In an age which, despite cultural self-labels such as “progressive” or “advanced,” there exists a fiery political debate around stem-cell research, one is reminded again and again of the sacredness we humans reserve for that which we all share, our bodies. This sacredness of human flesh manifests itself through the curious act of “setting apart,” reserving as different or special that which objectively seems to be made of exactly the same biological materials and behave in many similar ways to other bodies that inhabit this earth. Setting the human body apart is also curious because other “non-human-body” biological manipulations are often carried out without nearly the same amount of controversy or anxiety.
Surely cultural narrative plays a large part in the privileging of human consciousness. Within the context of Christianity we read in Genesis that “God created man in his own image,” and then told his human creatures to “fill the earth and subdue it[,] rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air [and] every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 1:27-29). In this very influential Western narrative, humans are set apart at the beginning as the rulers over the rest of life. This mindset persists.
One of the oldest examples of human subjugation over plant life is grafting, a practice which has been around for thousands of years (at least before 2000 B.C.E. in China). Grafting is simply a method of asexual plant propagation, where tissue from one plant is fused with tissue from another plant. In a book about grafting which David kindly lent me is a caption to a photograph of a successful graft: “EACH COMPONENT RETAINS ITS IDENTITY.” It goes on to specify that even different bark textures of the English and Black Walnut trees do not “intermingle;” they keep their distinct and unique characteristics. This is certainly the modernist dream of dominion over the landscape at its most confident. I think of the phrase, “have your cake and eat it too,” or “the best of both worlds.”
Behind the idea of grafting is the larger idea of hybridity, and with this term comes mostly positive connotations. A hybrid is an improvement, it is an accelerated evolutionary jump, it denotes progress and forward movement. It brings to mind current trends involving “hybrid” cars and the fashionable implications this has for the image of the hybrid owner as ecologically conscious. We could think of the word hybrid as often involving positive human manipulation, as opposed to the word mutation, which carries negative inferences that are not directly willed by humans and frequently equals biological life run amuck.
The gesture of grafting involves human choice in the selection of traits which are either desirable or unwanted. It operates under the presupposition that the human creature knows what is best for all biological life (again, the Genesis establishment of human rule) and that the choices that humans make move life progressively forward (more resilient plants to withstand climate shifts, a type of avocado which is sellable on the market). We now understand that there are a multitude of choices made by humans throughout history (most noticeably within the last 100 years because of the scale of environmental damage) that do not involve progress at all, but actually designate a danger to all life on the planet.
In light of human failure, several key questions arise: Do human beings have the right to manipulate biological life in anyway? Is it possible to accurately predict whether choices will have positive effects over long stretches of time? How much time is required to know whether the changes are positive or negative? Who decides what are positive or negative changes?
When I think of grafting, I think of other human attempts to bring together two seemingly separate biological entities. One of these is the human need for habitat, for shelter. With some imagination and a slight shift of perspective one could view current housing developments as an extremely unsuccessful “graft” of human beings to the land that they occupy. Levels of consumption, unsustainabilty, dependence on outside systems for basic needs, and the decentralized nature of new housing developments – these are just a few of the reasons the graft is unsuccessful.
My project, as occupying the same space as a ranch undergoing a major grafting project, and within the larger community surrounding Santa Paula (which with the rest of southern California has seen unprecedented housing growth prior to 2008) seeks to ask questions about the manipulation and utilization of organic matter for human purposes. These could be questions surrounding the hybridization of biological forms, such as grafting, or the development of land for building human habitation.
Some key questions, to end: Does human development of the land form a kind of hybrid in which “each component retains its identity,” as the book on grafting suggests, or does this hybrid become something new and entirely different, something which moves the “progression” of life into uncharted biological territories? Do we want to go to these places? Do we have a choice?