On an autumn flight with Ed Steinman, a volunteer pilot for the environmental aviation organization LightHawk, and ECCSCM photographer John Klein, I saw the big lagoons from the air: rectangles of slate blue under a clear sky, rows of them, some covered with foam. They looked like giant mirrors reflecting nothing. When the clouds rolled over the sun, the pools turned black. As we flew overhead, John rapidly snapping photos, I could see a waste-hauling semi moving out of one facility and onto the road, a wide swath of dead trees in the back of one barn, a large wet area around another, a heap of uncovered silage. Clues that meant nothing to me but would reveal a great deal to Lynn. John usually takes 1,400 to 1,500 photos per flight. He covers the area so thoroughly that he is actually transporting the view from up there down to Lynn. Back on the ground, John downloads the photos onto a disc he gives to Lynn. She examines every photo, zooming in on many of them, and finds the kind of things only a trained eye could see. A thin white line is a pipe leading from underneath a barn to a woodland area. Dark splotches and browned-out trees may be caused by overflowing or leaking lagoons. Zooming in on an uncovered compost heap, she sees three dead cows—"just whole cows lying there!"—and there they are, their white legs sticking stiffly up into the air.
She takes the photos that show possible violations, writes down her concerns, and then forwards them to the DEQ and EPA. Most often she does this work at night after Dean has gone to bed. She seems to survive on little sleep. One morning when I meet her at 7 A.M., she has already sent several e-mails, prepared supper for that night, and carried loads of firewood into the house from the barn.
Later, as we drive away from an oily brown creek where no fish could live for more than a minute (they suffocate in manure-laden water), we pass a manure hauler coming in the opposite direction. He's charging straight at us. "Wanna play chicken with me?" Lynn asks, not slowing down. He moves over to his side of the road but gives her the finger as he passes. "He's hauling. We'll track him," she says.
The hauler is empty, which means he's already dumped his load of waste, she explains, and now he's heading back to the CAFO to pick up another. Lynn wants to see where he's dumping. In the sandy dirt and broken gravel of the road, she can make out the tracks of thick tires. Following those tracks, we end up turning abruptly off the main road and onto a piece of state land. A tin sign posted to a wood pole reads: RECREATION PASSPORT REQUIRED FOR ENTRY.
"Well, we'll just have to get a recreation passport," Lynn says. Ahead, a long metal swing gate like the type used to close off bridge traffic is open and the hauler's tracks can be seen going through the gateway and down a dirt road that disappears behind scrub and trees. "See, he's going clear to the back field and he's doing it where you can't see it," Lynn says.
Since she doesn't have a permit, Lynn won't go back and look. She does everything by the book, won't trespass, won't give the operators any chance to go after her legally. She'll inform the state about what's going on. "We know they're there. It's the state's job to follow through."
Back at the house at the end of a day of tracking and testing, Lynn tells Dean what she's seen. Dean's a solidly built man with a lively, friendly face. He has spent his day getting his equipment ready for the fall harvest, and then helping his dad get ready, too. As Lynn tells him about the CAFO trucker dumping his waste onto state-owned land, he raises his eyebrows in surprise, shakes his head dolefully, and laughs. During the whole recitation, his grayish blue eyes are dancing. The Hennings know all the characters involved and every acre of land, so they are sharing more than just their words imply. They seem perfectly suited to do this work. Neither of them veers toward despair or anger. They're pragmatic, caring, infinitely curious, and determined to outfox the foxes. "We need to continue doing what we do around here. We need to keep stepping forward," Dean says.
Their friends worry about them. "I can always tell when Lynn's been around manure now—she loses her voice! It's phenomenal. She shouldn't be doing this work anymore," says Kathy Melmoth, a registered nurse and farmer who is also a member of ECCSCM. Lynn has lost 30 percent of her lung capacity. Dean had a heart attack in 2008 while he was out cutting wood, on a day when the fumes from fresh animal waste applications on the surrounding fields was especially strong. Cause and effect? No one knows. But with three factory farms flanking them, their health is definitely at risk.
Lynn doesn't like talking about the issue in personal terms. She will mention the neighbor's daughter with asthma, the little creek choked with manure, the drain swimming with E. coli, the families abandoning their houses. There's simply no question for Lynn about the right thing to do under these circumstances. "You have to stand up for what's right because what we're seeing is a takeover where industrial ag is trying to come to the rural setting and set up factories that don't belong here," she says. "This isn't farming. It's a production line for food, and they're doing whatever it takes to control the community. We're seeing farmland that's being depleted, where crops aren't growing because there's been too much waste put on. We're seeing brownouts; people's wells are drying up. And we're seeing waste in the water that people are drinking downstream—people who don't know what's coming at them."
An ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances? Certainly a woman who rose to the occasion.
As I leave the Hennings that night, the quiet countryside seems to be breathing; trees, mud, insects, plants, field mice, bats, all minutely but intensely alive. Nine o'clock in Lenawee County. Darkness cloaks the fields. Farmers are watching TV, backyard dogs are slouched in their chains, children are dreaming. As I pull out of the driveway, I can see Lynn through the kitchen window already at her computer, sitting very upright, her gaze intent and flickering. She's examining aerial photos or drain maps or health studies or corporate documents. She will be at it for hours, looking for what is hidden and bringing it to light.
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