Friday, October 26, 2012

Taking Inventory

I've now finished the mandatory book-and-movie research phase of "The Vault." In theory. Sort of. Not really. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to list everything I've seen or read in the last few months to immerse myself in the strange realm of science fiction, dystopia, and um ... botany. Here goes, in no particular order, and probably missing a few:

Metropolis (original)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original)
Little Shop of Horrors (original)
Wings of Desire
Silent Running
I Am Legend
2001: A Space Odyssey
Blade Runner (supposedly the definitive director's cut, no VO)
The Thing (John Carpenter version)
Forbidden Planet
E.T. (okay, that was really for James)
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Children of Men
The Matrix
Soylent Green
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
The Grey

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Philip K. Dick
"Collected Works of Philip K. Dick"
"Childhood's End" Arthur C. Clarke
"The Denial of Death" Ernest Becker
"Stranger in a Strange Land" Robert A. Heinlein
"At the Mountains of Madness" H.P. Lovecraft
"Botany for Dummies" (seriously)
"The Private Lives of Plants" Richard Attenborough

And the article that started it all
"Food Ark" National Geographic

It's been fun, but now it's time to mash it all up and bake a new cake.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tinged with Expectation

“Facts collected by a poet are set down at last as winged seeds of truth ... tinged with expectation." 
- Thoreau

The symbolism of seeds is almost too obvious to mention. To the "weed scientist" I spoke with at the University of Minnesota nearly a year ago, a seed is simply a collection of genetic material. The more you look at plant terminology, the more "womb-like" seeds seem (they have "embryos," after all). But of course, the "seed" of anything represents beginnings and potential. Each seed is a story waiting to be told. 

THE VAULT attempts to use seeds to get at themes of human potential, or the lack thereof. Which is interesting, because in a way seeds (and plant life in general) put us in our evolutionary place. Plants predate humans by millions of years. And in fact, when you look at life from the perspective of a plant (which David Attenborough did in his book and subsequent documentary series, "The Private Life of Plants"), you start to see humans (and all animals) as subservient to organisms so sophisticated that they make their own food. All animals, even the staunchest carnivores, ultimately depend on plants to live, as no animal, not even an arctic seal, lives on a diet that doesn't start with plant life. And as for fruit ... well, what are fruits excepts billboards to animals saying "eat this" so that a plant's seeds can be dispersed when they come out the other end? We are plants' bitch. Humbling. 

As for the Svalbard Vault, or any gene bank for that matter, how perfectly does that creation sum up everything great and tragic about the human species? We have the forethought and scientific capability to fashion a way of saving a precious resource from a variety of unpredictable forces, including the most frightening of all: ourselves. This shows our complex relationship with our own potential. The writer Chris Hedges argues that we evolve technologically but never morally. Now, as in every political season, we are pounded with messages conveying our potential as individuals and as a nation. Yet as we age, we face the reality of seeing how flawed we become, and so we turn our  hopes toward our children in an endless cycle of "we screwed things up, but you can fix them." 

We are all, as Thoreau said, "tinged with expectation." The question is, given our mortality ... and more important, our relentless consciousness of it ... what can we truly expect of ourselves, can we ever actually live up to the various potentials that we can imagine, and even if we can't, is there an overall "forward" momentum, or are we merely standing in place, like a plant? 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Time to Open the Vault

A frost-covered door inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
So the time has come to get serious about finishing my new script, THE VAULT, by the end of the year. That's why I'm writing a blog post instead ...

Actually, blogging about THE VAULT is part of my intricate strategery for getting the script done. I'll never solve the mystery of what this movie is really about. But rather than conduct the investigation entirely inside my own head, I'm making it slightly more public. After all, I've been inside my head for over 40 years. It's crowded in there. And frankly, I'm a bit sick of it.

For those of you who don't know the basic premise of THE VAULT, here's a little background. A "seed vault," or "gene bank," is a site for storing the seeds of agriculture. Nearly every country on Earth has at least one seed vault. Our own National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation is based in Fort Collins, Colorado. The purpose is to have a secure central storage place for the seeds that your country uses to grow things. These seeds represent a huge chunk of a nation's economy.  Because after all, from seeds come the raw materials of not only food, but also clothing and shelter.

About five years ago, an American named Cary Fowler decided to do something on a grander scale: lead the construction of the world's first "global seed vault," containing backup copies of all the seeds stored in the national vaults. Why? Because genetic diversity in food-bearing plants is shrinking just as it's growing critically important. The math is highly unfavorable. Global population is skyrocketing, which will continue to put tremendous strains on our food supply. And yet the tools for growing that food supply are quickly dwindling.

Why is this important? Because plant genes form the "palette" from which you can develop fruit, vegetable, grain, legume, nut and rice strains that can survive extreme weather conditions and stave off nasty insects or fungi. To form a clumsy double-metaphor, it just so happens that when it comes to plant-based food, putting all your eggs on one basket can burn you. The Irish learned this in 1845, when the Phytophthora infestans fungus killed the tuber potato crop on which they had become totally dependent (also known as the Potato Famine). If you don't have the genetic palette to plant or create new resistant varieties of a plant ... and you're dealing with massive global climate change that affect soils, water supplies and the presence and migrations of fungi and bugs ... then you're basically on a road to disaster.

How much has our genetic palette diminished over the last hundred years? Consider this: A century ago, U.S. seed banks contained 307 varieties of sweet corn. Today, there are 12. I took that from this graphic, which should scare you.

So Cary Fowler's ("Fowler is an anagram for "flower," BTW ... go figure) Global Seed Vault was born in 2008 in the Norwegian town of Spitsbergen, which sits on the chain of arctic islands known at Svalbard, just 600 miles from the North Pole. Drilled 500 feet into a mountain, the vault is approaching 1 million seed varieties from around the world. It has already helped replenish seed banks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (our wars led to looting) and the Philippines (flood and fire has destroyed existing depositories). Svalbard is built in a low-seismic, volcano-free zone, where the climate is amenable to preserving seeds and surviving nuclear war, the complete melting of the polar ice caps, and even an asteroid strike.

So back to my script. It started with a simple idea: What if the construction crew that was building the Svalbard seed vault stumbled on an existing vault in the exact same place, filled with seeds that no one has ever seen before? And that, my friends, is where the story begins.