Monday, September 7, 2009

A Lunar Saint

You might say this poem is about Monsanto: (it's been on the left margin of this Blog for awhile)

When too clever by half
Kicks the door in our house
And tens thousand shades
Cast over this land.
The simple seeds left,
What with water and dirt,
Will be as sand.
Blown into a small hill
For the winds to carry,
And water to deposit,
And earth to nurture;
Be disabled,
By too clever by half
And our friends.

Yes, there comes that day when
Uprightness is wrong.
And there comes that day of
Entropy's throng.
For the winding rendition
Of a green twister slowly
Twisting to a theme.
Maybe to hungry swallows
Following the winds hungering...
It's appetite for grass
And leaves
Like locusts
But twisting beyond a scientists

If you believe in magic
Why not imagine this loss?
What might my house be without
The roots and stem and leaves
That a seed used to
Be able to grow?
And what would become of my world?
When all the fields are fallow
Once sown.

Though, I actually think this poem is about me. You see I have been warned my whole life, by many numerous sources, literally since I was born, about the impact that my culture has on the world. I learned as a small child about the ozone hole and global warming, which just goes to show how odd it is that only recently it seems certain factions have come around. Crazy me, I thought the matter was settled in 1986. Apparently I was unaware of the manner in which we come to "know" things, or "understand" them. "That makes sense," is a privilege not extended to everyone (which you would think I would have remembered growing up in the non-sensical Christian world.)

Well... I remember very well when I first heard that among his duties in perestroika, Gorbacheav, took a tour with Reagan, of a large American farm. I've heard this story so many times, it in fact may be apocryphal, and yet I feel that I can see The Gipper and Gorbie standing there, straddling a few short rows of corn, a slight moire effect crossing your eyes as you look to the horizon behind them. For the sake of simplicity, lets say the farm was 1000 acres. Perhaps 3.5 percent of Americans were farmers, at the time. More than three times the number today. Around seven million seedcaps, adjusted for the population then.

So, Gorbie turns to Ronnie and says, "I suppose many American families are at work in these beautiful fields each day. Many, many families to tend this vast farm." But Ronnie smiles at yet another example of KGB failure, and says, "Only one family owns this farm. Only one farmer. And his John Deer tractors and combine."

Gorbie gasps. Suddenly besotted by the very symbol of his countryman, the hammer and sickle. No sickle could ever touch this field, not in the hands of one man. So Gorbie, an honest man, tells his fellow statesman, "A country with a farm such as this, run by a single man, is unstoppable." Or something like that. It's been a few years. I think I might have seen Gorbie on C-SPAN a few years ago. Then again, maybe not. It's been a long time.

When I first heard this story, it didn't particularly surprise me. My entire childhood was filled with nationalist propaganda: the space shuttle, olympics, and various different film strips at school vaguely showing Americans in smart western clothing, while folks in other countries never seem to rise above their perpetual agricultural posture. This, as crazy, as if Americans had routinely been depicted sitting on a toilet as their most typical national pastime (and take their toilet away, and you might be forced to wonder.) But seeing the inevitably dark, and always smaller than the land, peoples of the world, stooping to conquer, only seemed appropriate next to my countryman's seemingly endlessly exciting lives. We fly! We go to the moon (first!) And we grow tens of thousands of bushels of food, whilst in air conditioning in the cab of our combines, listening to G. Gordon Liddy. There was no Rush Limbaugh at the time, save Cape Girardeau, MO. At the time, as a kid, a skinny kid at that, I savored our manifest superiority. Sort of.

You can't completely blame us. We're a young country, full of land, and our adolescence coincided with the international draft of the first world wars and industrialization. When my Mom was a bit younger than me there was little more seemingly telling of where we were going in the world than a 747 (even intellectuals, Marxists too, would jump on those planes not knowing when they'd be back again. Still do.)

And when my parents were my age, 35, The Love Boat seemed to speak of power, freedom and a new life and romance, and as some songs have put it, "that's [where] we needed to go." Things (whatever they were, or still are) blow over on the seashores of old Mexico.

So even if Gorbie had been testing us with reverse psychology, which he very well might not have been, it would have been hard for us to notice, given the fabulous crew on the Enterprise (space shuttle, but also television shows) and Captain Steubing and his Pacific Princess: not the flotilla of the Hammer and Sickle, but The Love Boat. Sort of a mixture of a Trojan Horse and a Don Juan.

With a John Deer Green machine, we Americans could yawn through a 1000 acres.

This ignored, of course, the rather constant news of farmers going completely broke, due to the new agriculture. But just like the vast green meadows of Britain, where men have been free to settle down for three millennia, something had to clear the land, and I'm not talking about trees. The emerald beauty of a bucolic setting can say as much about a heartbreaking absence of human endeavor, as it suggests in its seemingly timeless aesthetics.

