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Control, CONTROL, Failure

aquato's picture

            How would you feel if you were told control is useless? Many younger generations believe that control is a means to a better future. A lack of self-directed control has negative connotations—to lose control is to lose a sense of predictability, reassurance, and stability. In Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation, however, several characters try to take advantage of their environments, and each instance ends on a sour note. A consistent standard appears in the book, implying that controlling one’s environment ends badly, and rather is better taken care of by working in harmony of the environment.

            A large theme of All Over Creation deals with the environment surrounding planting. While musing about the importance of seeds, Yumi states, “planting is all about the ancient human impulse to harness miracle[s] and make it perform for our benefit” (Ozeki 171). There are, however, different ways people can go about doing this. One route would be control, represented in this scenario as the big corporation genetically modified crops (GMOs). By using chemicals and pesticides, farmers are able to obtain better yield for their crop—but at what cost? The modified NuLife potatoes, which produce insecticide within every inch of the plant, are seen killing off beetles within a minute. Without proper testing, nobody knows any long-term effects done to humans when eating the NuLifes.

            The other route, then, is less control and more of what Lloyd would call “seasonable cultural practices”. In an inspirational speech to the Young Potato Growers of Idaho, Lloyd describes that “with the cooperation of God and science, and seasonable cultural practices, man could work in harmony with nature to create a relationship of perfect symbiotic mutualism” (Ozeki 6). Cooperation. Mutualism. Harmony. This is not the aggressive controlling fist of GMOs—this is the careful, compliant hand that sows seeds in accordance to nature’s wishes. And this worked: the book mentions in the next sentence that within fourteen years, Lloyd’s methods increase his acreage six fold.

            Setting their sights on this same harmonious method, the activist group Seeds of Resistance come to town. They cooperate with the Fullers, categorizing seeds and helping out with farming. It leads to a communal sharing of seeds, and the hope for preservation of growing organic is alive and well. Unfortunately, the Seeds don’t stop there, as they make an effort to control the fate of GMOs by staging a teach-in, educating the community, but ultimately rooting up a farmer’s NuLifes in a bid to condemn them. Their actions—their protests, “the Potato Party, the lawsuits, the time spent in jail, the birth and deaths and the bombing of the Spudnik—all of these had taken up too much time, and the seed crop had suffered” (Ozeki 407). Their endeavor for control eventually destroyed their hard-worked cooperation, so in retrospect, it may have been more beneficial to not do any opposition at all.

            But plants are one thing. Surely a human being can control their own personal future and identity, right? According to Ozeki, no—even the very attempt at control leads to ruin. The characters Yumi and Cass, who serve as foils to each other, illustrate a good example of control vs. cooperation. Yumi, a stubborn child who indulges in vices condemned by her small town, tries taking matters into her own hands. In a letter she writes to her parents after she runs away, Yumi writes that she “left for reasons of shame . . . the shame was yours, and knew if [she] stayed, [she’d] be poisoned by it.  [She’d] grow up all screwy, bent with the weight of [her parent’s] shame” (Ozeki 37). She figures that she wants to shape her own identity, rather than let it be deformed by her environment, and runs away from Liberty Falls. She leaves no room for compromise, controlling this aspect of her environment by removing herself from it in its entirety. Fast forward years later when she finally returns to Idaho, and what has she become? She is a mother of three, but everyone around her believes she is a terrible parent; people continue to call her an irresponsible bad seed, undeserving of her kids. She mopes around, smoking and drinking herself unconscious. Is this the future she wanted? How different would things have turned out if she didn’t try to control her environment?

            Cass, on the other hand, does take this path and remains in their hometown. She pioneers the route of cooperating with her hostile surroundings—consisting of farming environment and an abusive family situation—and slowly works through it. In one scene, Cass and Yumi discuss Yumi’s reasons for running away. Yumi reasons that Lloyd hit her, but Cass responds that “[her own] daddy did worse to [her]. There were times when [Cass] hated him at least as much, but [she] never left. [She] just put up with it” (Ozeki 241). Like the plants she grows, Cass overwinters, dealing with whatever is thrown at her in harmony with her environment. She wants to take over the Fuller’s farm, and so helps the Fullers in their old age to take care of things. When she tries having babies, they all inevitably follow with a miscarriage. She weathers through it, thinking to maybe look into adoption. In the end, she is rewarded for her long-suffering toils—after all of the Fullers are gone, she can claim the property, and after Charmey dies, she is given a baby to nurture. It seems reasonable to assume that she received these things as a result of her cooperating with her environment.

            These scenes very plainly paint control as bad and cooperation as good—it’s usually more complicated than that. I don’t mean to say that control is always a bad thing, or will never lead to any good outcomes. In fact, the Seeds’ activism is what continues bad publicity of the NuLifes, eventually going towards the termination of this GMO. Yumi was able to flee an unsupportive family, whereas Cass’s lack of control means that she had to live in an abusive household for years to come. However, direct control often leads to ruin. By the end of the book, Yumi has a realization that she “had to take responsibility for myself and my kids, but also for [many others], too, and yet at the same time I realized I was powerless to forecast or control any of our outcomes” (Ozeki 410). At the end of the day, each of us remains at the whim of our environment, and if we make bids to control it, we live with the consequences.



Anne Dalke's picture

[I just love this phrase!]
I’m very heartened to see you taking on here THE environmental topic, the bad outcomes that inevitably emerge from attempts to control an ecosystem. I’m also very interested to see you interpreting, as similarly pathological, the multiple attempts made in Ozeki’s novel to control one’s personal life and to intervene in problematic agricultural practices. In giving Yumi the last word--“I realized I was powerless to forecast or control any of our outcomes” – you also invite the next question: if “each of us remains @ the whim of our environment,” and if the consequences of trying to control outcomes are always disastrous, how-and-where do we find guidelines for our behavior? Is activism (like that of the Seeds) futile? Is flight (like Yumi’s) preferable? Can’t wait to hear your further thoughts here!