MY town’s annual agricultural fair fell on the Saturday after the attacks on New York and Washington, and I think everyone was relieved when the selectmen decided to go ahead with the event. The turnout, 500 people at least, was huge for a town our size, all of us more pleased than usual to come together as a community.
“This is the story of a body,” Susanne Antonetta tells us near the end of her arresting memoir of a New Jersey girlhood lived in the shadows of the 20th century’s most sinister molecules: the DDT, tritium, chlordane, benzene and plutonium that are now part of the American landscape. Antonetta, the author of three collections of poetry, spent her childhood summers in a bungalow on Barnegat Bay in southern Ocean County, one of the relatively low-income “sacrifice communities” where the toxic wastes of postwar civilization have pooled. We know a little about these places from the news, from books and movies like “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action,” but for the most part we’ve glimpsed them only from a distance, through the eyes of crusading reporters and lawyer
Almost overnight, the amount and variety of organic food on offer in my local supermarket has mushroomed. Fresh produce, milk, eggs, cereal, frozen food, even junk food—all of it now has its own organic doppelganger, and more often than not these products wind up in my shopping cart. I like buying organic, for the usual salad of rational and sentimental reasons. At a time when the whole food system feels somewhat precarious, I assume that a product labeled organic is more healthful and safer, more “wholesome,” though if I stop to think about it, I’m not exactly sure what that means. I also like the fact that by buying organic, I’m casting a vote for a more environmentally friendly kind of agriculture: “Better Food for a Better Planet,” in the slogan of Cascadian Farm, one of the older organic brands.
For a while there, it looked as if this might be the year it never happened, but the gardening season has arrived at last. Last week the peas went in, finally, and today I’ll plant potatoes. Nights are still way too cold to put out the tender vegetables—tomatoes and the like—but on my windowsills their seedlings are already pressing against the pane, leaning into the strengthening sun and the traffic of bees building outside.
Unless I’m missing something, the aim of the biotechnology industry’s audacious new advertising campaign is to impale people like me—well-off first worlders dubious about genetically engineered food—on the horns of a moral dilemma. Have you seen these ads? Over a speedy montage of verdant rice paddies, smiling Asian kids and kindly third-world doctors, a caring voice describes something called golden rice and its promise to “help prevent blindness and infection in millions of children” suffering from vitamin-A deficiency.
Whenever I go to the supermarket these days, I collect labels. No, I’m not saving up box tops in order to get a decoder ring from Battle Creek. The sort of labels I collect now promise something else, a slightly different decoding. Each of them tells me a little story about where the food I’m buying comes from and how it has been produced.
History is written by the victors, it’s often said, but what about natural history? This invariably gets written by one human being or another, no matter what species’ triumph it trumpets, for the altogether trivial reason that (so far as we know) humans do all the writing around here. But what if it were otherwise? What if, let’s say, the plant perspective were brought to bear on the events of the past year? My guess is that the death of one Claude Hope, a man you’ve probably never heard of, would rank as a big, big story.
I grew up in a pretty nice subdivision on Long Island, but try as I might to kindle some spark of nostalgia for “the Gates of Woodbury,” the gravitational pull of the place is almost nil. It has been nearly 30 years since I left, and at least until a couple of months ago, I could think of no reason to go back: no people to see (everybody I knew had also left), no curiosity to satisfy. In my imagination Juneau Boulevard is the same as it ever was, except maybe for the cars and the people, which I assume have been regularly updated. Isn’t that the way it has always been in the burbs—change without history? More of the same?
Gazing nervously across the Atlantic at European outrage over genetically modified food, industry and government leaders have been quick to reach for words like “hysteria” and “madness.” How else to explain the uprooting of biotech crops in English fields? Or naked protesters in Rome pelting American cabinet secretaries with genetically engineered (“G.E.”) soybeans? It’s irrational, surely, to reject out of hand such a shiny new technology, especially one that comes with the seal of approval of American regulators (the vaunted Food and Drug Administration, no less).
A wide gulf of time separates this issue’s two intended audiences. It is addressed to those reading it today, on a Sunday on the verge of the year 2000, and also to those reading it—assuming that quaint practice survives—on a distant today in the year 3000. Every time capsule is a kind of mirror. An