So my poem above asks various questions. I wrote it in about an hour, and have tinkered with it for a few years (since June 18, 2006, just as I was beginning to read Biology for most of a summer. To the exclusion of much else, save music.)

The first stanza hides its meaning behind the phrase "too clever by half." "Too clever by half" seems to be an attacker, kicking the door in, and bringing with his terrorism a banshee like collection of shades, and other fertility killers. "The simple seeds left/ What with water and dirt/ Will be as sand."

But the earth and water still flow to nurture sand like seeds. They are disabled, however, by "too clever by half," us, our scientists, and hubris, and our friends.

This poem might seem at first to be angry and apopcalyptic. But really, it's embarrassed and confessional. These are problems and processes I have known all my life about the seeds and soil. And I still contribute my two cents worth of encouragement to the problems, every day. For example, Canola Oil, is my main cooking oil. I buy as much of it, by weight, as I do coffee. And where does it come from? From the Western US, and Canada mostly (Canola means Canadian Oil: the plants original name is Rapeseed, wonderful plant, terrible name.)

For perhaps two decades, in the '70's thru the '80's, Rapeseed was merely a particularly fruitful plant. It's seed heads were gargantuan, and I think, though I am not sure, they are related to Turnips and Rutabaga and Mustard (brown, from whence all Brassica descend, through a single seashore species, to this day, on the chalk coasts of Britain.) Seed heads regarded by argriculturalist's in the '70's as one of the alternative crops to save the world from hunger. A good used bookstore will have shelves of volumes from this era with titles like, "Protein Concentrates" (taking the protein out of grass and processing it into a digestible form to feed people. It's been done, but for some reason Emeril never noticed.) and "New Food Crops To Feed The World." Such volumes can say, what else, volumes about the anxieties of an era.

So how was it, exactly, that I found myself, twenty years later in 1997, eating at a chain of steakhouses, Ruth's Chris, where a top tier eater like a steer, fed on grass and fattened on corn (the farmer I worked for had a group of machines called, no joke, Steer Stuffers?) Clearly something changed between the late '70's and the late '90's. Something had changed. My steaks weren't made with Soyelent Green, or protein concentrates off the prairie. They were made the old/new fashioned manner: with one grass to grow them, and the mutant varietal of grass, a tropical plant called corn, to fatten them. Had everyone stopped starving?

Most of us know that it wasn't so much that everyone stopped starving, as much as the Green Revolution found a way to feed most of the people, most of the time. Drought, coinciding with political meltdown, still provided for plenty of famine (such as the famous Ethiopian archetype that so many mothers mentioned to their children, or joked about, in the middle '80's.) But extremely large strides in fertilization, globally, and computerized logistics and shipping had effects not dreamed of by the phlegmatic old doomsayers of the '70's (the demise of old school Longshoreman, and two century old techniques of packing cargo onto ships, had a more than salutary effect on the efficiency of the movement of goods across the Earth.)

Another thing that happened hews more closely to the row my poem attempts to hoe. Genetic engineering. It's been said that the Green Revolution was mostly a matter of breeding better seeds more suited to environments where they previously might not have prospered. And I think that is half the truth. For one thing, in the late '70's damn little true genetic engineering as we imagine it today, where recombinant DNA is utilized to genetically modify cells, and eventually organisms, was possible. But breeding was reaching a zenith, as many biological technologies seem to, just slightly lagging the geophysical sciences. Where the '40's, '50's, and '60's seemed to speak of nuclear energy (or war,) space travel, and an establishment of a jet set on the 747, the '70's, '80's, and '90's brooked no seeming barriers to an establishment of an artificial form of agriculture, and some hoped, life itself. Biology seemed to be the new black science destined to reveal new paradigms.

So one day Rapeseed was genetically modified by Monsanto (in the late '70's to early '80's) and a marker put in its genes making it identifiable through exposure to certain chemicals (a characteristic, normal Rapeseed, doesn't have.) This Rapeseed is robust, and resistant to pests, and gives great yields to farmers, so it is planted by many, many farmers and then pressed into most of the Canola oil that we have become so accustomed to. Most of the oil I buy almost certainly comes from these plants. Farmers, at first, were probably only slightly frustrated at the cost of the seed. One of the stipulations of Monsanto's contract, however, is that you cannot keep seed at harvest to replant the following season. How strictly does Monsanto regulate and enforce against such a time honored practice?

