Society of the Living Dead

 

In Ottawa, IL there’s a statue on the northwest corner of Clinton and W Jefferson of a girl holding a wilting tulip. The tulip is wilting, of course, because the girl has radiation poisoning. She represents the women who worked at the Radium Dial factory in the 1930’s, putting delicate strokes of glowing paint on wrist-watch dials. The girls were told to lick their paint brushes to gain an extra sharp tip, unaware that the paint contained radium.

The toxic effects on the women were anemia, fractures and necrosis of the jaw, cancerous tumors, and amputations. The ill-health– and deaths– of workers was attributed to anything except radium exposure: x-ray machines used in medical examinations, or even syphilis, in an attempt to smear the reputations of the women. The women didn’t know what was happening to them, and their employers even convinced them that the radium was good for their health, that “it made their cheeks pink.”

Eventually, seven women dubbed the “Society of the Living Dead” stepped forward to sue the company that had knowingly poisoned them. In the end, the case traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, and the women won.

The badass name for those women suited the badassery of their actions. After all, this was 1934, and labor laws like worker’s compensation and safety standards were still developing. In fact, the case was a catalyst for improving those labor laws in America.

Despite what seems like victory, the people of Ottawa associated the women with the loss of jobs during the Great Depression, and tried to forget the entire affair.

Now, more than 80 years later, a school project by a local girl inspired appreciation for the terrible circumstances the Radium Girls endured and their fight for the right to work in safe conditions. A statue was built on the same corner where the factory once was.

A couple weeks ago, I went to see the statue in person. The history behind it wasn’t the only fascination thing I found there, though: fresh flowers were laid at the feet of the statue, and an older bouquet was nestled behind an informational sign nearby. Not only that, but a small waterfall was built into the space, around which a garden flourished.

The Radium Girls, despite their suffering, helped to create a safer, cleaner world. The girl’s tulip may be wilting, but she stands at the center of blossoming life.

Thinking Like Thoreau

When we were reading Walden back in 11th grade, we stopped and discussed this little passage:

“Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”

Boy, did we give Thoreau shit for that one. Already we’d learned that this guy upped and left his life to build a cabin and live in it for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days. We learned about the one time he went into town and spent some time in jail for refusing to pay taxes. And we definitely learned about how much he loved his solitude. So when he started to talk about befriending pine needles, we were already pretty certain Thoreau was nuts.

But we came to appreciate the genius behind his insanity, the meaning of “living deliberately.” And sometimes, when we venture into the vastness of nature, Thoreau doesn’t seem like such a madman after all.

Just yesterday, my friend and I went hiking around one of my favorite places, a spot where rocks jut out of both sides of the Eau Claire River where glaciers left them behind, smooth and golden in the sunlight. Hiking trails hug either side of the river as it shifts from white, rushing falls to steady currents and connect at a bridge over top like hands clasped together.

Bridge

We stopped near the bridge, where some of the rocks formed a flat island, and listened.

The sound of rushing water surrounded us, billions of droplets splashing against each other, rushing against the shore, flowing around boulders undeterred. Water bugs danced across the surface, and other bugs buzzed over top. There was the sound of tree branches swaying, crackling, rubbing against each other and their leaves floating lazily down to rest next to us, scratch along the stone, into the water, and be carried away.

Leaf

And as the birds fluttered and the squirrels chattered, I understood what Thoreau was talking about. I could hear the conversation of life around me, and with each breath I took, I knew I had a part in it.