The first few days after Will and Ramona had gone were lonelier than any other time in my life. I found myself listlessly walking up and down the halls of the university after and between my classes, wanting human interaction but not finding any, even in the flow of students that swirled around me.
A quote I had read somewhere kept going through my head, “Loneliness is the solitary confinement of the soul.” The bars that held me were made of social constructs and mantras I could not accept and still be me. I watched my peers and wondered how many of them were lonely and how many had sacrificed their individuality to not be lonely. Somehow, those bars did not exist around Will and Ramona.
An envelope with grain and soil samples arrived a few days later; each sample was sealed in a separate ziplock bag. There was a sticky note that said simply, Hi Molly! I stuck it to my mirror and stood there, lost in the memory of my last exchange with Will Morgan.
The afternoon they left, I skipped a class to drive out to the campground where they had been staying.
Will and Ramona were already in their truck, about to drive back to the Morgan farm. I was sorry to see them go.
Ramona handed me four more bottles of their home-brewed beer through her passenger side window. I clutched them to me and walked back to my car, where I put them in my trunk, then I returned to Will's window and preempted his ‘goodbye'.
“Will, do you happen to have any of your homegrown corn seed with you in the truck?”
He looked down at me from the open window and his smile was quizzical.
“Uh. . . no, I don't think so. Why?”
“I want to look at it—in the lab. You know, my part-time job at the lab? Doctor Meir and I are working on a series of articles on how genetic engineering is influencing the evolution of microbial life and activity. I'd like to look at some grains and soil that have never been influenced by pesticides or genetic manipulation. Could you mail me a few kernels?” I stood on my tiptoes so as to see Ramona as well. She was seated on the other end of the bench seat in the front of the old quad cab truck.
“Sure,” Will replied agreeably. “Do you want a package of dirt too?” His grin made me want to hold onto his brown arm, which rested on the open window, and laugh with him about something, anything.
“Yes, please,” I answered.
“Come to think of it,” he added, “I might send you some wheat too. We buy our wheat, and it's supposed to be non-GM, but I've always wondered if there are any traces of GM in it. Could you look at that too?”
“Sure,” I nodded, bouncing up and down on my toes. “Dr. Meir won't mind. He's really wonderful. I wish you could meet him.”
“How do you know him?” Ramona asked.
“He's a professor at the university, and he's my doctoral advisor. He's not very popular because of his views; most people think of him as being kind of radical. But he's not radical, he's just honest.”
“Okay, we've gotta go,” Will said, pulling his arm away from me. I was forced to realize that I didn't have a grip on it except in my own mind. I nodded and stepped away from the truck.
“We'll see you in a month or so!” Ramona called as they drove out of the parking lot.
Ten days later, I drove toward the air force base, found a parking spot and walked to the lab. My white lab coat swished around my calves. It was too long and brought back a childhood memory that made me smile.
When I was six, my mother bought me a white housecoat for Halloween. She told me it was a “doctor's coat.” I loved that thing and wore it for years, along with my mother's old reading glasses and a stethoscope she found at a secondhand store.
Not long after that, Dad took me with him to the bowling ally while Mom worked overtime one evening. I was wearing my coat and stethoscope. Dad introduced me to his bowling team as “Dr. Flynn.” I was so proud of that introduction I sat in pleased and lofty silence for the duration of two hours. I occasionally used my stethoscope to check the nearby chairs for respiratory or cardiac anomalies.
I smiled at the recollection, pleased to find myself walking into a lab, wearing another too-long lab coat—but this time, officially.
“Hello, Molly,” Dr. Meir greeted me. I was momentarily surprised at his failure to address me as Dr. Flynn.
Dr. Meir's round face shone like an over-polished piece of glazed pottery. I knew this was from frequently washing his hands and face, as he was wont to do every half hour.
I'd been in labs that were about as sterile as a fast food restaurant, but Dr. Meir was a stickler for cleanliness. Most mornings, my first job was to wipe stainless steel surfaces, glass cabinet doors, and mop a floor that was already clean enough to use for a dinner plate. After that, I had the opportunity to enter data on the various samples that were analyzed in the lab, and work on our most recent project.
“Today I need you to prepare some samples for me,” Dr. Meir instructed, pointing to a sealed package of seeds, and another of soil, on a stainless steel table nearby.
Our lab did not do genetic modification, but Dr. Meir did examine and study seeds that had already been engineered in various ways. His analysis was then sent back to the modification labs and served as feedback to the engineers. Dr. Meir was often frustrated that his reports did not seem to have any influence.
“I'm a concession!” I heard him exclaim more than once.
Once the samples were ready, I was free to start my daily cleaning routine. At one point I paused and watched Dr. Meir adjust the microscope, and heard him draw a sharp, hissing breath.
“Look at this,” he ordered, stepping back from the microscope. I pulled a step stool out from under the table with my foot and stepped onto it to look into the microscope at a sample from a biotech field. Sharp, angular crystals, like broken glass, lay beneath my gaze.
“Bt?” I asked, without lifting my head.
“Bacillus thuringiensis crystal proteins,” Dr. Meir affirmed.
