Sunday, January 02, 2005

Last of the Holiday Reading Marathon

With the winter holiday nearing the end, I feel a bit like Cinderella. There are lots of last-minute tasks I meant to finish during the break, and today's the day to get them all done. At the beginning of the vacation, I promised myself I'd start the New Year on the upswing by polishing my dress shoes and ironing my work clothes. As of yet, neither task has been touched. There are a few more holiday cards I'd like to send out, and I should really send a couple of e-mails to old friends. What's more, in the fridge I've got all the fixings for one more holiday pie. This task will probably get tackled before the ironing...

While there's a stack of books on the kitchen table I'd like to browse through before the end of today, I did finish reading one book that was a gripping holiday page-turner. The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan promises to give a "plant's eye view of the world." It certainly gave me a lot to think about. The basic thesis of the book is that we tend to think we're in charge in the garden and on the farm, but maybe the plants are more clever than we give them credit. By offering fruit or flowers that please us, plants ensure we keep planting them. Pleasing the gardener is just one more plant survival strategy.

Building on this idea, Pollan explores four plants in detail--apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. The chapter on the apple was the most fascinating to me. Pollan points out that apples produce seeds that are super varied genetically. This means that if you were to plant the seeds inside an apple core, the resulting trees would be totally different than their parents. The standard apple orchards of today are created through grafting--not seeds. Early US immigrants tried to bring over apple tree stock from the old world, but the plants did not fair so well during the ocean voyage. So the early settlers had to plant apple seeds to grow the fruit. As a result of the wild genetic variation in the seeds, new US apple varieties were developed ideally suited to the growing conditions here. Pollan explains this process more poetically:

In effect, the apple, like the settlers themselves, had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn as an American--as Newtown Pippins and Baldwins, Golden Russets and Jonathans. This is what the seeds on John Chapman's boat were doing. (It may also be what Chapman was doing.) By reverting to wild ways--to sexual reproduction, that is, and going to seed--the apple was able to reach down into its vast store of genes, accumulated over the course of its travels through Asian and Europe, and discover the precise combinations of traits required to survive in the New World. ... Thanks to the species' inherent prodigality, coupled with the work of individuals like John Chapman, in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves.

What follows is a fascinating depiction of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), and the Great Apple Rush, a period in the 1800s when every farmer was on the hunt for the next hot apple variety in their own orchard. Pollan describes the foothills in Kazastan where apples of startling diversity grow wild, and he visits a USDA land lap that is part apple orchard and part genetic library, where orchardists grow two of most of the apple varieties ever grown in this country. The book gave me a new appreciation for the humble apple. I had no idea apples came in such a range of sizes, textures, and tastes. If my gardening skills improve, I may try my hand at growing a tree or two, myself.


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