery is really health-inducing, and suggest that being brave may actually be hazardous. But bravery and foolhardiness are not synonymous. If we discover that we are heading over a cliff, we must swerve and aim in another direction in order to save ourselves, and not just keep to our original course out of loyalty, stubbornness, or sheer momentum.

Luckily for all of us, researchers have been doing some hygienic investigating in order to determine what is truly dangerous and what is not, and they have come up with some interesting results:

  1. Timidity is dangerous.

  2. Dust and dirt are good for you.

  3. Runny noses improve children’s health.

  4. Intestinal worms are your friends.

I interpret this research to mean that in this day and age, the fear of dirt is far more dangerous than dirt itself. Read on!

I was raised in a household headed by a hypochondriac, and the experience convinced me that hypochondria is one of the worst afflictions that can plague a human being. For the last forty-seven years of his life, until he died at the age of ninety-two, my poor father was convinced that he had only six weeks to live. This may sound like the punch line of a shaggy dog story, but the reality was not so funny; my father was coping with mortal terror every waking second of his life. He would not mow a lawn because “people have heart attacks while mowing lawns.” He wouldn’t roughhouse with his children because he was afraid the experience might kill him. He had totally unnecessary surgeries that caused very real problems.

Because one of the main themes of this book is bravery versus fear, I decided to investigate what the experts had to say about the fears that blighted my father’s life. On a National Institutes of Health website, hypochondria is defined as “a belief that real or imagined physical symptoms are signs of a serious illness, despite medical reassurance and other evidence to the contrary.” Hypochondriacs pay obsessive attention to their bodies and tend to assume that normal sensations such as the beating of the heart, or sweating, or minor health problems such as a cold, a strained muscle, or a small sore are signs of impending doom. Hypochondriacs are very, very anxious people, and unfortunately, fear and anxiety can induce many unpleasant symptoms, including increased heart rate, hyperventilation, chest pain, dizziness, excessive sweating, blurred vision, confusion, dry mouth, slowed intestinal motility (which may cause constipation and nausea), and last but not least, choking sensations. (One of my father’s unnecessary operations was done because he felt as if he had “something stuck in his throat.” There was nothing wrong with his throat before the surgery was done, but he certainly had something wrong for a long time afterward!) The tension induced by constant, intense fear may also cause muscle aches, trembling, shakiness, and fatigue. Just reading about it exhausts me.

I am struck by the similarity between the hypochondriac who is alarmed by the internal sensations of a perfectly normal human body, and modern society, which has learned all too well from alarmist media and advertising to be frightened by the perfectly normal manifestations of life on this planet, including the existence of bacteria, dirt, harmless invertebrates, and minor viral infections. This means we are in a constant state of near panic because we live, after all, on Earth, the dirt-and-bacteria planet.


Our great-great-great-grandparents, who clearly understood that the only true reason for housekeeping is to maintain health by keeping vermin and diseases at bay, would, I think, be completely baffled by current housekeeping practices. Modern sewage systems and vaccines should be making us the healthiest, most carefree people on the planet, but we are not. We are still prosecuting our “spring cleaning” with Inquisitional vigor, as if our homes were begrimed by a winter’s worth of coal dust; as if cholera, polio, typhus, diphtheria, and the Black Plague were lurking just around the corner.

It is possible that if our not-so-distant ancestors could see us, they might have trouble recognizing us as human. Researchers all over the world have been studying historical medical records, and the fruits of their research have been startling. People in the industrialized world are bigger, stronger, healthier, longer-lived, and more intelligent than their ancestors, and the differences are impressive: In 1790, the average thirty-year-old Frenchman weighed 110 pounds; his counterpart in the first decade of the twenty-first century weighs 170 pounds. During those same two centuries, the average height of Norwegian men increased by five and a half inches. The life expectancy for a baby boy born in America in 1790 was thirty-eight years; and four decades later, life expectancy in big American cities was even lower: a baby born in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia had a life expectancy of twenty-four years. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, male life expectancy had increased to seventy-three.

American men are, on average, two inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than they were a hundred years ago. During the Civil War era, the average American man was five feet seven inches tall and weighed 147 pounds, while the average American male today is five feet nine and a half inches tall and weighs 191 pounds. This means that Civil War reenactors are, for the most part, unable to use equipment that is accurate and to scale—Civil War tents and uniforms are just too small for modern-day men.

