The Botany of Desire Part 3







Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple (Cont)

  • William Ellery Jones is a fifty-one-year-old fund-raising consultant and amateur historian with a dream: to establish a Johnny Appleseed heritage Center and Outdoor Theater on a hillside outside Mansfield.
  • Chapman combined the flinty toughness of a Daniel Boone with the gentleness of a Hindu. He was a deeply pious man – sometimes insufferably so. I wondered how he squared the two vocations: God’s word and hard drink.
  • In Swedenborg’s philosophy, perhaps the most intellectually demanding religious doctrine of the time, there is no rift between the natural world and the divine.
  • Swdenborg claimed that there was as one-to-one ‘correspondence between natural and spiritual facts, so that close attention and devotion to the former would advance one’s understanding of the latter.
  • Thus an apple tree in bloom was part of a natural process of making fruit at the same time it was a ‘living sermon from God’; likewise, a crow wheeling overhead was a type of the black forces waiting to overtake men’s souls when they wandered off the path.
  • It may have been Chapman’s conviction that this world is a type or rough draft of the next that allowed him to overlook or dissolve the tensions the rest of us perceive between the realms of matter and spirit, as well as nature and civilization.
  • Settlers would welcome Chapman into their homes, offering a meal and a bed to this strange man in rags. I was reminded of how the gods of classical mythology would sometimes appear at people’s doors dressed as beggars.
  • Just to be on the safe side, the Greeks would shower hospitality on even the most dubious stranger, because you never knew when the ragged fellow on your doorstep might turn out to be Athena in disguise.
  • I realized that Chapman was the American Dionysus.
  • The apple was only one of the many Old World plants John Chapman brought with him into the country. Everyone knows that the settlement of the West depended on the rifle and the ax, yet the seed was no less instrumental in guaranteeing European’s success in the New World.
  • The Europeans brought with them to the frontier a kind of portable ecosystem that allowed them to re-create their accustomed way of life – the grasses their livestock needed to thrive, herbs to keep themselves healthy, Old World fruits and flowers to make life comfortable.
  • In the process of changing the land, Chapman also changed the apple – or rather, made it possible for the apple to change itself.
  • The Geneva orchard in New York is, among other things, a museum of the apple’s golden age in America.
  • By planting so many apples from seed, Americans like Chapman had, willy-nilly, conducted a vast evolutionary experiment, allowing the Old World apple to try out literally millions of new genetic combinations, and by doing so to adapt to the new environment in which the tree now found itself. 
  • Whenever a tree growing in the midst of a planting of nameless cider apples somehow distinguished itself – it would promptly be named, publicized, and multiplied.

Through this simultaneous process of natural and cultural selection, the apples took up into themselves the very substance of America – its soil and climate and light, as well as the desires and tastes of its people, and even perhaps a few of the genes of America’s native crab apples. In time all these qualities became part and parcel of what an apple in America is.

In the years after John Chpman began plying his trade through the Midwest, America witnessed what has sometimes been called the Great Apple Rush. People scoured the countryside for the next champion fruit. The discovery of a Jonathan or Baldwin or Grimes Golden could bring an America fortune and even a measure of fame, and every farmer tended his cider orchard with an eye to the main chance: the apple that would hit it big. ‘Every wild apple shrub excites our expectations thus,’ Thoreau wrote, ‘somewhat as every wild child. It is, perhaps, a prince in disguise. What a lesson to man! Poets and philosophers and statesmen thus spring up in the country pastures, and outlast the hosts of unoriginal men.’

The nationwide hunt for pomological genius, the odds of which were commonly held to be eighty thousand to one, brought forth literally hundreds of new varieties. The sheer profusion of qualities that Americans discovered in the apple during its seedling heyday is something to marvel at, especially since so many of those qualities have been lost in the years since.

