Sometimes the best gifts are the ones we reject
The World of the Gift by Jacques T. Godbout (McGill--Queens University Press, 1998).
A long-remembered scene repeated many times: I am about 16; it is 5:45 p.m. and we are at the dinner table, my mother at one end, my father at the other, my sister, Judy, sitting across from me. As always, the meal is formal--the oval mahogany table is covered with a clean tablecloth and there are three courses: appetizer, main course, dessert. And as always we are eating quickly to keep up with my father, who must be back at the office at six to see more patients. The phone rings: I can hear our maid, Josephine, going to answer it. A pause. Then Josephine comes into the dining room. 'It's Dr. Williams,' she tells my father.
My mother is annoyed: 'Why does he always call at dinnertime?' she asks, but my father is already on the way to the phone. Dr. Williams and my father, both practicing physicians, occasionally meet at Passaic General Hospital, but Dr. Williams, who has heart problems, is also my father's patient, and that is why he is calling. He knows that my father puts his patients ahead of his dinner. Soon, my father returns to snatch a hasty bite of dessert and tells my mother, 'I'll be going to Rutherford after office hours tonight. I should be back around 10.' My mother says nothing.
Another scene, equally well remembered: My father and I are in a car; he is driving--I am not yet old enough. He speaks to me in that tentative, half-apprehensive tone of voice that fathers use toward adolescent sons when they are about to propose something new. 'You know that I have a patient, Dr. Williams, over in Rutherford? Well, he's beginning to go blind and needs somebody to read to him once a week for an hour or two. I told him I would ask you--
he would pay you for your time.'
From my hesitation, my father knows that I am not liking the idea. 'You would enjoy reading to Dr. Williams,' he continues. 'He's a very interesting man. He writes poetry.' But it's no use. I make my excuses: too busy, too much schoolwork, too inconvenient--the fact is that I just don't want to read to an old friend and patient of my father's. A few days later the request is repeated, then a week after that. By this time it has become a matter of principle and I am adamant. Eventually my father stops asking.
A third scene, just a few days before this writing: Dr. Williams is long dead; my father, too. I am sitting in my living room holding a familiar book from my father's collection. A slender volume, elegantly printed on creamy, rough-cut paper yellowing slightly at the edges, it is the fourth book of a set of five, which together make up one of the great epic poems of 20th-century English literature. Opening it carefully to avoid tearing the fragile dust cover, I read that this is the first edition of Volume IV of Paterson, of which 1,000 copies were printed for the publisher, New Directions, by Van Vechten Press, Inc., Metuchen, New Jersey. And I see once more the inscription by the author, written in blue ink: 'Irving Ehrenfeld, gratefully yours, William Carlos Williams, 9/19/51.'
Despite my painful regrets, I don't blame my 16-year-old self for rejecting the marvelous gift offered to me by my father and his celebrated patient, one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. Now, with two adolescent sons of my own and two daughters who were adolescent not so long ago, I understand that becoming independent sometimes involves rejecting gifts. It is a necessary cost of human development, a tragic cost, because so many of the gifts can never be offered again. But it is a cost that must be borne--there is no alternative.
The theme is one that I think about often because we live in a time when the rejection of gifts is commonplace, a true way of life. Our cultural landscape is littered with fragments of gifts rejected unnecessarily, and it is the adults, not the adolescents, who are doing the rejecting. The technoeconomic system that dominates the industrial world has little patience for the bearers of evolved wisdom, for anyone encumbered by connections with the past and concerns for the future.
This was brought home to me recently when I met Professor Oved Shifriss on the grounds of Rutgers University's Horticulture Farm No. 3; I hadn't seen him in about a year. Retired from the faculty for more than a decade, he must be in his 80s. The shapeless, faded blue canvas hat was the same, but he is now wearing hearing aids in both ears. The senior farm worker who was with him, much younger and obviously very busy, waited patiently and respectfully while we spoke--or rather while Professor Shifriss spoke and I listened. Oved Shifriss, a founding father of Israeli agricultural science, once a renowned plant breeder for Burpee Seeds, and probably the best vegetable breeder Rutgers has ever had, knows as much about the genetics of squashes, cucumbers, melons, and pumpkins as any person on earth. When I first came to the university, I was surprised to notice that even his longtime colleague, himself an accomplished scientist, always addressed him as 'Professor Shifriss.' I soon understood why.
Shortly before his retirement, Professor Shifriss told me the reason for his decision to leave. He had recently won a major award in the All America vegetable trials for his Jersey Golden Acorn squash, but he wasn't satisfied. 'This is only the beginning,' he said. 'If they gave me a team to help me--a few geneticists, one or two plant pathologists, an entomologist, a biochemist--I could produce a squash that would feed the world. It would be about the size of a sweet potato, very productive, insect-resistant, maybe with silvery leaves, highly nutritious, rich in vitamin A, protein, and calories, and very delicious. I can do it, if the administration would only give me some resources and leave me alone.