I already knew that Bt is the bacteria that kills its competitors with an ingenious set of proteins that consolidate to make a little crystal. . . one that simply cuts its competitors' cell walls, or possibly the lining of their gut, if they are big enough to have one. The bit of DNA that Bt uses to make that crystal protein is used in most modified crops.13
Dr. Meir unceremoniously moved me aside to look through the glass again.
“It's irresponsible. A GM plant will reproduce the Bt crystal protein in every cell. Eventually it should break down, but not before it is carried into the stomach of the human or animal who eats it. You could say it's natural—but Nature was never this aggressive and pervasive. Nature knows when to pull the plug. We, on the other hand, are motivated by baser things than the preservation of life.”
He spoke bitterly and with a grief I had not heard in his voice before. “I believe these little monsters are responsible for the plethora of allergies that have appeared in the last two decades14.”
Dr. Meir was referring to the fact that GM crops, modified to produce the crystal protein, kill the bugs that eat them by lacerating them internally. He was not the first or only scientist to believe the Bt crystal protein is piercing the human GI tract as well.
He turned away, muttering, and I went back to cleaning.
“Do you have the soil sample ready?” Dr. Meir asked, returning from washing up and changing his gloves.
“Yes sir, over here,” I answered, pointing with the tilt of my head at another microscope. Dr. Meir bent over it and commented to the room at large.
“I didn't get this sample from the biotech fields.”
“Where did you get it?” I asked, coming to stand next to him, hopeful for another invitation to view his sample.
“From India,” he answered in his typical cryptic manner, without glancing up.
“India? From a research lab there?”
“No. I didn't get it from a lab. I got it from a local lawyer. An East Indian lawyer representing bankrupted cotton farmers.” Although his tone was curt, I knew he was inviting me to continue questioning.
“Oh. He sent you a sample to analyze?”
“This is only one of seventeen samples that I received, each one from a different provence.”
Dr. Meir stood up and stepped away from the microscope. This time I had the step stool ready.
“What do you see?” he asked me.
“I don't know. What is it?”
“Beta-exotoxins,” he answered. “Some isolates of Bt produce a class of insecticidal small molecules called beta-exotoxin. Somehow, in a copy-paste that even Igor couldn't have botched, that DNA code is now in some GM cotton. The beta-exotoxins have reached the soil through the roots of the Bt cotton plants. Fifteen of the soil samples I've analyzed have beta-exotoxins15.”
“What will they do?” I stepped down to glance at Dr. Meir in dismay. He shrugged.
“I don't know,” he said. “Probably decrease soil microbial activity, which would in turn reduce soil enzyme activity, possibly lowering arylsulfatase in specific. . . ” He glanced at me and smiled a brief, humorless smile.
“What do you think the outcome will be?” I persisted, recalling with alarm that along with the 27 million acres of East Indian GM cotton, over 170 million acres of American soil are farmed with genetically modified seed16.
“I don't know,” Dr. Meir repeated, sighing irritably. Then he stood up and leaned against the table to look at me. “What I do know is that beta-exotoxin is known to be toxic to humans and almost all other forms of life. When Bt reaches the human gastrointestinal tract (which I believe it already has) we will begin to see unprecedented levels of cancer, allergies, infertility, and broad spectrum disease that will lead to premature death17. Not to mention what it is probably doing to the viability of the soil in those fields.”
I was speechless and Dr. Meir shuddered as though a cold wind had blown through the room.
“Dr. Meir, why don't they test these things before they spread it all over the world?” I exclaimed incredulously.
“They are testing right now,” he answered, pulling off his gloves with the aspect of despair evident in his posture. “They're using test subjects who get discounts if they are willing to be lab rats while they eat.” Then he abruptly walked out of the lab.
“We're eating diseases,” I heard Will's voice echo in my mind. I stood still for a moment, lost in the memory.
Will, Mona and I had walked to a grocery store during a break in HM classes, to look for some cereal to eat with their raw milk. We stood in the grocery aisle talking and reading the ingredients on the back of one cereal box after another, looking for a cereal that did not contain corn, soy, or sugar byproducts.
As we stood there, a mother with two small children paused to load her cart with several boxes of cereal.
“It's like they're aiming at the kids,” Ramona commented grimly. “I want to warn her—but she wouldn't believe me, or even understand.”
Standing in the grocery store, I had thought Ramona sounded a bit melodramatic, and a lot like Dr. Meir. Now. . . I stood looking through the microscope Dr. Meir had walked away from. The contaminated soil was speckled with toxins.
I wanted to talk to the Morgans. Why hadn't Will called me? It had been more than a week. I dialed the Morgan's number, and hung up before the phone rang. What if he thought I was chasing him?
I'm a scientist, I told myself, pacing back and forth in front of the microscope. I'm a bioengineer. I'm going to be ‘Dr. Flynn' and change the world. Will Morgan, who?
“I just want to tell them what I learned,” I protested aloud, hearing the door click shut behind Dr. Meir as he left the lab to get lunch. “I'll ask for Ramona.”
I leaned against the table and dialed their number again. But no one picked up and I put the phone back in my pocket, feeling deflated. Who else would care? Jeremy. But I could talk to him tomorrow. I went to get the mop bucket.
