I had heard about Karen Sutherland some time before I actually met her here on Dominica. Then one Saturday morning at the Roseau Market, I practically
stumbled upon her. That fortuitous meeting took place several years ago, and since then, it would be rare for me to miss a weekly purchase of her organic produce! During this time, I have come to learn that she and I have similar environmental health challenges and live in Dominica for basically the same reasons. Because of her self-described obsession with gardening and a great passion for sustainable living ventures, many of us on-island have benefited from the ‘fruits’ of her labours. She and her partner Roy run Roots Farm, a 100 per cent organic farm (uncertified but in accord with all U.S. Organic certification standards — there is no local Dominican certification agency) high in the mountains near the village of Cochrane Dominica.
It has been an extra special blessing for me to get to know Karen, as we both suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). I have appreciated her advice and support, as she had previously counseled people with environmental health challenges while she was in recovery in the United States. I am so glad to know another person on Dominica who understands and manages the complexities of this type of diverse and often misunderstood chronic health condition. I am grateful for her help!
Over sporadic conversations at her busy market stall, we settled on a date for a rendez-vous at her home to discuss how Roots Farm was born, among other related topics. I finally made it there one relatively fine August day. I parked the car at Springfield, and walked for a half an hour or so up the very steep feeder road which joins Cochrane to the Imperial Road that connects Roseau with the island’s interior and the east coast.
As I climbed from 1,200 to about 1,500 hundred feet above sea level, a persistent breeze tempered my uphill exertions and at last I was there! Karen greeted me with her dog Magic, a short distance from her house. Right away, she gave me a tour of the surrounding property. Her abode near Cochrane is neatly tucked into an area where the prevailing easterly trade winds pass through Dominica’s remote interior and offer a cooling respite even on the hottest of days.
A field filled with thriving plants and an area where seedlings are germinating first captured my attention. Before she took me into the work area where produce is sorted, cleaned and packed for market, she showed me an unusual plant from the tamarind family. ‘This particular fruit is dying out,” she said, ‘There used to be lots of them but people aren’t planting them any more. They cut them down for cash crops or housing lots. I thought I would give it a try.” I couldn’t help but be impressed with her curiosity, as well as her desire to preserve ‘endangered’ plant variety.
When I stepped inside her home, I gasped in amazement. Beautiful wood (imported pitch pine) predominated on the walls and in the kitchen area. Lovely natural linoleum, made from pressed linseed oil covered the kitchen floor. Because she could not tolerate any chemicals in the construction, careful thought was given to the selection of all products in the building of the house. For example, the wood had first been treated with a boric acid based product and then a soy based sealer was applied (There were several coats on exposed woods outdoors). She had done a lot of research and had previous experience with renovating a house in the northeastern U.S., so she had a good idea about what she needed to do. In fact, she and an engineer friend had a consulting service called Building Health Associates where they provided assistance to others to strategize cost-effective alterations to their homes for better health.
As well as no toxic chemicals in the construction, she stressed that it was important to think about the future of the house so that pests, rot and dampness would not affect the house. She showed me efficient exhaust fans that had been installed to minimize moisture accumulations, thereby preventing mold growth in the kitchen and bathroom. “You have to be a planner in order to cope with this condition,” she emphasized. I easily agreed! It was very important for her to set priorities and think through what needed to be done in order to minimize toxic exposures.
Of course, there were a few challenges, but in time they were all overcome. It took a couple of years to build this non-toxic house, which was formed from a previously existing structure.They had to break down the old walls to create her special home! Sometimes, she had to persuade the trades-people that she needed to do things a certain way or it would not work out well for her. I greatly admire her tenacity!
My tour around her home included an introduction to her dogs. The cats were hiding, as I was a stranger, but Karen did tell me an incredible story about one of them who assists her with natural pest control! The feline named “Solo’ catches mole crickets when he hunts and then brings them in the house for Karen to inspect. These insects devastate crops from underneath the ground, This kitty is certainly a valuable asset on the farm . “I’ve never had a cat like that in my life!” she muses.
