My flippant take on things get me into trouble all the time. This time I put a little zinger on Michael Marder (“post-everything”) and he went “ouch.” But I am triggered by analyse de haute kinds of world where people get paid to think about matters such as the following:
Michael Marder (2012)
Resist Like a Plant! On the Vegetal Life of Political Movements
Peace Studies Journal
Michael Marder (2011)
Vegetal Anti-Metaphysics: Learning from Plants
Continental Philosophy Review
Michael Marder (2011)
Plant-Soul: The Elusive Meanings of Vegetative Life
Maybe I would change my mind if I read them. These subjects don’t really suggest “post-ness.” In fact, I have no idea at all what they mean.
But I’ve been piqued. Frankly, reflecting on how dumb I am. First of all, I looked up geography, pursuing the Basque context of the Rodopi Press. The Bay of Biscay is a big scallop of the Atlantic Ocean shared by France and Spain. “Green Spain” -- which sounds a little like the Pacific Northwest where I grew up -- is the Spanish part of that coast, encircled by low mountains rather like Oregon’s coastal range. It’s very wet and now shelters a major city, Bilbao, which has become a manufacturing and supply center with exploding population. We know it mostly as the location of the Gehry Guggenheim. It appears that Ikerbasque, which is meant to be a research center, shares the city’s taste for innovative architecture -- the headquarters is housed in a huge curved glass structure. These people are pouring money into technology -- mostly hard science on climate change and brain research. I’m not sure where vegetal philosophy enters into it.
The GF Tribune this morning printed a small story about cassava plants (manioc, a source of tapioca). It’s a productive shrub with roots that are a good staple source of carbs IF they are processed properly. There is one problem, which is that they have to be processed quite thoroughly to keep from causing the eaters to die of cyanide poisoning. (It doesn’t have cyanide in it, but a substance that becomes cyanide in the body.) Richard Sayre, a professor of plant biology at Ohio State University, and his colleague Dimuth Siritunga, a postdoctoral researcher in plant biology at the university, have created cyanogen-free cassava plants. So this is the opposite of “Roundup Ready” wheat that can survive herbicides. This is Human Ready cassava. The plant is very tough, “the Rambo of the food crops,” which becomes highly relevant when one thinks about climate change raising challenges to plants because plants can’t migrate as quickly as animals.
Genomic meddling in plants is certainly something that needs to be addressed. I can think of many other issues: the spread of noxious weeds, exhaustion of topsoils where crops like wheat are grown. Around here, at the intersection of plant and animal crops, we must think about the difference between using grain for human consumption directly versus feeding to animals, esp. when those animals are evolved to eat grass. But these issues are practical, part of our ordinary daily lives, which is what I tried to suggest by starting yesterday’s blog with coffee and sweetgrass.
Maybe Marder is in fact using the rhizome theories of Deleuzeguattari or maybe he’s going to the many Biblical bits about sowing and reaping. Then there are the vineyard tales. After all, the Bible is very much about the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture as the enabler of cities and the cornerstone of human life. We still haven’t finished figuring out this shift and I’m not sure we ever will. But the culture shift was major and smaller political shifts have been powered -- indeed, compelled -- by the erosion and desertification of wide parts of the world. As our population gets bigger, our productive territory gets smaller.
I’ve been thinking about liturgical uses of plants in terms of incense and entheogens (stuff that makes your brain see God), but as the privileged “foodie” elites proliferate, there is plenty of protocol and ceremony to observe in searching out blue potatoes and yellow tomatoes -- innovation balanced against preservation of heritage stock. “Seed savers” as a philosophical and political phenomenon ought to be worth reflection. What I’m trying to do here is to knock out the walls of our assumptions about what is vegetal. I hope Harder is doing the same thing but I’d feel better if he were less magna cum laude and more Rodale. Not that I’m much of a gardener. But then, it IS seed catalogue time and I’m very good at reading them.
If I were developing a plant philosophy for our times, I’d go straight to Wes Jackson and his ideas about the prairie as mixed perennials, deep rooted, tolerant of pluralities, working in synergistic ways. (Well, if there’s no spotted knapweed around!) For a while in the Saskatoon Unitarian Church there was a cutting edge organic ag group that met in our building, so I’d go sit in, just to soak up their enormous powerful energy. I learned a lot. They experimented with crops from around the planet, which meant having to hunt for and invent ways of harvesting them and also meant locating land of the proper size and soil characteristics. The assumptions of the machinery marketers were always a few years behind the needs of the experimenters.
I’ve never forgotten a man telling about finding a promising Middle Eastern legume of fine nutritional qualities that grew quickly into a great big entanglement of twining fronds. When he went out to harvest, he discovered that not even the deer could get into it. He said it was like a giant bed springs and if he took one side in his hands, shook it hard, the waves traveled down the field to the opposite edge. The small mammals and birds loved it. Is there a social equivalent to this?
My father’s roommate at the University of Manitoba was Rudy Peterson, who had a lot to do with the Green Revolution in India. It was the beginning of the chemical era of farming which has not ended yet. Better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and a whole lot of entangled unintended consequences. Less starvation meant more people.
Of course we always come back to humans. Cyanide-free manioc is great for Africans who are used to eating it and may be relieved of terrible sickness. But will they ever serve it at McDonalds? On the other hand, everyone likes blue potatoes and blue corn. Who would have guessed?
"If your life's work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.” Wes Jackson