Saving the environment, one chemical-free lawn at a time
Pair debuts documentary film on anti-pesticide movement
PORTLAND — Paul Tukey says he wants to "change the world as it relates to lawn care."
coming from anyone other than Tukey it sounds like an ambitious pipe dream. But his accomplishments are impressive: a bestselling lawn-care book ( "The Organic Lawn Care Manual"), a growing environmental non-profit Web site (Safelawns.org), a gardening magazine (People, Places & Plants), a successful HGTV gardening show, and a newly established organic lawn-care franchise (SafeLawns & Landscapes).
And if those achievements aren't enough to help him accomplish his goal, Tukey has a new documentary film project with Portland filmmaker Brett Plymale called "Hudson: A Chemical Reaction."
"This is a story that every town in America ought to know about," Tukey, who lives in Cumberland, said.
In 1991, Hudson, Quebec, a bedroom community of 5,000 on the outskirts of Montreal, became the first town in North America to ban the use of lawn chemicals on both private and public lands.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest suppliers of lawn pesticides in North America, ChemLawn, took the town to court. But to everyone's surprise, the town won every court challenge, including the final appeal in 2001 before the Canadian Supreme Court.
The national attention given to Hudson's plight served as a catalyst for the anti-pesticide movement in Canada. As a result, lawn chemicals are now banned in more than half of Canadian towns, including large cities like Toronto.
"Hudson: A Chemical Reaction" has all the characteristics of a modern-day David vs. Goliath story: an eccentric, yet brilliant doctor teams with a mild-mannered town councilor and successfully challenges a billion-dollar chemical corporation armed with a mighty team of lawyers, lobbyists, spokesmen and company scientists.
Last summer, Tukey went to Hudson and interviewed Dr. June Irwin, the dermatologist who was the motivating factor in getting the anti-pesticide law passed. He brought along Plymale to film the interview.
During the interview, Irwin recalled how a patient came to see her in 1985 with a terrible rash, and hair and fingernails falling out. After doing some tests, she found the patient had high levels of the pesticide 2,4-D in her bloodstream. "But no one wanted to talk about it," she said.
Undeterred, she continued her research and presented her medical findings at every town meeting for six years until Town Councilor Michael Elliott took action.
As a commercial landscaper, Tukey had a similar experience with 2,4-D. In 1993, after recurring rashes, blurred vision and nose bleeds sent him to the hospital, his doctor suggested that the chemicals in the pesticides he used might be causing his health problems.
"So, I went cold-turkey organic," Tukey said. His symptoms improved immediately. Since that day, Tukey has travelled to 40 states preaching against lawn-care chemicals.
"This is my mission," he said, only half joking. "I'm a lawn-care evangelist."
Plymale, who works with Tukey at People, Places & Plants, has joined Paul's mission. "There is a message here," he said. "We want to make clear that these chemicals have risks."
Plymale hopes to enter the film in the Toronto Film Festival in September. "Making this documentary has been a labor of love," he said. "But it's not finished yet."
In order to purchase archival footage from Canadian television, Plymale estimates he needs approximately $20,000.
The current version of the documentary will be screened at the Portland Company Complex, the waterfront site of this week's Portland Flower Show, at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 15. Tukey and Plymale will hold a discussion afterwards with the audience.
"I'm open to hearing people's reactions. Constructive criticism is helpful," Plymale said.
While discussing the film, Tukey repeated anthropologist Margaret Mead's famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
"If we were wrong, if science one day definitively proves we were wrong, what's the worst that would have happened – a few more dandelions in someones lawn?" he said. "But, if we are proven right?"
Heather Gunther can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.