In 1861, one out of every six of the sixteen-to nineteen-year-old males who tried to sign up for the Union Army was rejected because he was disabled. This despite the fact that the army’s fitness standards were quite low; a recruit with only one eye, for instance, as long as it was the right eye, was considered fit for service, and urinary incontinence was not considered a hindrance to service (perhaps the Union Army had a point; many of us wet our pants when we are terrified anyway).

Dr. Robert Fogel, of the University of Chicago, led a study of the health histories of fifty thousand Union Army veterans. These veterans had been the cream of their spindly crop of American manhood; men who, when they were inducted into the Union Army, were each in possession of two working legs, a trigger finger, and a functional right eye, and had managed to survive the war. When the researchers perused the medical records, military records, public health records, pension records, doctor’s certificates, and death certificates of these outstanding specimens, they discovered that almost every single Civil War veteran suffered from a severe chronic illness for decades before finally succumbing.

What is the cause of the mind-boggling improvements in the human condition since 1800? Researchers believe that children’s health in very early life is the key. Food shortages and famines were common before the Industrial Revolution; according to Dr. Fogel, one in six young adults was dangerously underweight. Prenatal and early childhood undernourishment weakened and stunted children, and made them more susceptible to diseases such as measles, rheumatic fever, typhoid, malaria, and tuberculosis. Contracting these severe diseases in early life made people more susceptible to chronic diseases such as heart disease and arthritis, which tended to strike people between ten and twenty-five years earlier than they do now.

Though stunted misery was probably the norm in Europe from the time agriculture was invented until the advent of the Industrial Revolution, physical misery was not the norm in the Americas until after Europeans arrived on the continent, carrying European diseases with them; before then, native peoples in the Americas had been quite well nourished and relatively free of epidemic diseases.

In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, an explorer, wrote a letter to his patron, which included this description of the inhabitants he encountered as he sailed north along the Carolina coast: “As for the physique of these men, they are well proportioned, of medium height, a little taller than we are. They have broad chests, strong arms, and the legs and other parts of the body are well composed… .” Later, when da Verrazano’s ship reached Narragansett Bay, near what is now Newport, Rhode Island, his ship was surrounded by boats full of native people. Among those who boarded da Verrazano’s ship were: “… two kings, who were as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe. These people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage. They are taller than we are … they have all the proportions belonging to any well-built man.”

The admiration was definitely not mutual. A missionary in Ontario reported that the Huron thought the French possessed “little intelligence in comparison with themselves”; furthermore, the native people agreed that Europeans in general were physically weak, atrociously ugly, and smelled terrible. The physical inferiority of the Europeans was probably caused by chronic malnutrition and disease, while the hideous stench was only what one would expect in an era when most Europeans never bathed at all.

If we compare ourselves to almost all those who came before us, we may say, with some accuracy, that we, like the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, live in a time and place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” We are beginning to look as if we belong here.


But do we feel as if we belong here? Over the past decade, researchers who have been investigating the “hygiene hypothesis” have found evidence that suggests that asthma, eczema, and allergies are caused by lack of exposure to dust, dirt, pets, and minor viral infections. And recent scientific studies indicate that autoimmune disorders such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, childhood-onset diabetes, and possibly rheumatoid arthritis may be caused by a dearth of intestinal parasites. This research has been widely publicized in magazines and newspapers over the years, yet there is a strong reluctance to relax our cleaning standards, perhaps partly because most of us fear incurring the disgust of our neighbors, and partly because the full force and power of industry and advertising constantly urges us on toward ever more fluorescent feats of cleanliness. Sometimes it takes a while for reality to sink in.

I am reminded of the apocryphal story about a girl who, while helping prepare a roast, asked why her mother cut both ends off the meat before roasting it. The mother replied: “It’s the way it’s done. My mother always did it this way.” So the daughter went to her grandmother’s house, and asked why she always cut both ends off the roast before cooking it. The grandmother replied, “It’s the way it’s done. My mother always did it that way.” So the girl visited her great-grandmother, and asked the burning question. The great-grandmother replied, “I had to cut both ends off so it would fit in my roasting pan.”


While our children were small, it was a source of great wonderment to me that though my husband and I both have allergies, neither of our progeny had any allergies at all—and today both are generally as healthy as horses.

Though we invested in healthy, organic food whenever possible, and tried to stick to “natural products” for cleaning ourselves and our home, life is not perfect, and we were working with a very tight budget. But our children’s limited exposure to synthetic chemicals did not explain their lack of allergies, because I was raised on an extremely healthy diet.