As I mopped the floor, I tried to work out a relationship with Will in my own mind. It was like an equation I needed an answer to—even if only to prove it could be done.
Lots of couples live separate lives and get to see each other sometimes. I had a professor once who's husband lived and worked in New York. Once a month either he would fly to Albuquerque or she would fly to New York. Of course, they're divorced now.
There's my Uncle Mack. He runs a bowling ally in Lisbon and his wife teaches school in Belfast. They see each other most weekends and have been married for thirty years. They fight a lot though, and Aunt Meg is always complaining about Uncle Mack's philandering.
Well, maybe it can't be done, I thought. And anyway, Will hasn't called, so that solves that.
I finished mopping the floor and decided to start the PCR analysis of the corn and wheat grain that Will and Ramona had sent me through the mail. Last of all, I looked at the soil from their farm.
From the garden, was written in permanent marker on the ziplock bag. I chose to view the soil through the microscope first.
“Holy dirt!” I exclaimed aloud in surprise and appreciation, imitating Will's way of attributing holiness to anything untainted.
I'd never seen a soil sample teaming with so many healthy bacteria and fungi. That little bit of dirt was a world of creatures busily cleaning, eating, and reproducing with (could it be?) joy! I laughed aloud and watched for a while, then I took some video and uploaded it to the computer to show Dr. Meir later.
Next, I needed to clean the sample trays, but I hesitated with the soil sample in my hand, unwilling to throw away that little spoonful of life.
Feeling both sheepish and heroic, I carried the sample tray to a potted plant in the hallway outside of the lab, and dumped it in the dead dirt.
“Good luck,” I told the sample. “You're welcome,” I told the tree.
I spent the weekend on the internet, researching the things I'd heard Dr. Meir say, looking at photos of soil and microbial life, and working on my next paper about the influence of pesticides on soil.
The next week, when I went to class, there was a message on the white board that read, “No class today, Mr. Griswald is ill.”
The next class I attended had half of the usual student numbers.
“What's going on? Where is everybody?” I asked the nearest student. He was an odd, but friendly guy often referred to as “Ocular Mike.”
“Everybody has the flu,” he said, tilting his head back to blink at me through thick glasses.
“How can you see through those things?” I asked, diverted. He reminded me of a turtle for some reason, but I couldn't think of why.
“I can't see without them,” he answered, tugging at his red plaid button-up, while still alternately blinking and squinting. “I'm going to have eye surgery at break. You won't recognize me after that.”
“You might not recognize me either,” I agreed. Mike laughed. He pushed up his glasses so he didn't have to tilt his head back so far in order to see me.
“If I do, and you don't. . . will you go out with me?” he asked. Mike radiated good humor and confidence. I'd heard that he asks every girl that talks to him if she'll go out with him. I decided not to let that make me avoid him like a plague—which is what my classmates recommended.
“If I don't, I might,” I agreed, as I shouldered my backpack. Mike laughed again, undaunted.
I decided to tell him what I learned in the lab the week before, and what I had found on the internet since then. Mike listened, but he kept making jokes and acting flattered so that I finally gave up trying to convince him. I started to walk away. That's when he told me that his dad is a corn farmer in Nebraska.
“And there's nothing wrong with us,” he laughed, throwing his arms out to offer himself as proof. “The only thing I'm allergic too is gluten, and that bothers lots of people.”
“It hasn't always,” I argued. “Have you ever met an elderly person that has always had gluten allergies—even when they were a kid?”
“They might have been allergic and not known what was wrong with them,” Mike shot back. “The tests we have now are a lot more advanced than the ones we had back then.”
“Even the modern allergy tests aren't so different,” I argued, shaking my head. “They typically tell you to eliminate one thing after another from your diet until you figure out what's making you sick. People could always do that—but they never needed to before.”
“I don't know,” Mike shrugged, “if it was that dangerous, it wouldn't be approved. They do all the tests before they approve a new GM crop, you know.”
“Their testing period is never more than three months!” I exclaimed, getting angry. “Usually less! Even the lifespan of a test rodent is around two years! How can you prove anything to be safe in two or three months18?”
Mike stared at me through his thick glasses for a moment, watching me warily. I realized that I'd lost him when I got mad.
I have to learn to control my temper, I thought, sighing.
“Sorry, Mike,” I said, smiling at him apologetically. “I'm not mad. I just get frustrated when people don't see what's going on all around them.”
“It's our livelihood,” Mike said quietly, as though he were submitting a final piece of evidence. “I'm fourth generation corn farmer. What are we supposed to do?”
“I don't know,” I sighed, and reached out to punch his shoulder in a friendly manner. “I'll think about that. And hey—I'll see you around, Mike.”
The next day I received a recorded message on my phone saying that Summer Break was being moved up two weeks due to the flu. Everyone was advised to take care of their health. Instead of finals, the students would receive a grade based on a statistical analysis of their previous scores and attendance records.
I managed to get off of work, and Jeremy told me that he had been laid-off anyway, so we were both free to go. I stopped by the lab to pick up the analysis reports I had run on Will's grain and called the Morgan farm again. This time, Ramona answered.