Snow has always been more problematic for movie sets than rain, but when the filmmakers and their special effects people do it well it creates an atmosphere for viewers that suspends their disbelief to the point of not noticing smaller details, like how the snow fallen on performers doesn’t appear to melt quickly when they go indoors, where it is presumably warmer than it is outside. All sorts of obstacles dictate the use of fake snow for movies rather than the real stuff, from warm weather outdoors to shooting scenes indoors on sound stages. Real snow also compacts underfoot, making it impracticable for filmmakers to get more than one or two takes in one spot outdoors even when they go to the trouble of brushing over footsteps to make the snow appear fresh for retakes. As expensive as it is to make a movie, it makes sense to use fake snow.
In the early twentieth century, filmmakers created fake snow with bleached cornflakes, salt, flour, cotton wadding, asbestos, or combinations of those materials as well as others. All posed problems either of realism or health and safety. Cornflakes crunched underfoot and were difficult to use once sound came into movies; salt was corrosive; flour congealed on exposure to moisture; cotton was a fire hazard, and its replacement, asbestos, was a health hazard. Filmmakers experimented with many materials, but it wasn’t until Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life that they came upon a winning formula which was realistic and safe.
Fake snow attracts visitors to Chamberlain Square in Birmingham, England, in August 2011 as part of the Six Summer Saturdays festival. The fake snow was supplied by Snow Business, an English firm that has also used the material on many movie sets. Photo by Elliott Brown.
For that film produced by the studio RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum), special effects supervisor Russell Shearman helped create a mix of foamite – a fire extinguisher material – with sugar, water, and soap flakes. Mr. Shearman’s snow effects were so convincing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave him and his special effects department a Technical Achievement Award for their work on It’s a Wonderful Life. Watching this Christmas classic over 70 years later, after special effects have made huge advances in duplicating reality, and noticing how at the end of the movie the “snowflakes” on Jimmy Stewart’s shoulders take a long time to melt when he comes indoors to a warm reception from his family, friends, and neighbors, should not detract from anyone’s enjoyment of a great cinematic moment or the filmmakers’ expert creation of George Bailey’s (Stewart’s) snowy odyssey one long Christmas Eve in the fictional New York town of Bedford Falls (or its nightmare alternative, Pottersville). Movie magic at its best suspends the viewer in another world for a time, and on the few occasions when the artifice shows through, it’s charitable not to be too picky and to brush them off.
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen in the 1954 filmWhite Christmas, directed by Michael Curtiz, and with songs by Irving Berlin, including “Snow”. The performers take the train from Florida and eventually arrive in Vermont, where snow doesn’t fall until Christmas Eve.
A jury at San Francisco’s Superior Court of California has awarded school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson $289 million in damages in his lawsuit against Monsanto, maker of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. Mr. Johnson has a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and it was his contention that the herbicides he used in the course of his groundskeeping work caused his illness, which his doctors have claimed will likely kill him by 2020. Hundreds of potential litigants around the country have been awaiting the verdict in this case against Monsanto, and now it promises to be the first of many cases.
Migrant laborers weeding sugar beets near Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1972. Photo by Bill Gillette for the EPA is currently in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Chemical herbicides other than Roundup were in use at that time, though all presented health problems to farm workers and to consumers. Roundup quickly overtook the chemical alternatives because Monsanto represented it, whether honestly or dishonestly, as the least toxic of all the herbicides, and it overtook manual and mechanical means of weeding because of its relative cheapness and because it reduced the need for backbreaking drudgery.
Monsanto has long been playing fast and loose with scientific findings about the possible carcinogenic effects of glyphosate, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently sides with Monsanto in its claim that there is no conclusive evidence about the herbicide’s potential to cause cancer. In Europe, where Monsanto has exerted slightly less influence than in the United States, scientific papers have come out in the last ten years establishing the link between glyphosate and cancer. Since Bayer, a German company, acquired Monsanto in 2016 it remains to be seen if European scientists will be muzzled and co-opted like some of their American colleagues.
The intensive use of glyphosate herbicide to remove all ground vegetation in olive groves on Corfu, a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, is evidenced by the large number of discarded chemical containers in its countryside. Photo by Parkywiki.
The scope of global agribusiness sales and practices that is put at risk by the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto is enormous. From the discovery of glyphosate in 1970 by Monsanto chemist John E. Franz to today, the use of the herbicide has grown to the preeminent place in the chemical arsenal of farmers around the world and has spawned the research into genetically modified, or Roundup Ready, crops such as corn, cotton, and soybeans. There are trillions of dollars at stake, and Monsanto and its parent company, Bayer, will certainly use all their vast resources of money and lawyers to fight the lawsuits to come.
Because scientists have found traces of glyphosatein the bodies of most people they have examined in America for the chemical over the past 20 years as foods from Roundup Ready corn and soybeans spread throughout the marketplace, they have inferred it’s presence is probably widespread in the general population. That means there are potentially thousands of lawsuits in the works. Like the tobacco companies before them and the fossil fuel industry currently, agribusiness giants will no doubt fight adverse scientific findings about their products no matter how overwhelming the evidence against them, sowing doubt among the populace and working the referees in the government.
Sugar can be derived from numerous plants, including beets, corn, and the fruit of trees, but it has come into its own since the Middle Ages in Europe as the refined product of the sugarcane plant, a perennial grass. The plant originated in New Guinea, and from there traders introduced to Asia, where it eventually found its way to southern Europe by way of Arab merchants. As noted from its origin, the plant grows in tropical or sub tropical climates. Europeans quickly developed a taste for refined sugar, but since the plant would not grow well in Europe or northern Africa, they needed to find either another source or another place to grow, or forever be at the mercy of Arab merchants, who kept the price high.