Our son and daughter were born in 1985 and 1988, respectively. The hygiene hypothesis first surfaced in the late 1990s, which meant that I had spent an entire decade feeling vaguely guilty about the possible effects of my relaxed housekeeping standards on my children. (But only vaguely guilty; we were having too good a time to bother with guilt.) Needless to say, the news that early exposure to dirt, dust, and dog dander may have primed my children for health made me whoop with joy. As more and more information came out, I was reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s movie Sleeper in which the newly awakened hero is informed that the foods that were considered health foods in the late twentieth century were actually bad for the health, and vice versa. And in several delicious instances of life imitating art, we have, in the beginning of the twenty-first century, been informed that eating chocolate should no longer be considered a vice, but rather a virtue. Dark chocolate, we are told, is full of antioxidants, lowers the blood pressure, and is good for the heart. Eggs were, for much of the twentieth century, considered bad for the heart because of their cholesterol content, but upon further examination, it was found that egg-eating generally does not affect the blood cholesterol levels of healthy people one way or the other, though it seems that eating eggs may help prevent blindness caused by macular degeneration. And the dustodons behind our doors were actually protective guardians! Of course! I’d left them there on purpose. The dog hair on the couch was carefully arranged for maximum health benefits. The overloaded, dusty bookshelves were making my children healthy and smart at the same time. My children were resilient because I’d allowed them to crawl around outside when they were babies, eating dirt, ants, and vegetables right out of the garden, exercising their muscles and their immune systems at the same time. When the toddler ate kibble out of the dog’s bowl, or sucked on his sock-clad foot, he was actively acquiring beneficial microbial companions.


In addition to the basic mammalian necessities (clean food, water, and air), we humans, who are extraordinarily underendowed with fur, also need shelter and, in most climates, clothes. Once we get past these basic needs, we enter the realm of desire, in which differences in wealth, education, status, class, and religion create huge disparities in the way people live.

Unfortunately, deeply held beliefs can actually override the will to survive. For instance, a starving dog will happily eat anything even vaguely edible, while a starving Brahman, if offered the choicest piece of beef, would probably refuse it. I suppose I am closer to being a dog than a Brahman, for I will happily retrieve food from the floor, and have been known to salvage perfectly edible organic produce from a natural foods store’s waste bin, and have subsequently fed my worm bins a little less than anticipated. I was not always such an indiscriminate feeder—I have worked hard at it, because I believe that excessive squeamishness is bad for our health and the environment.


Many people are squeamish about smells—perhaps because advertisers and media have expended so much time and money convincing us that attractive, lovable, desirable human beings don’t emit any unpleasant odors. As a result, we react with disgust and embarrassment to the perfectly natural smells that emanate from all normal human beings. Many people fight off these noisome horrors by attacking them with airborne chemical weapons that are commonly (though completely inaccurately) known as “air fresheners.”

People tend to like the smells that they grew up with, no matter what those smells are. Consequently, people who grew up in the country tend to appreciate the smells of new-mown hay, freshly plowed earth, and manure, while city-bred folk tend to wax nostalgic over the smells of gasoline, exhaust fumes, and solvents. We share this love of the smells of home with many other creatures with and without backbones. Salmon follow the scents of home upstream so they can spawn in their natal waters; pigeons and migrating birds follow their noses home; so do sea turtles, newts, salamanders, frogs, and toads. Apparently, land slugs and snails also smell their way home, though each of these mollusks is the happy owner of four “noses,” with one olfactory sensor located on the tip of each of its four tentacles.

Human noses are rather inadequate when compared to the olfactory organs possessed by dogs, yet research has shown that even when we are not consciously aware of smells, we still react to them. For many years it was assumed that humans did not react to pheromones (sex hormones that are detected by the olfactory organ), but researchers have recently used a bit of sly research to prove that humans do indeed secrete and react to pheromones. Dr. Geoffrey Miller, Joshua M. Tybur, and Brent D. Jordan, of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, published a paper in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior in September 2007 that delineated the effects of the menstrual cycle on strippers’ tips. (That’s tiPs!) The researchers asked eighteen professional lap dancers to record their menstrual periods, work shifts, and tip earnings for sixty days and a combined total of about 5,300 lap dances. Analysis of the data revealed that the dancers who were taking birth control pills (and thus not ovulating) earned steady amounts of tips throughout the study, averaging $195 per shift; while dancers who were not on the pill earned an average of $276 per shift, with much higher tips while they were fertile. Ovulating dancers earned an average of $335 in tips during a five-hour shift; $260 during the less fertile phase after ovulation; while menstruating dancers earned an average of $185 per shift.

