Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Sacred Egg

Sunday morning. I’m still tired after a long day; opening night of The Seed Savers kept us cleaning up until nearly midnight. The play’s the thing/in which I’ll catch the conscience of the king. The “king” in the play is corporate developers and retailers of patented, genetically modified seed; none were there to have their consciences caught.

But there were plenty of “Hamlets” present. The fear of tampering with the genetic makeup of life is almost universal, as if the egg were sacred. Witness the passionate outcries over abortion, fetal stem cell harvesting and the widespread conviction that implanting a bacterial gene into a canola seed is somehow the equivalent of treading on sacred ground with one’s shoes on. It’s not just a religious sensitivity either; we are biologically equipped with survival instincts, and the fear that “improving” on life forces that have stood the test of time might inadvertently threaten our species is a caution worth taking seriously. The Frankenstein monster; the canola that turns into a noxious weed.

Never mind the sentiment that genetic modification is “playing God.”

The profit motive can easily lead to the compromising of values, often incrementally and imperceptibly. The attachment of Joe, Mindy and Sky to the land, the wind and the seasons is as spiritual as it ever gets for most people, while the argument to “get with the program,” --to equate the profitable exploitation of the land with progress-- becomes their devil. We all face this demon daily, and suffer the guilt of our compromises with it.

And now, flip the coin. We have “modified” through selective breeding the character of animals and plants to better satisfy our increasing need for more and more food as the planet’s populations burgeon. Cows now have udders the size of rain barrels, chickens lay an egg per day, corn kernels are digestible (almost) and wheat can produce 60+bushels an acre, even on the dry prairie. It’s not an idle argument that without scientific advances that have sometimes trodden on “sacred ground” we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves. Truth is, even with the green revolution and the genetic modification of some of our food plants and animals, we are unable to feed all of us well.

At the same time, we know that eggs and seeds are primary vehicles for our nourishment, hence survival. We eat eggs and seeds daily, we eat their offspring, we manipulate them to provide more profit food for the hungry. A lot of the compromising of values surrounding life took place long before genetic modification even became a possibility. We North Americans consume life to the point of obesity, as if every forkful didn’t represent nature’s “dying on the cross” for our nourishment. To cry ‘foul’ over the profit-making of corporations may be appropriate, but also somewhat hypocritical.

Katherine Koller’s play doesn’t resolve this dilemma. Perhaps that’s it’s strength as a dramatic performance; these debates almost always end in a draw, and the consequences are almost always shaped by the evolution of thought and culture that have so far learned to adapt to changing times without completely tearing us apart. It’s other strength is that it reinforces our integration with the natural world. Mindy says of her world of wind, land and sky: “I don’t control it; I care for it.”

We need to heed people who do “care for it,” or else our compromises might actually prove disastrous in the end.

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