Get this: some farmers were suspicious of such agriculture from the beginning, and so, even when most of their neighbors were planting Monsanto's rapeseed, these farmers were going organic, with open pollinated, rapeseed of old. A few years passed and these organic farmers heard at the local donut shop from their conventional farming friends and neighbors that the cost of using the Monsanto seed was even higher than advertised due to the restriction on keeping back some portion of the crop for next years' planting. This caused the organic farmers even greater confidence in their decision to stay away from Monsanto. Then one day Monsanto knocks on the organic farmers door, and presents the organic farmer with evidence that he had planted Monsanto seed, without contracting to do so with the company. The organic farmer in a fit of certitude denies and deplores the accusation. Fair to say he "knows" it is a lie. So Monsanto takes the poor seedcap to court and wins against him in trial, since Monsanto had snuck into his fields, and documented without a doubt the genetic fidelity of their product to what the farmer had growing in a fair percentage of his acreage. Monsanto wins, and the farmer is forced, by law, to destroy his crop and pay serious money to Monsanto. The farmer never planted one Monsanto seed, so what the hell is going on here?

It's a good question, and yet, all over North America this has happened. In many cases putting tiny organic acreage outside any possible certification save conventional monocropping of rapeseed: by Monsanto. There are many documents of this carnage. And the pattern is clear: the planting of Monsanto's products (it's seeds) pollutes the genetics of open pollinated crops in the surrounding fields. Since Monsanto owns the genetics, their right to the organic fields is rather similar to the rights transferred where a man establishes paternity, through a genetic test. It's not the way things are supposed to work... but it's the way things are for now. And the way we eat (more and more.) Regardless of the books we read. Regardless of where we "Shoppertain" ourselves with narratives distant to the plight of a farmer who doesn't reap, even remotely, what he did in fact sow. Parables be damned. "When all the fields are fallow/ once sown."

The half not pictured in this scenario for agriculture and biology, had to do with the changes in the worlds financial banking, and the programs put into place to establish a greater footprint on the globe of modern agricultural methods. The Green Revolution had as much to do with Greenbacks and fertilizer, irrigation and politics, as it did breeding (to say nothing of genetic engineering.)

This is important for so many reasons that I hesitate to even wade in. But since my poem is supposedly the reason I got writing about this, I will attempt a small gesture on the subject.

The bottom line was that that the breadbasket of America was gradually producing more and more, throughout the '50's, '60's and '70's. But the market for that "bread" was fixed, as long as it was constrained to the borders of the breadbasket's namesake. I mentioned in a previous post the tension in the definition of ecology throughout the '70's between pure scientists and somewhat more adventurous souls who wished the concept of ecology to move beyond that phrase in my old ecology textbook, "The Experimental Analysis of Distribution and Abundance." By whatever economic, or ecological terminology you wish to use the problems of food supply, in our world, have more than a little to do with that constraining phrase, that some found far too narrow to describe even aspects of the Biome.

It turns out that many populations in the world (perhaps, even, all) self regulated in terms of their fertility and infant mortality due to the quantity of food available to them. The classic case of such supply and demand was the Irish potato famine, which might have played some role in my being an American (or rather, existing at all.) One quarter of my heritage on my fathers paternal side, is Irish. The reasons that Irish family ended up in Kentucky is lost to me. But it might have had something to do with the Potato blight. I've certainly always assumed it did. How strange, really, my existence might have been impossible if not for a disease. Then again, in this modern world, it is a comfort to see the postmodern habit of thought, rendered solid, in the nineteenth century. Save me, please, from assumptions of novelty.

The bottom line in Ireland was that an American crop, a Peruvian potato, somewhat modified, called "The Lumper," had arrived on the Irish scene somewhat near the beginning of the 1800's. Within decades, the population of Ireland had increased substantially, not only in numbers, but in health. The average height of it's population went up a great deal as well as other metrics of vim and vigor. By the 1840's, Ireland was doing great, especially if compared to its state fifty years prior.

Then, in 1845, Phytophthora infestans met the Irish miracle. 1846 and 1848 as well (thanks to Michael Pollan for recapitulating this information for me in his wonderful book, The Botany of Desire pgs. 229-231.) This fungus darkened and killed the potato clones (for that is how potatoes are reproduced in modern agriculture today, and then.) A dark remembrance of the shadow of fertility took hold of the country, and where strides had been made, graves now were dug. An "analysis of distribution and abundance," indeed.

It wasn't, according to Pollan, until researchers returned to Peru and found the "Garnet Chile" potato, that Ireland could again return to eating it's mainstay. We had to return to where a plethora of potato varieties were grown (not in monoculture, as we continue to farm, to Gorbie's admiration and alarm) before we could vouchsafe some remnant of the Irish population under siege.

So, the complexity and diversity of Peru's more "primitive" agriculture (of the America's) saved a "modern" monocrop, and it's dependent population.

