May 24, 2013
‘Lost Horizon’ for American Ovaries
Posted on Jul 28, 2011
The novel asks if we, the “first world,” should be spending billions to develop drugs that might let us have it all (whether that’s a baby in our 60s or, maybe, a life span of 100-plus) when that money could save the lives of millions of existing children in the developing world. In April, a British fertility clinic announced a new technique using liquid nitrogen that allows women to flash-freeze their eggs, a more viable method than the slower-freezing methods of the past. In the U.K.’s Daily Mail, the clinic director said that if women “freeze their eggs at the age of 30, then those eggs will stay that age forever, so they can have a baby even at the age of 50 with no greater chance of miscarriage or Down syndrome than they had at 30.”
Here is what Patchett’s straight-talking Swenson would say about that: “Perhaps instead of trying to reproduce themselves, these postmenopausal women who want to be mothers could adopt up some of the excess [children] that surely will be available.”
The novel explicitly portrays the difficulty of childbearing for an older woman. Maybe the ovaries would keep working, but how about the hips? The bladder? What about sheer exhaustion? Marina suspects there is something addictive in the “fenneled bark” that “kept the Lakashi women trudging back to the trees long after they were sick to death of babies.”
There is indeed a narcotic quality to the Lakashi tree bark, maybe not unlike the American addiction to “having it all,” the delusion that all desires must be fulfilled. Even when we know better, our thoughts gnaw at what we don’t have.
Endless possibility is lovely. The secret grove of the elixir of fertility is the most enduring image in the novel. Picture an airy stand of tall trees with “buttery yellow” bark and pale oval leaves sprouting from branches high above the ground. Flitting about in the dappled light are lavender moths, which lay their eggs in the bark. The trees and moths are found nowhere else in the world. The key to fertility lies in the combination of the moth larvae and the bark.
Unless they are pregnant, the Lakashi women come to this grove to gnaw on the trees. Of course, Marina imbibes. The fruitful bark, which is “nearly soft, yielding. It offered up the slightest amount of pulpy liquid that tasted of fennel and rosemary. …” Toward the end of the novel, she’s hooked. “She wanted to stuff herself with the bark, to turn herself into medical evidence before she went home. Her goal was to make up for all the bark she hadn’t eaten in the past and anticipate the bark she would never eat in the future.”
Alas, she doesn’t try the magic mushrooms. Even more potent than the Bodhi tree bark of boundless babies are the glowing, blue mushrooms, “each cap a perfect golf ball on a tall, slender stem,” growing prolifically at the base of the trunks. “Your passport to spiritual enlightenment,” one of the scientists says in describing the blue caps, central to Lakashi rituals. They too grow only in this grove and can’t be grown in a lab, not even in the same soil.
One of the reasons Swenson and the others keep secret the location of their research is these mushrooms. “This place would be overrun,” says one of the scientists, “drug dealers, the Brazilian government, other tribes, German tourists, there’s no telling who would get here first and what sort of war would ensue. … [T]he Lakashi would be destroyed.”
We of the civilized world, Patchett seems to say, are pretty barbaric when it comes to getting what we want.
This is a rich novel with many fun twists and lots of questions about desire, entitlement, ethics, childbearing and the limits of nature and technology. Fertility bark? Maybe not. But about those blue mushrooms. …
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