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At Home in the Universe

By Matt Katz

For millennia farmers have saved seeds from season to season, planting in the spring, harvesting in the fall, then replanting the next spring. It’s the farming behind the farming, a quiet practice that usually goes unseen: we’re more concerned with interrupting a plant’s life cycle to eat its fruit when it’s ripe.

Simple enough. Until a company like Monsanto twists this ancient practice, replacing sustenance with profit as the bottom line. Then those seemingly innocuous, stuck-in-your-molars, country fair spitting contest pips get futuristically complicated.

Here’s a small taste of the backstory: A multinational corporation known primarily for developing Roundup weed killer creates genetically modified seeds to resist its star herbicide. Farmers now have a convenient way to spray fields without affecting crops. The corporation then manages to wrangle a patent on those seeds—in spite of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s prior refusals to grant patents on seeds, classifying them as life-forms with too many variables to be patented. Farmers around the world who buy the seeds are forbidden from saving them, or re-planting them, or selling them. So they have to buy new seed every year.

Now, I believe in capitalism and, to be sure, there’s a certain financial brilliance about this. But it’s also creepy. Seeds are designed to move freely on the wind or be deposited here and there by birds and other animals, and many farmers simply can’t fathom such a radical departure from the time-honored practice of seed saving—which has essentially allowed humanity to create an agricultural society.

Beyond the Orwellian eeriness, I’m taken aback mostly by the in-your-face irony of a chemical giant, a literal poison producer, threatening to control our food supply.

And what does any of this have to do with a Home and Garden-themed issue of Ventana?

Besides the fact that agriculture is king in Ventura County, embryonic plants are on my mind this morning because there’s a new seed library in Camarillo, which you can read about on page 16. It’s not a reaction to the preternatural creepiness of Monsanto per se, or strictly a backlash against GMO (genetically modified organisms). It’s also just plain fun. There’s something deeply satisfying about getting our hands in the dirt and reconnecting with nature.

Indeed, a level of connectivity with the natural world is something we all crave. The astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson reflected on this not long ago when he was asked what he considers the single “most astounding fact about the universe.”

Allow me a preface: I’m not typically drawn to interviews with astrophysicists; I don’t speak their language, and you probably don’t either. But I found something very settling in his reply. Perhaps it was the mood I was in while listening to the interview online, but I made a note to myself to draw parallels between his decidedly grand perspective and this issue’s humble Home and Garden theme, a great leap though it may be.

His voice took on a rapt tone as he described looking into the night sky, as we’ve all done countless times—most of us feeling impossibly small, farcically insignificant in the face of a twinkling infinity—and feeling “big.” The atoms that comprise life on earth and make up the human body, he explained, are directly traceable to those stars; we are essentially comprised of stardust: the result of exploded stars spewing their “enriched guts … guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life” across the galaxy.

“We are part of this universe. We are in this universe. But perhaps more important than both of those facts,” he mused, “is that the universe is in us.” Quite literally.

So the next time you look to the heavens and feel tiny, oppressed by the vastness of it all, think again. We are participants, not mere observers. We are connected. We are relevant. And we belong right here, at home in the universe.


04-01-14

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