'But they don't seem able to grasp the idea. You know how they criticized me when I was working with the little ornamental gourds. ëThose gourds are bitter and inedible,' they said. ëWhy are you wasting the experiment station's money on them?' But I got the B-gene complex that enabled me to breed the Jersey Golden Acorn from the same gourds. It tripled the amount of carotene. And look at the trouble they give me because I am doing some studies with castor beans--the plant that Jonah sat under in the biblical story. ëThey're poisonous,' they keep telling me, ëwhat good are they? You're supposed to be a vegetable breed-er.' But castor beans have an extremely unus-ual sexual system; it's going to be important one day.'
By the time he retired, not long after that conversation, Professor Shif-riss was spending a sizable part of his own salary to replace the research support that the experiment station had withdrawn. The super squash that he envisioned has never been developed; there is probably nobody left with his combination of knowledge, experience, and genius to do the job. Genetic engineers from Europe have shown interest in his castor bean studies. In fact, castor beans are why I ran into him at the farm: He is still allowed to keep a couple of his special plants in one of the greenhouses there. We talked a bit more--he was explaining some of the reasons for the high failure rate of genetic engineering in agriculture, and his ideas about the unexpected variability he has seen within cloned plants that are supposed to be identical--then, tiring, he said good-bye and walked slowly off toward the greenhouse.
As I watched him go, I thought of the terrible waste of his talents and wisdom. Our demand for immediate gratification and quick, carefree returns on all investments leaves no time to wait for intricate things to be worked out, no time to evaluate true worth, no willingness to listen to those who contend with natural complexity. Knowledge earned during long years of study of people and nature is being cast aside to make way for technologies and financial systems that must satisfy their own, not human, needs.
Another example: A few years before Oved Shifriss left Rutgers, Professor Fred Hough, one of the world's great apple breeders, told me about the troubles he was having with the experiment station administration. 'They want me to start submitting progress reports every six months! I try to explain that I'm breeding trees, not radishes--things don't change in a six-month time frame. But they don't get it.'
Professor Hough, too, had a grand plan: 'I can breed an apple tree with good-tasting apples that will be largely resistant to the common pests and diseases. It won't need all these chemical sprays. I can put my hands on every bit of the genetic material I need. It will take a research group of nine people--that's not much for a university this size--but all they're interested in is growing a bigger, shinier Red Delicious.' He retired in disgust without embarking on his great project. When I last heard of him years ago, he was consulting on fruit tree breeding for Romania and Brazil.
Not only do we reject the gifts of genius present, we also spurn the offerings of genius past. Gene Logsdon, farmer and author, has written extensively about the brilliant methods our agricultural forebears worked out for using the gifts provided by nature, what modern ecologists would call 'ecosystem services.' A choice example is keeping chickens and cows together in the same farmyard. The chickens pick flies off the trusting and cooperative cattle, giving the cows relief while gaining nourishing insect protein in their own diet. A different kind of service is provided by the dung beetle, which feeds her larvae on little balls of manure she buries in the ground. In two days, a pair of dung beetles can bury an entire cow pie, which if left on the surface would smother the grass and attract cattle parasites. Underground, the manure serves to nourish the soil and to produce more, useful dung beetles. The service is free; the cost of rejecting it is not.
These gifts have been rendered irrelevant on most modern farms. Chickens are raised in crowded factory facilities--with no freedom to move, with beaks cut off so that they can't peck each other, with artificial illumination night and day--and they are fed a semiliquid diet synthesized from grain products and additives. Meanwhile, the cows are also packed into enclosures and feedlots; their pests and parasites are controlled by insecticidal sprays and chemicals added to their diets. The same chemicals, passed through in the man-ure, are probably re-sponsible for the widespread decline of the dung beetles, which pretty much disappeared around 1950.
My stories of re-jected gifts have been taken from agriculture, but I could have found them in any walk of contemporary life, from architecture to engineering, from business to government to entertainment. The life of contemporary civilization is like the fairy tale of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf run in reverse: Having started with a house of brick, we have moved, with great fanfare, to a house of straw. It is hard to concoct a happy ending for such a story.
We have brought this misfortune upon ourselves; there is no wolf, no malign outside force to blame. The earth is full of gifts, the perennial gifts of nature and the gifts of human creativity worked out over thousands of years of trial, error, and sacrifice. In our insistence that we must reinvent and manage the whole world from scratch, and do it quickly--in our confidence that money and power will replace, with something better, anything that once worked well--we have cut ourselves off from the bounty available to us. But the money is dwindling and the power is waning. Soon, those who remember the gifts we have rejected will try to recover them. Will they be in time? Or, like my chance of reading to Dr. Williams, will the gifts be gone beyond recall?
David Ehrenfeld teaches ecology at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Arrogance of Humanism and Beginning Again, and was founding editor of the journal Conservation Biology. From Orion (Spring 1999). Subscriptions: $25/yr. (4 issues) from 195 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230.