Apparently the extra-added attractions depended upon close proximity, because the tips earned from onstage dancing remained consistent from day to day. According to the researchers, these topless (and nearly bottomless) dancers typically wear very little perfume, though they are in most other respects quite far from their natural state, being otherwise painted, curled, dyed, silicone-enhanced, trimmed, plucked, and shaven. We must assume that these ladies knew what they were doing when they chose not to wear perfume.

It seems that the way to a man’s heart may be through his nose, not his stomach. And it’s not just men who follow their noses… .

Dr. Martha McClintock has done groundbreaking work on the effects of odors on human beings. In 1971, McClintock published a study that revealed for the first time that when women live in close quarters, their menstrual cycles gradually become synchronized. McClintock concluded that this synchrony is induced by pheromones. The McClintock study was revolutionary, because when it was first published, many people still believed that humans were too lofty to have, much less be affected by, pheromones.

McClintock has headed several more recent studies in which unperfumed, undeodorized, unadulterated underarm sweat was collected from women, men, and breastfeeding mothers. Female volunteers were then exposed to these samples. Most Americans have been exposed to a virtual tidal wave of advertising meant to convince us that the smell of human sweat is disgusting, yet when the test subjects in all of these studies sniffed the unidentified “samples,” they almost universally found the odors mild and pleasant. Most of the smells remained unidentified—the volunteers recognized only 9 percent of the male-derived samples and 12 percent of the female-derived samples as human odors. Of the sweat samples from breastfeeding mothers, only 52 percent were perceived as having any odor at all, and those were rated as “mild.”

Some more research ...

Claus Wedekind, of the Zoological Institute at Bern University in Switzerland, wanted to see whether humans, like laboratory rodents, prefer the smells of potential mates that are not closely related to them. Earlier studies had shown that lab mice and rats prefer mates whose immune systems are genetically very different from their own. Scientists speculated that this preference prevented inbreeding and helped produce offspring that had strong, diverse immune systems. So Wedekind recruited forty-nine female students and forty-four male students, and provided the male volunteers with clean, unscented cotton T-shirts, which he asked them to sleep in for two nights. The male volunteers were also asked to use unscented soap and shampoo, to avoid smelly foods such as garlic and onions, and to refrain from smoking and sex during those two days while they were producing experimental sweat.

The worn T-shirts were handed over to the researchers, who stuffed the shirts into plastic-lined boxes with a sniffing hole on top. Female volunteers were asked to sniff the boxes and rate the smells. Each woman rated seven boxes, three of which contained T-shirts that had been worn by men whose immune systems were similar to their own; three boxes with T-shirts that had been worn by men whose immune systems were very different from their own; and one box that contained a clean, unworn T-shirt as a control. The women tended to prefer the scent of the men whose immune systems were the most different from their own, and many stated that the odors they preferred reminded them of their boyfriends. In contrast, pregnant mice and women who are on birth control pills (whose estrogen levels are artificially elevated) tend to prefer the smells of males whose immune systems are similar to their own. Scientists speculate that the reversal of preference occurs because it is advantageous for pregnant females to be surrounded by close relatives.

Evolutionary psychologist Steven Gangestad of the University of New Mexico took this concept a step further, and conducted a study that found that women whose immune systems were genetically very different from their male partners’ seemed much happier in their relationships and were much less likely to fantasize about, or have sex with, other men, while women who were genetically similar to their partners were more likely to “wander.” Men’s attitudes toward sex, on the other hand, were unaffected by their genetic similarity or dissimilarity to their partners.

Charles Wysocki, an adjunct professor of animal biology at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, collaborated in a study in which samples of sweat were collected from the underarms of men who had refrained from using deodorant for four weeks. The sweat was blended into an “Eau de Beaucoup des Hommes,” and then a little dab was applied to the upper lips of eighteen women whose ages ranged from twenty-five to forty-five. The women were told that they were testing a consumer product such as alcohol, perfume, or lemon floor wax, and were asked to rate their moods for six hours. The women reported that the odor made them happier and less tense, and none of them realized they were actually smelling sweat.

Clean is good. But perhaps not too clean and not too deodorized.

