Pushcart XLII: Ethan Chatagnier, “Miracle Fruit” from New England Review #37.4

British Library: Cotton MS Nero C IV 'Winchester Psalter' f.3r

British Library: Cotton MS Nero C IV ‘Winchester Psalter’ f.3r

At seven pm, three quarters of the recessed lights in the main office space are programmed to turn off. What’s left is deemed bright enough for the custodial staff to do their work, but what I love, looking out at it through the interior window of my office, is that the glow of all the screensavers creates a faint aurora over the top of all the cubicle walls almost like that of a town at night hidden just beyond a ridge. I know it’s just a silly image, but it gives me the sort of comfort I imagine God would feel looking at a snow-dusted Swiss village and allowing himself to forget the rest of the troubled world for a while….
I like walking out to the deserted parking lot as well, no claustrophobia of cars, nobody yammering into a cell phone or blasting bad music, but tonight there is another car, a Camry with Avis stickers, and it’s parked right next to mine. Leaning against it is a slender, copper-haired woman wearing a fitted trench coat and kitten heels who is definitely not from Nebraska.
“Can I ask you about Aeon, Dr. Schuyler?” she asks.
“Mother Jones?”
“New York Times.”
Surprising. To someone like me, our Aeon acquisition is front page news, but most people would rather see pictures of a beheading or read a new brownie recipe. It’s good that someone is paying attention, I think. But it’s bad news when a New York Times reporter ambushes you in the dark of an empty parking lot rather than contacting the corporate media office. It means this is just the slight visible outgrowth of a story already being tracked, of documents already being compiled and pieces put together. It means you are not just the person who picked up the phone. You were chosen.

I kind of missed some of this story, so I went back and read it again. I still don’t quite get some of the logical connections, but I think I’m still distracted by the math. Math? What? I’ll get there, I promise (and it’s nowhere near as interesting as I’m trying to make it sound, which is an uphill battle anyway, trying to make math sound interesting). But first, the story.

It’s a near-future picture of an overpopulated world that can no longer produce enough calories to feed all the people. Dr. Schuyler is a plant geneticist for a Monsanto-like megacorp. Doc has a genuine awe for natural biodiversity and the long, slow processes that create and expand it; he tends a small garden of delights at home, and grows Synsepalum dulcificum, the “miracle fruit” that blocks sourness, on his office windowsill, a project that requires a homemade humidification system since office air is not the same as the plant’s native West African air. In the story, this berry is something of a well-kept secret, but I’ve seen both news stories and chef videos about it; seeds are available online.

Doc is quite conflicted about his role in the company. That conflict is what drives the story forward, particularly after he realizes that his company is acquiring the last of the big seed banks and plans to destroy everything once it’s been reviewed for profitable possibilities.

The memo isn’t hard to find….: a memo that says that the security risks of holding on to the bank outweigh its value as an asset; that says it would be more detrimental to the company [emphasis mine] if the bounty of these seeds escaped containment than if the smallpox virus did; that recommends incineration. Attached was a suggested schedule for the incinerations: Flowers, vines, and other non-fruiting plants first. Then non-orchard trees. Then fruit and nut trees. Them bulbs and vegetables. Last, grasses and grains.
First they came for the Socialists, et cetera, et cetera.

This is one of my major points of confusion. I’m not sure I understand the company’s fear of the seeds “escaping containment”, nor do I fully understand why that would be such a catastrophe to the firm. Maybe I’m dense. I’m assuming the company wants to monopolize effective foodstuffs, but it could be something else.

The good doctor is less confused about the journalist who keeps ambushing him in the parking lot. I love the metaphor for the initial situation, as she tries to get documents relating to the impending destruction for publication:

She’s out there, all right. Her attire has mutated from what you’d wear to a client meeting to what you’d wear on a date….
What I like is not her in her professional garb or her date clothes, not an inch more or an inch less of leg, not a certain amount of décolletage or the right heels. I like the process of it all, despite the constructions, despite the obvious ends fueling all these different means. What can I say? Who doesn’t want to feel like a lock being picked?

Their relationship intensifies as he tries to explain his love for biodiversity to her, but never gets sexual; it’s quite lovely to watch. She is, perhaps, the miracle fruit that blocks the bitterness of reality.

“There’s a great beauty in the amazing diversity of plant life. Not just in the jungles, but in a place like this. It was never just grass, despite what the movies show. And the plainsmen who grazed it to death were not immune to its beauty. They just had families to feed.”
“I sense a point emerging.”
“So one way of looking at it is that I have an overly generous definition of family.”

But the miracle fruit only lasts a short time.

His resolution of this conflict is the rising action of the story; his reaction to the fallout from that resolution creates the climax. It becomes a tragic version of Noah’s Ark, and again, I think I follow the motivation, but I’m not sure. I come back to the present, how nearly daily revelations of extreme corruption and greed at the highest levels, plus ongoing massive local and global injustices, seem to make less of a splash in the public consciousness than a new Netflix series or the Twitter outrage of the day. I think the good doctor in the story, as Noah stocking the ark in his basement, just decided that saving the world was a fool’s errand; and, in a dual role perhaps, as God overlooking the world so beautifully described in the first paragraph, decided that the world wasn’t worth saving, given the limited definition of family that prevails. I can’t say I, in the present, disagree with him.

Now, about the math…

Our population is growing at an exponential rate, and crop yields at a linear rate. Already we have 9 billion people on a planet that can only feed 8 billion. Despite all the seeming logistical impossibilities, ten-year projections have the population at 10 billion and food production at enough for 8.1 billion.

Those “logistical impossibilities” seem pretty serious to dismiss with a mere clause (how does population continue to grow when there is limited food supply?) but I’ll just add that to the points of confusion. I had an immediate reaction to the first sentence about the exponential and linear rates: Wow, I understand that! Five years after ProfG tried to get that into my head with bright color graphics and animations, I can read that sentence and “see” it, without sitting down and figuring it out! But then I started thinking (always a dangerous effort) and ran into trouble: could I create graphs that showed the relationship between the two rates? I certainly should; but could is another question.

I soon dissolved into tears, a not-uncommon reaction I have when confronting math in the wild. So I emailed my mooc buddy Purgy, who’s always been generous with his time when I have math issues. It was a little scary – English isn’t his native language, and we’re talking math, so I had to find my way through words like ansatz and affine – but it turned out I made an epically stupid but easy-to-fix mistake in the linear function (a mistake that could have been avoided had I sketched a graph first, but no-o-o-o-o, I thought I could skip that step), and was in the ballpark on the exponential give or take a couple of decimal points, so I managed to come up with my graph. I suspect any attentive ninth-grader could’ve done so in far less time with far less blood, toil, tears, and sweat, but at least I got there. Thanks, Purgy!

Despite what I see as logical flaws and inconsistencies in the story (and I’m well aware it may be my own logical facilities that are flawed), I enjoyed this for the relationship, and the characterization of the scientist. And the math, which may have tipped the needle for me – as inconsistent as that in itself may be.

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