A field of rats, a field of tulips

Fecundity is anathema only in the animal. “Acres and acres of rats” has a suitably chilling ring to it that is decidedly lacking if I say, instead, “acres and acres of tulips.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Acres and acres — rats and tulips, babies and dandelions, cockroaches and trees. This brings us to the last of ADF’s nine virtues and the one I will utterly excoriate: fertility. 

Fertility comes from the Latin verb ferre, meaning “to bear.” It means something capable of reproduction, whether rats or tulips — continuously productive, continuously sending its DNA out into the world. When it comes to soil, it refers to an abundance of material needed to support plant growth. Plants ultimately support animals, at least the higher-order sort. A related term is fecundity, which — like fertility — ultimately comes from the root “fe,” to bring forth young, which is ultimately the root of fetus, feminine and female.

Fertility was the cornerstone of a women’s value in the ancient world, particularly her ability to bring forth sons. Children were wealth: free labor to work the fields and weave the cloth, to take care of siblings and goats, even to sell in harsh economic times. When fewer humans died in infancy, education became compulsory and child labor illegal, children then became an economic burden for families, who had fewer of them. Similarly, an increase in women’s education and work opportunities also dramatically decreases her fertility, since she no longer needs to reproduce quite so lavishly to prove her worth.
This is perhaps a dark view of fertility. Both men and women in the modern age who face what was once called “barrenness” resort to medical procedures to restore fertility, drugs and in-vitro and even surrogacy. It is a biological drive. A successful species is one that can reproduce, shooting its DNA off into the uncertain future. Highly fertile species — humans, cockroaches, dandelions, rabbits — have a greater chance of surviving than those with more complicated and compromised reproductive capacity, such as cheetahs. Fertility, then, is a mark of being alive.
That’s on a species level, of course. A childless woman is just as alive as a mother of ten, and perhaps has more energy to prove it. But it comes back to the field of tulips versus the field of rats problem. Animal fertility, in order to be sustained, must be far less than the fertility of the green world on which it depends. An overabundance of deer will lead to mass starvation in the woods come winter. A people who overpopulate a less than fertile environment — one prone to desertification and infrequent rains, for example — will frequently face starvation and mass death. And on the individual level, high fertility can chain a person to her (almost always a “her”) reproductive role, stunting any other personal, professional or spiritual opportunity.
With seven billion human mouths to feed on an increasingly polluted Earth, do we really want to view fertility as a virtue?
Granted, ADF doesn’t really mean reproduction. It defines fertility as “bounty of mind, body and spirit, involving creativity, production of objects, food, works of art, etc., an appreciation of the physical, sensual, nurturing….” It strikes me, then, that their concept of “fertility” can really be termed “creativity,” if you shave off the last confusing phrase that ends in the ellipsis. Create comes from the Latin “creare,” to make, and involves the mind as well as the hands.
But is it a virtue, though, to create?
Obviously, creation can be a boon for society. Someone, somewhere, came up with the first loaf of bread, the first fire drill and the first flush toilet. But someone also came up with the first man-killing spear, the first poison, the first hydrogen bomb. Creation itself is value neutral.
There are perfectly kind, compassionate and gentle human beings who cannot paint, sing or invent a new type of car engine. There are deeply talented artists who moonlight as the world’s biggest assholes. Creativity, while it can contribute to culture, cannot sustain it on its own. Like an above-average IQ or the virtue ADF calls “vision,” creativity is a nice thing to have — but not a virtue, in my mind. Aedh Rua doesn’t list any virtue that can be connected with either creativity or fertility, which I tend to view as telling.
My husband mused that the ADF virtues ares the “snooty list.” I’d tend to agree. It doesn’t have in mind the folks who wear work boots, engage in manual labor yet try to love their neighbor as themselves. Being a cultural high-flier with creativity, vision and piety doesn’t make you a virtuous person, since you could still be a complete jerk lacking compassion, mindfulness and humility.
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About whitecatgrove

The musings of a Druid priestess, singer, poet and musician in Upstate New York.
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