Then she told me about how she first became ill and later discovered Dominica, which is now her home base, and created Roots Farm, her life’s passion and obsession.
In the early 1990’s, Karen was working “hard and long hours” in the office of an oil company that supplied heating fuel and diesel products to consumers. Diesel storage tanks were located right outside the building’s windows. They had recently installed a new carpet (which was off-gassing chemicals) when she noticed that she would feel sick by the late morning, and had to go outside to take a walk to feel better. Soon, she developed severe headaches all day and her feelings of unwellness progressed so that she would only feel good on weekends. More symptoms started to emerge in response to ever-increasing types of common chemicals and then she didn’t feel well at home either. Her health challenges became all-encompassing and she could hardly function at work. She had difficulty concentrating and became emotionally volatile. She took a leave of absence from her job and went to see a physician who specialized in environmental medicine. He diagnosed her as having MCS and advised her to leave her job right away. “At first I was shocked, as I had always been a healthy person. I could not initially believe that exposures to everyday things could be so crippling and devastating. If it had happened to someone else, I probably would have doubted that person,” she admitted. Karen initially resisted the medical specialist’s advice until she was not able to function in her position at all.
She immediately began to research this illness and learned that different chemicals could provoke different reactions in different people. Over time, she discovered that people with MCS “have short-term noticeable responses to chemicals. Most people are more constitutionally able to withstand poisons on a short-term basis, although long-term results like cancer, MS and other non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) are not so easily avoided. We all have different proportions of enzymes which help some of us to detoxify more efficiently than others.” Karen reminded me that those of us afflicted with MCS are like canaries that were once used in coal mines to determine the levels of oxygen and poisonous gasses in the shafts. When these little birds died, it was a strong signal to the miners that the air was bad… and to get out fast. Now that’s food for thought!
Karen’s initial treatment protocol was very specific, and included nutritional supplements, intravenous drips to detoxify, and sublingual neutralizing antigen drops. She also had to make major changes to her house, which she did over a period of time, so that, for example, the heating system would not affect her. She also had to part with anything in the house that contained formaldehyde and other chemicals that she could no longer tolerate. As well, she had to isolate herself from all products that made her sick. ‘I did not go out into the world at all,” she recalled. The main thing she had to do was avoid all offending chemicals, and this was not always easy – fragrances on people and clothing, petrochemicals, and synthetic materials such as carpeting were everywhere. However, with determination and planning, she started to recover and went back to work at a different job. However, there were too many chemicals in that environment too. Even though her co-workers were very understanding and accommodating, she realized that she could not continue there either.
“I had been so sick with chemical sensitivities and I needed a place where I could live a free and productive life.” Although she was better after years of treatment from the environmental health physician, she could only work from her home. Nevertheless, it was still difficult to go out for any reason because of substances such as exhaust fumes,fragrances and air pollution from factories and industrial regions in the eastern U.S.
She made the decision to visit Dominica in 1998 when she read a notice in an MCS newsletter that was posted by another sufferer who had been living in Dominica for a while. She wrote that the Nature Island had “Great air. Land available. Let’s build an MCS community.” While Karen did meet the woman who placed the advertisement, the special living locale unfortunately did not materialize – but it certainly was an intriguing concept!. (Coincidentally I met this person too, when I first arrived in Dominica in 1997, but she is no longer on-island).
During her first week on the Nature Island, Karen noticed a remarkable difference in her health: “I went out sea-kayaking. I reached a plateau of wellness that had evaded me for so long. I was very impressed with how well I felt,” she enthused. She recollected that the physical movement, pure air and minimal stress of any kind contributed to her feeling of well-being.