So once one has sniffed and chosen one’s mate, and the bouncing little bundle of joy has arrived, what then? In a study published in 2002, Julie Mennella, of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, and a team at the University of Chicago asked twenty-six nursing mothers to wear absorbent pads in their armpits and under their bras in order to collect odors. Then, forty-five childless female volunteers were asked to smell either these odor-saturated pads, or plain control pads imbued with a random scent, four times a day. To make a long scientific story short, the smells produced by the breastfeeding mothers made the volunteer sniffers psychologically and physiologically “hot to trot.”

I noticed this phenomenon in 1985, when we brought our first child home from the hospital. Two friends who came to meet the new baby went home and immediately got pregnant—one of them was unmarried and wasn’t planning on having another child, and the other was married, but doctors had told her that she would not be able to get pregnant. Gentle Reader, consider yourself forewarned.

The evidence seems to suggest that the he-smells and the she-smells, when we are not told what they are, are among the most pleasant odors in the world. And the scent of home is, whether you are a man or a mouse or a salmon, also beautiful. So how have we strayed so far afield from the scents we naturally find pleasant?


As was noticed by the original inhabitants of the Americas, long-unwashed human beings do indeed smell terrible. The porcupine is the only other creature I have encountered that smells as bad as a truly overripe human being, one who, for instance, has forgotten to bathe for several years. In fact, a porcupine’s smell is startlingly similar to that of an overripe human being. But to be fair to the porcupine, I must admit that when he leaves the room, his odor leaves with him. In contrast, the smell of rancid human oils may linger long after the owner has left.

The stench of unbathed humans must have been one of the most characteristic smells in much of Europe during the time when Europeans were “discovering” the Americas. Will Durant wrote, in The Story of Civilization, about Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: “Personal cleanliness was not a fetish; even the King of England bathed only once a week, and sometimes skipped… . In all Europe—not always excepting the aristocracy—the same article of clothing was worn for months, or years, or generations.” Durant also included a quote from a sixteenth-century “Introduction pour les jeunes dames,” about women “who have no care to keep themselves clean except in those parts that may be seen, remaining filthy … under their linen.” The memory of that human stench may still be haunting us, because even though we are now obsessively clean, it takes very little to make us think that we stink.

It has not escaped the attention of manufacturers, retailers, and advertisers that human beings’ most powerful urges and emotions—those that drive them to seek food, shelter, and sex—are intimately connected to the sense of smell. Powerful forces exploit scents to manipulate us into buying their products, and industry researchers are working overtime to develop scents that will drive us to ever higher feats of consumerism.


Searching for the smells that will drive shoppers wild is the new holy grail of marketing/advertising. Many manufacturers, retailers, hotels, resorts, and spas are infusing their retail spaces and their products with specially formulated “signature” scents that are intended to attract and relax consumers, making them more likely to buy the offered products. The manufacturers are hoping that, like baby salmon in their natal stream, the smell of their “home product” will be imprinted upon consumers. The technical retail term is “branding.” Someday, in order to stick to one’s budget, one may need to wear nose plugs while shopping.


And the winner of the Oxymoron Products Contest is: “Air fresheners!” The air freshener is a shining, glorious example of a product whose use completely defies reason. Far from making indoor air “fresher,” air fresheners can be dangerous when inhaled.

Air fresheners come in several different forms, among them: aerosol sprays, plug-in solids and gels, scented candles, and scented disks that, I suppose, one plays like a phonograph record. All have sneakily evocative names that are meant to make you feel as if you are being welcomed home with hugs, kisses, and homemade baked goods by family members who have been working their little fingers to the bone to make your domicile clean, comfy, and cozy; or else to make you feel as if you’re on vacation. Here are the names of some of these scented products, copied right out of the U.S. government’s Household Products Database: Mom’s Apple Crisp; Tahitian Dream; Baking with Grandma; Evening at Home (where, exactly, would one use this product—while working late at the office?); Starlight Garden; Waterfall Scent; Crisp Breeze; Lavender Fields; Rain Garden Scent; Relax in a Hammock; Stroll Through a Garden; Wandering Barefoot on the Shore; Glistening Snow; Rainshower; and last but not least, Clean Linen.

If you are not an android, these synthetic pleasures may make you quite ill. In September 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council tested fourteen different air fresheners. Of these, twelve contained phthalates, which some studies have linked to birth defects, reproductive problems, and hormonal abnormalities. Other ingredients included volatile organic compounds, benzene, and formaldehyde. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Household Products database: “Aerosol products in general are not recommended. Inhaling vapors of hydrocarbon propellants may produce simple asphyxia with symptoms such as dizziness, disorientation, headache, excitation, central nervous system depression, and anesthesia… .”