American grapes saved European vineyards, in a differently played out, but similarly ironic, fashion. The failure of the monocropping rarely is regarded as a function of the practice, and habit of the farmers. Disease becomes the boogieman of chance, risk and "acts of God." Even when such things have happened, more or less, like clockwork. All European grapes had to be grafted to disease resistant American grape rootstock in the last seventy years. Outside of that option, European vineyards would never work (as you see them today.) Pretty strange that Europeans literally grew their grapes on top of American ones while looking down their noses at the notion of our vineyards ever growing into something delicious and noble. Talk about good versamilitude: grapes grafted to grape stock look like nothing more than grapes. Then again, should the Europeans have their hands forced (in any non traditional direction) I can imagine nothing worse then the Monsantification of their Vinoculture. So, to the extent that their laws, and prejudice, protect them from treating their grape growers the way North American Courts treat organic farmers (and would be meat processors, and ect. and ect. and ect.): good for them.

In the past the North American agriculture scene has been faced with extreme losses, but they were losses bridgeable, time and again, by dipping into wells of genetic culture at a distance from the closest "fence" of the First World. Our modern Agriculture enjoys the Hybrid Vigor that it does, in part, due to it's distance up until today from the "genetic banks" of traditional agriculture found in third world and second world countries. This is one reason why I sometimes wonder why we don't ask ourselves, "Is there really such a thing as 'modern' agriculture?" It isn't a semantic exercise to point out that there is so little separation between our problems (and our erstwhile solutions) that most of the modernity to be found in the farm is simply a matter of cultivation, not "---culture."

And so with this strange house of cards we live today. Knowing, without really admitting it, that we have no clue as to the risks we face with this living thing, this strange world, this frontier to which we have kneeled since we quit hunting and gathering all those thousands of years ago: farming/ agriculture.

I learned from Fernand Braudel's sensational "The Structures of Everyday Life" that the transition to agriculture for Europeans resulted in a net decrease in their health (individually). Did you read that correctly, for I certainly had to ask myself if Braudel had again written something amazing (but only in the apocryphal sense?) The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture resulted in a net decrease in the health of Europeans (individually.) And when you consider what agriculture was back then (wheat, barley and other grains made into porridge and bread) it isn't hard to wonder that people didn't simply die of scurvy in the winter time. Were it not for Summer, they certainly would have. For the constricting of diet that Agriculture always creates due to its basic economic effect on the character of the ownership and usage of land, leads always to more habitat for "what's Caesar's" and less for you and me. And what's habitat for you and me? Weeds and green plants to pick, animals and fish to catch and eat, mixed hardwoods and softwoods to build our lives out of, and a diversity in behavior and diet that hones the cunning of a culture, and keeps the nose far "from the grindstone" (perhaps the most gilded of prescriptions for virtue in America.) Agriculture took that description, and recognized the waste that it implies from an "economic" point of view. People became stakeholders in a few things, instead of dozens, and were paid by the "fruit" of their labor: almost never their cunning.

That is how Monsanto convinces the farmer today: no farmer, in modern agriculture is rewarded by industry or government for cunning: his only reward is to quit the whole business of agriculture altogether and start growing things again (sometimes literally expanding the garden behind his house into a business, then going from there.) All over our country (and the world) people are abandoning houses (but I'm not talking about sub-prime mortgages this time.) They are abandoning houses of worship for modern agribusiness. They do it out of desperation: the costs of the implements and feedstocks, seeds and chemicals, exceed the market price for their crops. Even with government welfare. Much of the organic movement is desperation. And many farmers are surprised what sunburns and no G Gordon Liddy can do.


If you believe in magic
Why not imagine this loss?
What might my house be without
The roots and stem and leaves
That a seed used to
Be able to grow?
And what would become of my world?
When all the fields are fallow
Once sown.

What has become of your world? It's not about Monsanto (the Lunar Saint!) It's about us.


Neil R Graf said...

so, me being the self-centered one.. i carve out these cryptic verses and refuse to explain myself... and then get offended with the misinterpretations. you write straightahead stuff, and then write 8 pages on what it all means to you and me and the world. i like that about you, my brother, but I cannot do it myself.

so, someone landed on my page after searching "andy coffey neil r graf." people find my page after searching for a variety of (often rather profane) terms, but this was a nice surprise.

someone was LOOKING FOR US.

Andy Coffey said...

Neil, if I could write as splendidly about as many things as you do in your sleep, I would no doubt do that. As it is, I have settled to the realization that I probably have strengths in the ideas area, but will never be a flashy poet. Consider the folks from whence I come. Most of my ancestors would have giggled themselves to death had they met someone as ostentatious as me. So there it is... boring poetry, about something beautiful.
There is the loveliest saxophone player playing across the street. Jesus... smooth jazz hasn't taken this corner over.