Young residents in Love Canal joined the protest. (Center for Health and Environmental Justice)
Myth, Sex, Forgetting, and the Promethean Experiment at Love Canal
By Gary Crethers
The erotic symbolism in the “Love Canal” events cannot be missed, and if one takes a feminist, or psychoanalytical perspective on this, one discovers a fertile ground in which to plant the seeds in the darkness, where hidden from view, life takes form, in a sense every pregnancy is an act of faith, a forgetting of all the pain and suffering that will come as a consequence. In this case the ground was planted with the seeds of destruction and the forgetting of pregnancy, led to the literal birth of monsters. Myth, informs the story, whether the sewing of the dragon’s teeth to raise the sons of Ares, the opening of Pandora’s box, a subsidiary myth to the tale of Prometheus, or the Herculean task of clean up afterwards, these examples help inform us as we attempt to comprehend what man has wrought. The female sex organs, receiving the seeds of life, in this case can be seen metaphorically as being seeded with death by the male dominated social system. While forgetting of painful events such as prior child births, and in former times, the very likely chance of infant mortality, in this case the natural process taken in analogous form to any cycle of creation can be aborted or cruelly deformed. Forgetting is a natural process but when it has been deliberately intercepted by parties with consciously or unconsciously evil intent, it becomes a rape, in this case of the place called love canal, we forget traumas, sometimes to our peril (Ricoeur, 259, 445).
Children and babies were the most at risk for health effects from chemical exposure. (Fierce Green Fire)
The sexual undertones of the controversy run through the chapter. In the first paragraph of the Chapter “Love Canal and the Law of Unintended Consequences,” Professor Andrew Jenks writes “The canal thus became an attempt to create a new and more perfect world, a ‘Model City,’ in the words of its creator (Jenks, 43). Here we see creation, the “mysterious man named William T Love” (43), already fraught with symbolism, the Marlboro man, myth is full of mysterious strangers. “Love told rapt audiences that the region had been passed over” (44), add the imagery of a pied piper, a demagogue with promises of harnessing the powers of nature, to create the “most beautiful city in the world’ (44), add Cinderella, being lifted out of obscurity to her rightful position by the potent Prince Charming, and we have Niagara falling into his lap and the state willing to give this promethean spirit the power to create his own “Model City” (44).
In the late 1890’s, William T. Love got the idea for a industrial city built around a 6 mile long canal connecting the Niagara river to lake Ontario.
The excavations were begun; the Earth was plowed for the seeds to be planted for this wonderful child of William T. Love, and the seduced Niagara Falls. But alas the man turned out to be no hero, he failed, abandoning his commitments, leaving an unattended gash 3000 feet rather than the 5 mile trench he had advertised. Blaming the general depression of the times, Niagara went to find new suitors, in this case Hooker Electro-Chemical, another name fraught with symbolism like the dastardly landlord coming to take advantage of the abandoned maiden with a new career, no longer producing “a monument to the progressive spirit,” but “bought the canal and transformed it into a chemical waste dump” (44). The ingredients now existed for a Frankenstein’s monster, as Mary Shelly wrote “I kept my workshop of filthy creation…dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion” (Shelley, 39). Notice the filthy location, the waste material utilized, the human nature that would have him turn away, and the compulsion, such as perhaps the creators of the Atomic bomb felt, urged on by an itch, in this case a war, a competition among male scientists in World War 2, to create this monster that had been conceived of in the decades before the war. Pandora opened the box. The God’s to punish Prometheus and man had created a baleful gift in a beautiful woman who given to Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus whose name means afterthought, had let loose the side effects from the theft of fire and these, given to the forgetful brother, were to have consequences in the Love Canal (Schwab, 33-34).
Athena and Hephaestus working on creation of Pandora (Ancient White Ground Vase Painting)
Better nature, the feminine aspect, noted and ignored, the deed done, as we return to Love Canal. The seed had been planted by the clients of the gatekeeper personalized by Frank Ventry, who when the Army came to unload, “I was requested to loosen up the dirt in the area where the drums were to be dropped,” acting as the abettor of these midnight visits, he further states, “At no time during my tenure of responsibility in the Love Canal area was I required to sign for material placed in the dump nor maintain an inventory…there was no specific criteria to reject material from being dumped” (Ventry qtd. in Jenks, 69). All that was lacking was the passage of a satchel of cash into Ventry’s hands to make the image of a pimp complete. That we would assume was being handled by his superiors, or worse, this was a case of a negligent spouse allowing his ward to be abused by strangers willy-nilly. “Most of the factories in the surrounding area dumped including the Army” (68), Ventry stated. Love Canal was open to all comers, in the stealth of the night they came and dumped their loads and then left (47), without a trace, only the fading memory of the warden Ventry. Forgetting being important in the period of gestation, just as the chemical brew was allowed to form into its vile creation.