One fairly typical aerosol air freshener’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) shows that it contains propane, isobutane, butanem sorbitan oleate, water, and unspecified emulsifiers. Propane, butane, and isobutane are extremely flammable, may cause asphyxia, can depress the central nervous system, and can cause dizziness, disorientation, incoordination, narcosis, and nausea.

Oooh! What could be comfier and cozier, cleaner, fresher, and more vacationlike than a bout of central nervous system depression? And those were just the ingredients that the company was willing to disclose. They keep the identity of the sweet-smelling chemicals to themselves. Proprietary information, you know.

Why not stroll through an actual garden, holding hands with someone you love? Why not bake an actual pie? The emissions from baking even the cheapest frozen pie are certainly more benign than the exhaust from even the fanciest pie-scented candle. If you’re on a diet, bake the pie, enjoy the aroma, then give the finished product to a friend or neighbor.


My friend Jean refers to the industrial-strength “air freshener” dispensers that are mounted high on the walls of many public bathrooms as “perfume launchers.” I suspect that these devices are mounted high up so they are harder to vandalize.

The MSDS for one model of these offensive weapons states:

WARNING: FLAMMABLE. CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE. May be mildly irritating to eyes. May be mildly irritating to skin. Individuals with chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, etc. may be more susceptible to irritating effects.

The MSDS for this product names no actual ingredients other than benzyl alcohol; the rest are “proprietary ingredients.” Benzyl alcohol is hazardous in case of skin contact and is an eye irritant. If inhaled, it can cause coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, sleeplessness, excitement, dizziness, ataxia, coma, and convulsions.

An estimated 23.2 million Americans suffer from asthma, and the percentage of children who have asthma is rapidly increasing. As of this writing, 12 percent of children under the age of 18 have asthma. Is it really wise to conduct aggressive perfume warfare in public bathrooms?

At an event not long ago, I met two people who told me that their dogs (one dog per household) were coughing and wheezing a lot, so they took them to their respective vets. Both vets asked whether they used plug-in “air fresheners” at home. The answers were yes. The vets told them to get rid of the air fresheners. They did, and their dogs stopped coughing.

Most air fresheners contain petroleum products, and the fumes are heavier than air—thus the heaviest doses of fumes are to be found closest to the ground. Most dogs live close to the ground. So do most small children.


Dr. Alan R. Kirsch, director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, tested the aphrodisiac effects of certain odors on humans by attaching blood flow sensors to the essential body parts, and discovered that males are more aroused by the smell of cinnamon buns than they are by perfume, and that the combined smell of doughnuts and black licorice is even more scintillating than cinnamon buns, but the most powerful love potion of all is the odor of pumpkin pie and lavender commingling. Women, on the other hand, were titillated by the smell of licorice Good & Plenty candy and cucumber.

May I suggest beginning your romantic dinner with a nice cucumber salad with a fennel dressing, and finishing with pumpkin pie? Don’t forget to decorate the table with a nice bouquet of lavender. And if you’d like to dine by candlelight, I recommend a natural beeswax taper. Burning beeswax emits a lovely, sweet smell.


Something smells in the State of Consumerism, but it ain’t the consumers, it’s the advertisers, who reek of greed, duplicity, and petroleum products.

A survey showed that many people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death! If people are afraid of looking ridiculous in front of strangers, how much more frightening is the prospect of incurring the disapproval of neighbors, friends, and relatives?

The householder must gather a bit of information and muster a bit of grit and bravery in order to decide which housekeeping practices to jettison, which to retain, and which new ones to adopt. Bravery is not always purely physical. Sometimes being brave means ignoring the disapproval of otherwise well-meaning folk and sometimes it entails speaking up in the midst of a crowd that does not agree with you.

“Knowledge is power.”

—Sir Francis Bacon, 1597

© 2010 Ellen Sandbeck

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Ellen Sandbeck is an organic landscaper, worm wrangler, writer, and graphic artist who lives with (and experiments on) her husband and an assortment of younger creatures -- which includes two mostly grown children, a couple of dogs, a small flock of laying hens, and many thousands of composting worms -- in Duluth, Minnesota. She is the author of Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles and Eat More Dirt.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (December 29, 2009)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416571827

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