Harvest had its beginnings almost 10 years ago. When it began I didn't quite know it. But, like most of the important things in life I suppose it needs some retrospect to complete the equation.

For four summers, from 2001 to 2004, I worked for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, specifically, the Plant Protection Division. My task: to trap and track the infamous gypsy moth. The moth is a foreign species. It was brought to America in 1758 as a sort of Frankensteinian project by a European scientist who was trying to create a silk producing insect by interbreeding the moth with a silkworm.  Mary Shelley warned man should not tempt mother nature, and as fate would have it, a strong storm in the Boston area one night toppled a tree that fell into the scientist's insect house, damaging the insect net, and letting all the insects escape. From this event, a whole foreign population of hungry insects was unleashed on the Northeast and they blazed a trail south. Hence, at the turn of the 21st century states in the Southeast have started measures to prevent the spread of the gypsy moth. It is foul, god-damned beast with a furry body and long feathered antennae. The beast is so god-damned foul, in fact, it has no natural predators. Birds won't eat it because of the fur, and with no domestic species to keep it in check the moth, in its larval stage, can strip bare entire swaths of hardwood forests.

But, the moth is not the point, well not completely the point.

 

This job took to me to some of the most rural and mountainous parts of Northwest North Carolina. If you have ever driven through the mountains, maybe for a vacation in a log cabin retreat, or maybe to go camping in a federal or state park, if you have done any of these things then you probably have not seen what I am talking about. There are still people who still live like they lived a hundred years ago. And, more than just the modern day amenities we take for granted, the thing that struck me most was the isolation. 

It would be getting late in the afternoon, the light turning to an orange-red rust, and I would be at least three hours from where I last saw a grocery store or a gas station. Sure enough, though, despite the distance from modernity, I would find a small home tucked back in the crevice of a hill. It would be falling apart at the seams, weeds and trees growing around it, swallowing it up, and swallowing the life inside it. A small bent man or a wiry old woman with a caved in face would stare at me as they would an alien. And, certainly I was an alien to them, they were more a part of the mountain, of the forest, than they were akin to me and wherever the hell it was I came from. Still, it would be naive to imagine these people are all that different from us, they have needs and wants just the same, but what they need and want maybe different and at least on a different scale. 

On one such excursion I was accompanied by my friend who had been doing this work for his whole life. We came across a home, abandoned and almost completely grown into the mountain. This home was not without a story though, and my friend knew it.

The old man who lived in this house had lived by himself for decades until one morning he was found with gun shot wound in his head. 

This old man dug ginseng from the forest around his house. Now, either he was damn good at finding the ginseng or he had the good fortune of living right in the thick of it. Either way he found a lot of it and created a name for himself. The root of the ginseng plant, especially wild ginseng, is quite desirable. Desirable to the tune of 400 or 500 dollars a pound. Granted, it takes a lot of ginseng to make a pound but if you are good you can make quite a handful of cash in a short amount of time, in the fall of the year, ginseng season.

The ginseng man had such a name, in fact, the people who work in horticulture and import and export plants knew he was a good source of the root, which could then be sold overseas for double the rate he was paid. So as sure as the smell of blood on the forest floor draws the bear, the smell of money attracted the business. The old man was approached by a foreigner, a Chinese businessman, rumored to be a member of the Hong Kong Triad, who wanted to trade. The majority of the ginseng harvested domestically is exported to Asia where it is prized and consequently fetches a high price. The Chinese businessman, knowing that this old ginseng hunter was reputed to be the best in the region knew he had to stake his claim early. He wanted to make sure the man would deal exclusively with him. So he offered the man a deal: he would pay him a considerable sum of money up front and the old man would deliver the goods at the end of the season.

The problem with this seemingly profit-sure model was that the mountain, the forest, and nature are not a man-made factory. You can't increase and decrease production to massage the profit margins as you see fit. And as sure as the world, the old man struck out, and he struck out in a serious way. He found a plant here and there but no where near enough to pay off his dealer. To make matters worse, he had spent all the money he was paid, he was in a tight spot. People around the mountain saw the Chinese businessman come to visit more and more; they saw the old man leave his house less and less.

Several weeks after the end of ginseng season, in November, the old man was found in his home, shot in the head. Official cause of death: suicide. Unofficial cause of death: murder. People around the mountain and in the horticulture business are certain, to this day, that the ginseng man was killed. Either way, the bullet in his brain was fired by the same gun. It was the age old gun of man's hubris. Just like the European scientist, and just like Mary Shelley's fable, nature is decidedly not humane. One should beware to treat it as though it is controllable .

When my friend finished the story it was like I was broken from a trance. What a story! I didn't know exactly what it meant but I knew I loved the story and I knew it meant something important. Why it was important to me specifically I wouldn't fully flesh out until years later when I would meet a man named Paul Hodges, and then ultimately write the script for Harvest.

 

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