Ten years after the incident, New York State Health Department Commissioner David Axelrod stated that Love Canal would long be remembered as a “national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations.”
People were allowed to move into the area. The Niagara Falls, school board, allowed a school to be built on the site where dirt had been placed over the swill, in 1952, seemingly oblivious to the warnings that Hooker gave the school district when selling the land for a symbolic dollar (44, 48). A suburban development was built in the area named after Love, and the State of New York built a road through the enclosed area, providing a breach in what little containment there was, an example of amnesia as Jenks notes (49). By the 1970’s “residents noticed a nasty black liquid percolating through, the cracks of the school playground” (49), and the disaster had begun. The monster was beginning to rear its head. The seed planted in ignorance, as Oedipus had slept with his mother in an ignorance that ignored prophecy. Schwab describes in his version of Oedipus, who had sinned against nature, “the Furies were to give Oedipus peace and absolution for his sins against nature” and these female spirits of vengeance for the wronged earth were the only ones to show man a way out (Schwab, 241). Trapped in a materialistic linear view, focused on profits and goals, there was no way for the male dominated forces who created the mess in Love Canal to bring their attention to the problem without some power representing the elemental aspects of nature, the furies of the offended environment.
Lois Gibbs, a former resident and community leader, looks at Love Canal during a commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the toxic waste landfill August 1, 2003 in Niagara Falls, New York. (Harry Scull Jr./Getty)
Women, the betrayed females, not direct participants in the unspoken bargain between the companies, the workers, and the governing officials, which sacrificed the area for the sake of jobs and temporary prosperity (Jenks, 48), were now the leaders of the revolt as they formed the Love Canal Home owners Association, and women such as Lois Gibbs took the forefront demanding assistance from the responsible parties to get them out of the area which reporters and health officials increasingly proved to be dangerous to the health of residents (50). This female led revolt, by the primary care givers of children, the ones who primarily nursed sick children, met at PTA meetings and while picking up the kids from school and playgrounds (this might be anachronistic, back then most kids went to school and playgrounds unsupervised), would have opportunities to compare notes and notice the direct health effects that their spouses, could not, or would not due to participating in the unwritten contract. Amnesia for the men was a coping mechanism, a way to do the job and ignore the consequences. Jenks writes of Lois Gibbs recollection who “was stunned when she witnessed grown men crying for the first time” (51). This a direct result of being forced to face the realities and wake up from the walking dream that all was well and being done for the sake of the family. It was being done for survival by the workers and for profits by the corporations. The blind eye, and forgetting was good for business, Hooker had grown “from $19 million in sales in 1945 to $1.7 billion in 1978, around the time of its sale” (47). Business, national security, a plethora of male determined profit and national interests had become the driver and the reason in which this particular forgetting had become convenient. Like the former beauty queen haven fallen upon hard times, no one wanted to look, or remember what had once been. Instead there was the cosmetic of dirt thrown over the problem and the demon seeds planted in toxic soil rose like so many warriors from the Greek tale of Jason and the Argonauts who had sewn the dragon’s teeth it was a woman, Medea with her knowledge of nature who saved Jason (Schwab, 115-121). It was the actions of women like Rachel Carson, and Lois Gibbs, bringing attention to the nation via an astute use of media that awoke the nation from its sleep to reveal the many headed Hydra of toxic waste. The Herculean task of clean up, again we resort to Myth, to cope with the sheer overwhelming nature of the task we can look to the fifth labor of Hercules, cleaning of the Augean Stables (171), to gain some comprehension of the task. It is in myth that we find our answers, because it is in the collective mythology of progress that we created the mess, like young Frankenstein, obsessed with his urge, following it despite his better, and female influenced nature. By following the lead of the nurturers, and not the seed givers alone, thus, we awaken from the dreams sterile creation. Without nurturing the ground from whence life derives, all efforts seem to come to bitter consequences as the sleeper is rudely awakened.
In 1978 the EPA came to Love Canal along with the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency and started the clean up.
Jenks, Andrew. “Love Canal and the Law of Unintended Consequences.” Perils of Progress. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2011.
Ricoeur, Paul. Memory, History, Forgetting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Schwab, Gustav. Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece. New York: Pantheon Books, 1946.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Signet Classic, 2000.