Return to Sender

We recognize that the gift is neither good nor bad in
itself, nor is it everywhere desirable. Everything depends on its
context, the relationship that gives it meaning. . . . The modern
individual remains wary, often with reason . . . even though
theoretically, given the ideology of possession, to continue to
receive is the aim of all modern life.

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

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

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

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

‘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

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

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,

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

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

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.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.