When European explorers stumbled upon the New World in their search for a trade route to the Far East that bypassed Arab middlemen, they were interested in exploiting sugar resources as much as spices. The tropical and sub tropical bands of the New World – the Caribbean, much of eastern South America, Central America, and the far southeastern portion of North America – turned out to be well suited for raising sugarcane. The problem was finding a suitably cheap labor source for the backbreaking and dangerous labor involved in sugarcane cultivation as well as refinement. The Europeans, after exhausting the Native Americans as a labor source, turned to Africa as a source of slave labor.
There were other plantation crops that Europeans raised in the New World exploiting slave labor, such as tobacco (a plant native to the western hemisphere) and cotton, but sugar was the big money maker for them, the linchpin of Atlantic trade from the 1500s well into the 1800s. Sugar grown on plantations in the New World traveled, some in the form of rum, to northeastern ports of North America and then on to Europe, where it was traded for manufactured goods; some of the manufactured goods then were traded in Africa for slaves, who were loaded onto ships destined for plantations in the New World, their voyage across the Atlantic being known as the Middle Passage of this triangle of trade. Some didn’t survive the voyage, and of the ones who did, many suffered abominably under harsh conditions in the sugar growing regions and elsewhere.
Pancakes with syrup, or syrup with pancakes? Photo by jeffreyw.
Hundreds of years later, sugar is still exacting a toll from poor black people, as well as poor and working class people generally. The European quest for cheap sugar succeeded all too well. Now it’s found in far too many supermarket foods and beverages, where in the case of processed foods it masks the loss of wholesome flavors. Sugary beverages like soda and many fruit drinks are especially egregious sources of the endocrine disrupting carbohydrates present in refined sugar that can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. These processed foods are easy to prepare and are relatively cheap and, because of the sugar in them, to some people they taste good enough.
“Big Rock Candy Mountain”, first recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928, is about a hobo’s idea of paradise. McClintock claimed to have written the song in 1895, based on tales from his youth hoboing through the United States. McClintock’s 1928 recording was used by Ethan and Joel Coen at the beginning of their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
People could cut back their consumption of processed foods, and certainly they could drop sugary sodas and fruit drinks out of their diet and not lose any essential nutrients. People can use will power and self control, even though there is evidence that sugar’s effects on their health are more insidious than industry mouthpieces would have everyone believe. People can do all those things. But they don’t. Why not?
What if crack cocaine were as cheap as sugar? How about cigarettes? Opioids? What levels of consumption would we encounter then among the general population, and among the poor and working classes specifically? All those substances stimulate pleasure centers in the human brain, just like a good hit of sugar does in a smaller way, and all are ultimately destructive in high enough doses. Is sugar as destructive as those other addictive substances? No, not in the short term, and it would be ridiculous to equate a cookie with a hit of cocaine. In the long run, however, over the course of ten, twenty, or thirty years, sugar consumption at modern American levels of a hundred pounds or more per person per year is proving destructive enough. Time to turn some of that exhausted soil in the tropics over from growing monocultures of sugarcane for export to growing fruits and vegetables the locals could consume for themselves. We could easily cut back from two or three lumps of sugar to just one.
The garden catalog dreambooks are starting to arrive in the mailboxes of home gardeners as 2016 ends and 2017 begins. Those gardeners who have ordered from online companies in the past and haven’t unsubscribed from their email list are receiving notices in their inboxes. Winter is the time to sit indoors in warmth and comfort and look over the seeds and plants on offer, either by scrolling through websites or paging through catalogs.
Some garden suppliers tout their seeds as being “not GE” or “non-GMO,” by which they mean the seeds are not Genetically Engineered or produced from Genetically Modified Organisms. Of course they’re not, since those kinds of seeds are available only to commercial growers, not to home gardeners. A different, though somewhat related, concern some gardeners have is whether the money they are spending on seeds will ultimately line the pockets of Monsanto and a few other large agribusinesses because those companies hold the patents on thousands of seed varieties.
World War II poster from the Officefor Emergency Management
Home gardeners can allay their concerns on both counts by doing a little research on their suppliers. The GMO concern is easier to dismiss than the one regarding the ultimate source of the seed. The best thing is to rely on suppliers of heirloom varieties or on open source suppliers who create and share new varieties without taking out a patent.
Deposit Seed Co. Victory Garden Catalog 1944; poster from the USDA National Agricultural Library
A much larger concern for everyone, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, is the prevalence of GMO foods in supermarkets and restaurants. Gardeners at least can sidestep that by growing as much of their own food as possible. Everyone else needs to watch what they buy in the stores, and that is where labels stating “not GE” or “non-GMO” are most helpful since agribusiness has successfully fought off attempts to label some foods as “GE” or “GMO.” Agribusiness executives apparently believe, not without reason, that as the general public becomes better informed about these products it might come to view such labels with the same alarm as a skull and crossbones. Not good for business.
To cite the most prominent example of GMO products, there are the Roundup Ready crops of corn, soybeans, and cotton, which today constitute upwards of 90% of the supply grown in the United States. No one eats cotton, though as Joseph Heller portrayed with the character of the amoral capitalist, Milo Minderbinder, in his marvelous satirical novel Catch-22, it is not too farfetched to think of someone like that trying to convince people to eat cotton if he senses a profit in it. For the corn and soybeans that we do eat, and in prodigious amounts if we eat a lot of processed foods, where they are ubiquitous, the federal government has mandated supposedly safe levels of Roundup. Frankenfoods, indeed.
Lastly, gardeners who care about the fertility of their soil as well as their own health and the health and vitality of the plants they grow for food would do well to avoid using herbicides in their home garden. No matter what, there will always be weeds wherever gardeners and farmers cultivate fertile conditions for favored plants. Scientists have not yet discovered any weeds growing in the sterility of the Moon.