Firecracker Seeds

This overstuffed, didactic novel-in-a-thousand-words was originally written for a WRITE CLUB Atlanta bout. My topic was “crime.” It is a work of fiction. Don’t fear the reaper.

Not everything starts off small. No one knew it was the first of anything at the time, but the fire at the Chester Farm started in the small hours of May 20, 1993, on the edge of a small community of farms burning to the ground much slower than the Chester’s. Somewhere in the midwest. Their seed storage containers were ablaze. The dry seed went up quickly, flames reaching to the clouds, and died down fast. But firecracker seeds spat out in every direction and lit the field like an old fashioned prairie blaze. It took the entire next day to put it out. The family was nowhere to be found–probably high tailed it at the first sign of trouble. Their farm was being foreclosed on anyway.

Insurance money was paid out to the bank, investigations were begun and trails went cold. The story might have blown over like bees through a flower bed.

But the bees had largely gone away. Pesticides in plants–not sprayed there, but actually encoded into the plant’s DNA–had found their way into the hive. By 2005 the poison pollen had deteriorated immune systems and bees began dying by the thousands. The research lab Beeologics discovered that it may be Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company’s genetic pesticides causing bee death and very quickly, the chemical giant bought that squat, modern laboratory surrounded by palm trees across the street from a Miami high school.

Until an explosion tore through its south wall and brought the roof down in the dead of night.

Dismay and alarm rippled through the environmental community, stoked by a sense of betrayal that “one of our own” had been targeted. A letter was received at the offices of the Miami Herald, addressed by someone calling themselves REAPER. “Monsanto,” it read in part, “is responsible for this calamitous problem… It is unconscionable that they should be allowed to work on the non-solution as well. Expect more to come. Love, REAPER.”

Reaction was wildly mixed. Environmental groups fell over themselves to “condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of violence” etc. etc. But there was a barely contained sense that they were glad someone–some person–had taken that angry task upon themselves.

That summer, a string of fires ripped across the midwest, the last was a manufacturing plant in Viola, Idaho . REAPER’s letter explained that the plant was being used to extract a substance called vanadium, a toxic compound used in the production of sulfuric acid which Monsanto was extracting for use in plant fertilizer, which–and this was underlined–they are within the rights of government regulation to do. “It is our belief,” the letter concluded, “that the world has gone mad to allow poisons into the soil in the interest of growing food.”

Investigations were proving fruitless. The chemical signatures were inconsistent, bomb components difficult to trace. And then, nothing. Time passed and the national conversation on genetically modified agriculture petered out as the news cycle turned over to foreign wars, celebrity weddings, stunt legislation and the like.

The band-aid was ripped off again when a grain silo a few hours outside of Iowa City blew into smithereens. Nitrogen tri-iodide had been used, and it’s a wonder, one detective was quoted as saying, “that the perpetrator didn’t blow himself up on the car ride over.” There was no letter, but “FEAR THE REAPER” was spraypainted on a nearby barn. Authorities suspected a copycat. In the coming weeks, they would suspect many more, as Monsanto seed supplies and processing plants were hit in four other states.

An office park sits, just off a sweeping cloverleaf interchange outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The headquarters of Monsanto. Or it was until an explosion crushed it to the ground, the resulting fire lending an early dawn to the midwestern night. Nearby witnesses claimed it was actually kind of funny, really. They swore that the buildings were buzzed by a small airplane. A cropduster. One pass spraying some sort of liquid, the second pass dropping an explosive device. “Clever,” one eyewitness commented.

The cropduster was left abandoned in a field several miles away. A letter was left on the seat. “How many farmers must be driven from their land by a company that rakes in 10 billion dollars a year?  How many organs must fail under the weight of poisoned food? How long will we exploit and destroy farmers across the globe before those responsible are brought to justice? This long. I beg you. This long.” The letter ended saying its author was “tired. I’ve done more than my share of mischief. I see others have been taking my place. Why don’t you come get me?”

The FBI worked quickly. REAPER had left a pretty obvious path–using a credit card to rent the plane. The story, which the bureau will not confirm, is that when agents descended on his home, the slight man of 75 with the white, short cropped hair was barefoot and grilling hamburgers for them.

REAPER, now known to be David Ray Chester of Macon, IL, a local farmer and father of three, refused all but one interview from his cell–with the Times.

Q: Why Monsanto?

A: Simple answer is they destroyed my grandfather’s farm. He worked the land for 50 years, and they found stray crops they had patents on growing in his field. Probably blew off a seed truck. So that was my first fire…Monsanto forced us to destroy the seeds he’d spent his life cultivating so both our past and our future have been plundered. Monsanto has a near-monopoly on the lives of some of our most basic crops and one corporation doesn’t have a moral right to so much control over what goes into our bodies.

Q: And why not fight them in court?

A: Look, I’m one man. The laws of this land do not favor the individual over the corporation. To fight within a system which regards money as speech is asking to be buried alive. Forget church and state, we need separation of state and commerce. Corporations and governments–if there is a difference between the two–are humanity’s Frankenstein monsters. We have to go after them with pitchforks and torches. We must be the guardians of “right” and “wrong,” and when the world is being destroyed, the thing that will save it will not be ‘law.’ It will be the violence of decent men.