Ruralist’s Lament: It’s Alive!

Cow skull, ranch, Summer Lake, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

We’ve been farming this plot of land for going on half a century. The fields lay between the ledges and the glacial erratics, and we’re only the most recent tillers since “Robert Cole, Yeoman” established a homestead here in 1769. The farm buildings Cole erected were obliterated in a great fire that burned much of Maine in 1947 but the soil remains and we’ve tried to tend it faithfully to our mutual benefit.

It’s a tussle sometimes. The fields will go back to forest if left to their own devices. And the soil is a dynamic system of life feeding on death, endlessly recycling a web of life that grinds on in its dust-to-dust way. With the end of World War 2, the chemical industry that had been churning out murderous  poisons and explosives was re-purposed to play an ever bigger role in what we today call the “agriculture industry.” Weeds and bugs have always been a part of farming but the promoters of Better Living Through Chemistry promised final victory over those opposing forces. It came in bags and jugs and initially the results seemed promising. The potions appeared to kill everything in the field except the crop. The careful attention of traditional farmers seemed beside the point. Farming could be “systematized” into a regime of inputs and outputs and growing crops was now supposed to be like manufacturing screwdrivers or Ford Edsels. Millions of farmers were  thus “freed” from the drudgery of farming and could now find careers tending machines, stocking shelves, or packaging retail items in the bowels of some Amazonian jungle fortress somewhere.

Yes, that was the story and the plan. And whether it worked out all that well for the population at large or the former farmers is almost beneath discussion apparently. But one of the lessons that farmers learn fairly early is that shit happens. In natural systems there are factors that can’t always be controlled by puny humans. Sometimes those corporate “inputs” don’t keep working the way they did initially. The bugs are alive and they evolve. The weeds are alive and they do too.

Which, dear reader, brings me to a bug very much in the news: COVID-19. While more civilized nations have managed to contain the bug through low-tech public health strategies, as with farming we’ve gone another way here, relying on profit-seeking corporate manufacture of (publicly developed) vaccines and a malign march toward “herd immunity” over the bodies of our fellow citizens.

The results so far suggest that, as with red root pigweed and the Colorado Potato Beetle, a living entity is currently evolving a work-around.

When you hit a weed or a bug with a corporate chemical, initially it looks like total victory over the “pest.” But what you’ve done is kill every pest that happens to be susceptible to the potion you’ve applied. Over time a resistant population is the only one left in the field and they pass along their genetic resistance to future generations. Living things adapt, sometimes very quickly.

There was somewhat limited media coverage of the Breakthrough Cases of COVID among 9 members of the New York Yankees and management recently. Infielder Gleyber Torres missed some games because despite having caught the bug during the off-season and getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine along with the rest of the team he got infected again.

The CDC advised calm: “The vaccines are effective…..The cases were reportedly ‘asymptomatic or mild.’ “ (New England Patriots fans may remember the profound brain-fog obviously afflicting QB Cam Newton following his “asymptomatic” bout with COVID last season. This bug is sneaky.  But I digress.) The games must go on. The restaurants / bars / boutiques/ packing houses must reopen. The kids must go back to school and mom/dad back to waged work. Profits are demanded. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I guess.

But the bug is alive and it’s developing a work-around. Every week a new “variant” is being discovered and the newly evolving strains are leaping nation-state boundaries as the media happily reports increased commercial air travel. Basic public health practices like masking, limiting social contact, testing and tracing proved effective where they’ve been methodically implemented. I’ve never seen a weed develop “resistance” to the timely application of a sharp hoe or a cultivator sweep.

A local  Maine paper today carried the story of an 85 year-old who “died from complications of COVID-19…. He died two months after receiving his second dose of the Moderna vaccine, according to a vaccination record card provided by his family.”

This bug is not completely understood, any more than the chemists at Monsanto really understood pigweed and its ability to work around glyphosate/RoundUp. Epidemiologists have been warning for years about a species-jumping Big One that will eventually surge though a globalized population largely defenseless and utterly in thrall to “market forces” where the public health is frankly devalued / scorned.

Months ago the Guardian (12/29/20) quoted Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program contending that,  “….this is not necessarily the big one…… This is a wake-up call…. These threats will continue. If there is one thing we need to take from this pandemic…. is we need to get our act together.”


Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: