Gods of Infertility

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By Michael Martin

April and May are exceedingly busy months on our biodynamic-organic farm. Blossom, one of our dairy goats, birthed three kids on April 1 (and now she’s giving over a gallon of milk a day!) We also welcomed three feeder pigs to our woods on April 24, started brooding the first batch of twenty meat chickens on the same day, installed two packages of honey bees in their new homes on May 6, and started double-digging the first of the thirty 3’ x 36’ beds of our new garden (I still have ten to go). The laying hens, after a dearth of egg production over the winter, have overwhelmed us with their output, filling carton after carton with their glorious eggs. Meanwhile, we’ve started tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, leeks, and onions in the house, direct-seeded a great variety of greens and roots, started onion sets, rhubarb, and asparagus. Wild turkey visit every day, morels abound under the chokecherries, the French lilacs explode in fragrance, the barn is filled with the chirping of newborn barn swallows and their parents, and my two youngest (of nine) come in the house every day covered head-to-toe with dirt and mud from catching frogs and turtles in the pond and playing in the clubhouse they made from fallen timber, pine boughs, and planks of bark, and which they decorated with lilies of the valley and violets. The world is a fertile place.

Prior to the scientific revolution, people lived lives very mindful of fertility and of its opposite, infertility. Fertility was desired, infertility was to be avoided. It is no surprise, then, that the religious culture of premodernity was deeply mindful of the interrelations of matter and the spirit in assuring the fertility of the land, animals, and humans. Ploughs were blessed, fields and cattle were blessed, barns were blessed, marriages were blessed: the fecundity of Things was understood as an essential Good, a fecundity likewise Beautiful and True. This is not, as some might suggest, simply a case of primitives trying to appease some imagined magical being in the sky (we can do without the positivist arrogance) but the recognition and affirmation of a metaphysical reality. In short: as Richard Rodriguez has rightly noted, the God of the Old Testament, who initially announced himself to a nation of the desert, is a God of fertility, of life. To drive home this Judeo-Christian subtext, Deuteronomy admonishes us (in words often quoted by the Prolife movement): “I call heaven and earth to witness this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Choose therefore life, that both you and your seed may live” (30:19). Seed. Likewise, the God of the New Testament is a God of fertility who died as a seed dies, was placed in the cold earth, and rose in a completely new form. What may well be my favorite Anglican hymn expresses it in this way:

 Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,

Wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;

Love lives again, that with the dead has been:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Or, to put it differently, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). I would argue that the fertility of God and of all Things is still an intuition maintained deeply within the human psyche—it’s encoded in our DNA as the biological imperative, after all—and, even though our own cultural milieu rejects fertility as a good, we still have Deuteronomy’s choice before us. We can still choose fertility. It is really—existentially, ontologically, spiritually, and biologically—the only choice.

Indeed, Rainer Maria Rilke, writing in the beginning decades of the 20th century could still celebrate the fertility of God and the Things of this world in poetry (here rendered in Daniel Polikoff’s masterful translation which appears in The Heavenly Country: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Poetry, and Critical Essays on Sophiology):

 I find you in all these myriad things

I love and care for like a brother.

As seed, you sun yourself in the smallest

and in the greatest, spread generously abroad.

 

That is the wondrous play of powers

that move selflessly, upward and down:

rising in the roots, dwindling in the bough

and blooming like resurrection in the crown.

The rejection of fertility is, I fear, leading human culture into the service of sterility, a slavery to a strange new god. And the worship of this false god will not end well. The symptoms abound: in the proliferation of poisonous agricultural practices that poison the soil and our food and embed sterility into their reproductive DNA; in the chemical and surgical alteration of human fertility; in the cultural fetishization of Planned Parenthood and a life-denying “family planning” that glorifies the erasure of the miracle of life as a political right; in nuptial paradigms of sterility held up as goods; in the technological colonization of the human person that celebrates the simulacra of a beauty devoid of fertility; and finally in the encroaching transhumanism that even one Catholic nun looks forward to as the harbinger of “the emergence of cybersapiens and a new consciousness of gender.” This is not a future I welcome, but it is a future I more and more believe likely.

In her extraordinary 1992 novel The Children of Men, P.D. James offers a ghastly picture of such a world. I will skip over the warnings of a creeping totalitarianism present in the book (frightening and likely enough as it is) in order to dwell on the image of a condition that James envisions developing in a culture that has lost all capacity for fertility, of every possibility that any woman might be able to bear a child:

In our universal bereavement, like grieving parents, we have put away all painful reminders of our loss. The children’s playgrounds in our parks have been dismantled. For the first twelve years after Omega the swings were looped up and secured, the slides and climbing frames left unpainted. Now they have finally gone and the asphalt playgrounds have been grassed over or sown with flowers like small mass graves. The toys have been burnt, except for the dolls, which have become for some half-demented women a substitute for children. The schools, long closed, have been boarded up or used as centres for adult education. The children’s books have been systematically removed from our libraries. Only on tape and records do we now hear the voices of children, only on film or on television programmes do we see the bright, moving images of the young. Some find them unbearable to watch but most feed on them as they might a drug.

Let these be thy gods, O Israel.

 

Michael Martin is author of The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics (2015), Meditations in Times of Wonder (2014), and editor of The Heavenly Country: Primary Sources, Poetry, and Critical Essays on Sophiology (2016). He teaches philosophy and English at Marygrove College and runs an organic/biodynamic farm in Grass Lake, Michigan with his wife and children.

Copyright 2016 Michael Martin

Photo by ImBooToo (2015) via Morguefile

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