Amazingly too, she met her partner Roy during those early days in Dominica. She overheard him talking to someone else about growing asparagus, when she was standing outside a grocery store. As she was an enthusiastic
gardener and had previous tropical experience in St. Kitts, she keenly contributed to their conversation. Then she worked on his farm for her entire three-week visit, although it was not completely organic at that time. But she did benefit from the fresh air, excessive sweating, resulting in detoxification and the prevalent sunshine, which provided her with natural Vitamin D for a stronger immune system. Her friendship with Roy subsequently blossomed
and she was thrilled to have found a companion “who is understanding of unusual health challenges.” And out of their partnership, Roots Farm was born!
Now Karen is delighted to be living in a home that is safe for her health problems and pursuing her life-long passion – gardening. She spends most days in the business of her organic enterprise: researching the latest American organic farming methods and certification requirements; ordering seeds; sowing seeds; nurturing seedlings; harvesting mature plants; taking orders from enthusiastic clients; packaging the produce; and selling their bounty at competitive, not higher prices at the Roseau Market every Saturday.
While she feels so much better in Dominica, she is still very careful about exposures and is thankful to live and work in such a pristine place. She continues to have trouble with “fragrances on people and exhaust from vehicles.” It is impossible for her to travel by bus because of these types of chemicals, as well as the deodorizers inside these vehicles that emit a strong synthetic scent. She explained that “smell” does not operate as an “image” like sight. Rather, odors from molecules of these types of chemicals enter into the body via inhalation where they lock into cell receptor sites – not mediated by the blood-brain barrier – and so can cause damage throughout the body.
And there can be occasionally other types of hazards on the Nature Island too. “Some people still burn tires and plastic”…but thankfully she is able to “side-step” these hazards here. When she returns to the U.S. to visit, she is able to cope with the onslaught of chemicals for a longer time before becoming ill again. Then she is reassured that she has done the right thing to relocate to the Nature Island. Here, symptoms such as severe headaches, swollen sinuses, nausea and difficulty concentrating only occur when she has an infrequent major exposure to an irritant.
In the mean time, Karen urges consumers to consider their food sources carefully and ask questions of the farmers about how they grow their plants and what products they use on the soil and the produce. “When you poison with chemicals, you change the constituency of your organism with unpredictable results,” she cautioned.
Her advice as a person who lives with and has learned from her challenges with chemical sensitivities is practical, forward-thinking and for the greater good of humanity: “People should clean up their diets, make minimal purchases of processed products and boycott all genetically modified foods. Eat natural, whole, local foods as much as possible and support organizations that are trying to improve the environment in Dominica. Be aware that “tipping points” exist – you can use chemicals and synthetic products with no immediate or obvious ill effects until suddenly it’s too late. Life is cumulative…”
Karen also feels that concerned citizens should urge the government to think of ways to stop the import of toxic products into the Nature Island. ” Vote with your buying power. And get school children to do science fair projects to see what happens to land and/or plants that are sprayed with chemicals. Calypso songs on this important issue would definitely get the attention of more people too!”
Karen’s message is clear: “‘This has to be non-political. There has to be some sort of coming together for the good of the country, the environment, the world, let alone the individual. Too often we focus on the short-term, but we cannot be short-sighted when it comes to our [long-term] health.”
For more information about Roots Farm and its organic products, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Karen’s house has a non-toxic apartment on the ground floor, which is available for short-term rentals to fragrance free, chemically cautious individuals and others who are looking for a healthy and/or healing vacation on the Nature Island. Further details can be found here.
*Special thanks to Karen for her candor and for taking the time to share her exceptional story. Here’s to your good health, Karen!
**To obtain further background about multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and common treatment protocols, refer to the Environmental Health Center in Dallas Texas U.S.A. They are the North American pioneers in this medical specialty. Additional information can be found at http:// http://www.mcsrr.org and http://www.thetenthparadigm.org/
*** Gwendominica’s experiences with environmental health challenges are found on her Canary Gal blog (in progress).