  • There is, or was, a single Golden Delicious tree, of which every subsequent tree bearing that name has been a grafted clone. The apples reshuffled their genes in order to reinvent themselves for life in the New World.
  • The Golden Delicious now grows on five continents, but many others thrive only in America and in some cases are adapted to life in but a single region.
  • The golden age of American apples that John Chapman helped to underwrite lives on in the Geneva orchard – yet just about no place else.
  • The reason for its existence is that descendants of Appleseed’s apple seeds have been all but killed off by the dominance of a few commercially important apples – that and a pinched modern idea of what constitutes sweetness.
  • A far more brutal winnowing of the apple’s prodigious variability took place around the turn of the century when the temperance movement drove cider underground and cut down the American cider orchard, that wildness preserve and riotous breeding ground of apple originality.
  • Refrigeration made possible a national market for apples and promoting a small handful of brand-name varieties. Now just two qualities counted: beauty and sweetness. The apple had to compete with every other kind of sugary snack food in the supermarket.
  • Thousands of apple traits, and the genes that code those traits, have become extinct as apple diversity has been winnowed down to the small handful of varieties that can pass through the needle’s eye of our narrow conceptions of sweetness and beauty.

That is why the Geneva orchard is a museum. ‘Today’s commercial apples represent only a small fraction of the Malus gene pool,’ Phil Forsline, its curator, told me as we walked to a far corner of the orchard, where there was something unusual he wanted me to see. Forsline is a gangly horticulturist in his fifties with striking Nordic blue eyes and sandy hair starting to gray. ‘A century ago there were several thousand different varieties of apples in commerce: now most of the apples we grow have the same five or six parents: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonathan, Macintosh, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. Breeders keep going back to the same well, and its getting shallower.’

Forsline has devoted a career to preserving and expanding the apple’s genetic diversity. He’s convinced that the modern history of the apple – particularly the practice of growing a dwindling handful of cloned varieties in vast orchards – has rendered it less fit as a plant, which is one reason modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop. Forsline explained why this is so.

In the wild a plant and its pests are continually coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor. But coevolution ceases to exists in an orchard of grafted trees, since they are genetically identical from generation to generation. The problem very simply put is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when grown from seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples have once possessed. Suddenly total victory is in the pest’s sight – unless, that is, people come to the tree’s rescue, wielding the tools of modern chemistry.

Put another way, the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature (where it still has to live, after all) has been dangerously compromised. Reduced to a handful of genetically identical clones that suit our taste and agricultural practice, the apple has lost the crucial variability – the wilderness – that sexual reproduction confers.

  • The solution is for us to help the apple evolve artificially by introducing fresh genes through breeding.
  • Another genetic reshuffling may be necessary, which is why it is so important to preserve as many different apple genes as possible. It’s a question of biodiversity.
  • Every time an old apple variety drops out of cultivation, a set of genes vanishes from the earth.
  • In the case of the apple, the center of diversity lies in Kazakhstan. Forsline has made several trips to the area, bringing back thousands of seeds and cuttings that he has planted in the back of the Geneva orchard.
  • It was Nikolai Vavilov, the great Russian botanist who fell victim to Stalin’s repudiation of genetics, and died in a Leningrad prison in 1943, who first identified the wild apple’s Eden in the forests around Alma-Ata, in Kazakhstan, in 1929.
  • One of his last surviving students, Aimak Djangaliev, invited a group of American plant scientists to see the wild apples he had been studying, needing help to save the wild stands of Malus sieversii from real estate development.
  • Forsline and his colleagues were astonished to find entire forests of three-hundred-year-old trees, some of them bearing apples as large and red as modern cultivated varieties.
  • He determined to save as much of this germ plasma as possible, feeling certain that somewhere among the wild apples of Kazakhstan could be found genes for disease and pest resistance, as well as apple qualities beyond our imagining.
  • He collected hundreds of thousands of seeds, planted as many as he had space for in Geneva, and offered the rest to researchers and breeders around the world. The wild apples have found their Johnny Appleseed.
  • When people rely on too few genes for too long, a plant loses its ability to get along on its own, outdoors. Something like that happened to the potato in Ireland in the 1840s, and it may be happening to the apple right now.
  • What saved the potato from that particular blight was genes for resistance that scientists found in wild potato’s growing in the Andes, the potato’s own center of diversity.
  • What happens when the wild potatoes and wild apples are gone? The best technology can’t create a new gene or re-create one that’s been lost. How lucky for us that wilderness survives in a seed and can be cultivated.

‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.,’ Thoreau once wrote; a century later, when many of the wild places are no more, Wendell Berry has proposed this necessary corollary: ‘In human culture is the preservation of wildness.’

Chapter 2: Desire: Beauty /Plant: The Tulip

Chapter 3: Desire: Intoxication/Plant: Marijuana

Chapter 4: Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato




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