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No snow for the children of Kazkhstan

By Casey Michel

Three months ago, I leaned over my desk, looking out at a group of 6th graders. It was English class, and we'd been studying nutrition-based concepts – words like "savory" and "bitter," theories of balanced meals and ingredients in different types of cookies – and it was time to check their comprehension.

"Are cookies unhealthy?" I asked.

"Yes!"

"Are apples sweet?"

"Yes!"

"Is snow edible!"

"No!"

Good on the first two. Less so on the last one. I walked to the window, pointing outside to the flakes ambling slowly to the ground. The kids' eyes followed, glassy and eager, and I repeated the question.

"One more time: Is snow edible?"

"No!"

I was stumped. Unless kids had somehow forgotten all trappings of childhood in the dozen years since I was a 6th grader, something was awry. Snow – in all instances but those cautionary yellow tales – was just as edible as the cod you catch, or the steak your dad grills, or the cookie dough your mom lets you devour. Why weren't the kids getting this?

And then, as I opened my mouth to harp on their answer, I realized what they were saying. Their response wasn't wrong. Mine was. I looked back outside. This snow, these white tufts piling on the trees and the grass and the fences corralling the school, was nothing you'd put in your mouth, let alone ingest. It would wring your stomach, turn your skin pallid and make your hands jitter. It would be like salting your cod or steak or cookie dough with bits of rust and barium.

It would be terrible, because these 6th graders, the ones still looking up at me, weren't the kind of kid you find living in some suburban strip of cul-de-sacs and soccer fields. These were 6th graders grouped in a small Siberian hollow. These were kids lived in a stretch of northern Kazakhstan that was equal parts frostbitten and forbidding, with me bearing witness as a Peace Corps volunteer. These small Kazakhstani children – an ethnic mιlange of Slavs, Kazakhs, and Germans – dealt with snow seven, eight months of the year. But they would only experience it as an inconvenience, as a nuisance to be seen and shoveled, but never enjoyed. While the snow may look just like the kind dusting Hood or Rainier, the snow we had gulfing the school that day was a nocuous breed of lead and exhaust and sulfides, dandied up to look like the kind that American kids digested the nation over. It wasn't snow. It was poison.

There would be no snowball fights in Kazakhstan, just like there would be no fresh-water fishing, or dips in the lake, or tap-water-from-a-hose-on-a-hot-summer-day. There'd be none of the stuff we take for granted in the United States, and especially in the Pacific Northwest. Pesticides, herbicides, airborne radiation and dessicated riverbeds – some from the Soviet era, some post-independence – all conspired to turn this steppe into a dumping ground of toxic waste. The cancer rates, infant mortality, ecological havoc – all due to environmental missteps and industrial arrogance. It was awful. A nation the size of Western Europe, decimated through ineptitude, intransigence, and a lack of civic oversight. A nation four times the size of Texas, without any potable water – or edible snow – left to offer.

The environmental realities of Kazakhstan were perhaps the most dispiriting set of phenomena I experienced in my time as a volunteer. While the nation is at least nominally wealthy – massive oil fields guarantee a nice intake in the decades to come – its environmental record is among the worst in the world. And to come from a nation the not only guarantees fluoride in your tap, but also provides strictures and regulation for industrial output and material disposal, made the environmental difference all the starker. Kazakhstan made America seem a prelapsarian paradise, a land of green country and greener people.

Of course, it's not. Industry and intake continue to threaten ecologies. America still ravages its natural plots, and it's up to the consenting populace to slow those malefactors. It's a battle that continues for our sake, and will continue for the generations to come.

I always took for granted that this back-and-forth would take place. But now I understand what happens if it doesn't. I've seen what happens if ham-handed, state-sponsored oligarchs run roughshod through protective legislation and turn locals' backyards into theirs. I've seen what a land can become if a society lets its desires to reap move beyond logical, logistical bounds. I've seen what happens if we turn our lands into toxic swills. I've seen why we still need to stand, and fight, and believe that we can make this environment that much better. I've seen how good we have it – how healthy the Cascades; how safe the Puget Sound; how balanced the ecosystems – and how good we should keep it.

And even if I didn't see it all, I only had to look in those kids' eyes, these impressionable kids who've never known anything but environmental poverty, and see them wondering on what earth I thought snow could be edible.

Casey Michel was born and raised in Portland, OR, and just returned from serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in northern Kazakhstan.


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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22