A Dual Book Review
The Seed Keeper Diane Wilson Milkweed Editions, 2021
Hummingbird Salamander Jeff VanderMeer MCD/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2021
Two recently released books are centered on how we save some portion of the world from ourselves. They take very different approaches in writing style, in setting and plot, in characterizations and development. But most importantly for today’s essay they represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of how to preserve life in the face of human encroachment on natural systems and the inevitable destruction of going beyond our ecological bounds.
In Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer describes what is essentially the tech savior story — though with the twist that tech will not save human culture, but maybe a slice of the natural world. Usually the tech narrative is laser focused on humanity — or on a small subset of humanity anyway, those that look very like Silicon Valley tech folks. VanderMeer turns this around. Those with privilege still survive, maybe even thrive, but this is not down to tech turning our ecological disasters around. The disaster rolls onward and destroys most of the world, human and non-human alike.
I have to insert my own views here. It is my blog, after all, but this is one of the flimsiest tropes in the tech savior story. There is always this fundamental logical error in this sort of zombie economy thinking, that everything will crumble and most people will be reduced to Road-like refugees — but there will still be corporate profits, lumbering on, preserving the privileged status of those reaping those profits. The error is that economies are not merely dependent upon sellers, but more upon buyers. There must be a market to sell things to if there are to be profits. When most people are refugees, there won’t be much of a market for anything. There won’t be profits. Not only that, but in a world of reduced material comfort, there will not be much power in possessing money. Folk with money will have just that. There won’t be marketing, politics, or buying influence in other ways — because there will be nothing to influence. Finally, corporations will end long before the collapse. As soon as there is no growth on investments, there will be no investment. In fact, most corporate by-laws require dismantling when the growth on share-holder investment falls below a certain level of return on investment. That is, if there isn’t an increase in sales the company’s own laws will force it to end. So the idea that the human world will just continue to destroy things until there is nothing left to destroy is sort of a fallacy. Ecological limits apply, even to economics, and nothing is independent.
Nevertheless, this is VanderMeer’s fictional story and he can choose any narrative device he wants to illustrate the problems we face. Jeff is less concerned with telling the story of us than telling the story of all the other beings we are crowding out of existence — both in this book and apparently in his life. (Follow him on Twitter — @jeffvandermeer — for a front-row seat at an impressive re-wilding project.) In Hummingbird Salamander human society is reduced to a backdrop of evil. The story is twisted and densely woven, and I don’t think I can reveal much of it without diminishing your reading experience (and you absolutely should read it!). But I will risk stating that tech saves a little, but nothing of or for humanity. And it seems so very little. Which is probably about the capacity of tech to save anything.
So that is one path to some sort of remediation. A sliver of the world is preserved by science, by man’s tool-making, for a future that might be safer for the inhabitants of that sliver, primarily because future man is no longer making tools. The method of preservation necessarily excludes most of the world and all of humanity. That is, it doesn’t save much by design. It’s a tiny time capsule of a healthy earth. This is the same sort of mentality that leads to bunkers and island fortresses for humans. It is also another eco-logical fallacy. One that is peculiar to the mechanistic mindset of tech — the idea that a healthy living thing can be taken apart and still function and that some part of that broken thing can be preserved in isolation. There is a general blindness in the tech world to emergent properties, to the fact that the world is never merely the sum of its parts and that no part is ever independent of the rest. So it is not obvious that tech can save anything. Not even a sliver. Maybe especially not just a sliver. Because it’s all or nothing when it comes to the interdependent system that we call life.
And that is where Diane Wilson starts. Wilson is the Executive Director for the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, a national coalition of tribes and organizations working to create sovereign food systems for Native people. Her novel, The Seed Keeper, is another kind of preservation in the face of human destructiveness. Here is the essence of the story.
Everywhere I looked, I saw how seeds were holding the world together. They planted forests, covered meadows with wildflowers, sprouted in the cracks of sidewalks, or lay dormant until the long-awaited moment came, signaled by fire or rain or warmth. They filled the produce aisle in grocery stores. Seeds breathed and spoke in a language all their own. Each one was a miniature time capsule, capturing years of stories in its tender flesh. How ignorant I felt compared to the brilliance contained in a single seed.
Wilson’s preservationists start from a place of humility. This is important. The glorification of human tool-making ingenuity is at the root of the problems we face, so it’s not likely to be the tool that we use to fix the problem. We are very likely not even capable of fixing the problems. We need to step back and let the world do what it does — rebalance itself. We have to be humble and accept that a seed knows best what to do. In this story, the seeds that are being kept are human food stores, so humans feel some obligation to lend a hand. But ultimately, the seed keepers are being saved by the seeds, not the other way around.
Thus in The Seed Keeper we see another path, one that is not human centric and yet will save humans as part of a healed world. Humans are not the saviors. Natural systems will set things a’right — because, after all, it is impossible for any system to exist in such a precariously unbalanced state. It will regain balance one way or another. The seed keeper’s job is to make sure that human culture — in the form of our best food plants — is preserved through that rebalancing act. But even that small task will be molded by the hand of nature. The seeds will hold the world together. Humans just need to find their way back to a balanced place in that world. And that is the story told in Wilson’s book.
My biases are, of course, obvious. I patently don’t believe in the tech savior story. I do believe in nature. But what do you think? Is there a role for human tech, or should we make ourselves small and let nature fix things? Can the tools that break things apart be the right tools to make things whole? Can the very idea of breaking things into parts be helpful in a quest to regain wholeness? Taking things apart is our instinct because we can’t address everything at once. We are too small and nowhere near clever enough. But this seems like a problem that requires addressing everything at once. Do we have the strength of character to allow the seeds to keep us? Or are we going to crow about our own tech cleverness — as we go the way of the hummingbirds and salamanders?
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
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