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Friday, February 27, 2015 @ 06:02 AM
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A preview of the unpublished book A CIVILIZATION WITHOUT A VISION WILL PERISH: AN INDEPENDENT SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH by David Willis. CHAPTER 1: INDIFFERENCE TO POVERTY (Part 62). This blog is a continuation of the review of The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Life Time, by Jeffrey Sachs, published in 2005.

Soils that are utterly exhausted of nutrients
The rest of the community is farming on tiny plots, often no more than 0.1 hectares, with soils that are utterly exhausted of nutrients, and therefore biologically unable to produce an adequate crop. The soils are so depleted of nutrients and organic matter that even if the rains are good, with yields of around one ton of maize per hectare, the households still go hungry. If the rains fail, the households face the risk of death from immunosuppression because of severe undernutrition. Stunting, meaning low height for one’s age, is widespread, a sign of the pervasive and chronic undernutrition of the children.

The price of fertilizer was now out of reach
Farmer after farmer described how the price of fertilizer was now out of reach, and how their current impoverishment left them unable to purchase what they had used in the past. Credits to buy fertilizer are neither available nor prudent for these farmers: a single failed crop season, an untimely episode of malaria, or some other calamity can push a household that has taken on debt into a spiral of unending indebtedness and destitution.

The only things coming back from the cities were coffins
I asked how many households were home to one or more orphaned children left behind by the pandemic. Virtually every hand in the room shot up. I asked how many households were receiving remittances from family members living in Nairobi and other cities. The response was that the only things coming back from the cities were coffins and orphans, not remittances.

They cannot afford the bed nets
I asked how many households had somebody currently suffering from malaria. Around three fourths of the hands shot up. The problem, many of the women explained, is that they cannot afford the bed nets, which sell for a few dollars per net, and are too expensive even when partially subsidized (socially marketed) by international donor agencies.

The villagers could not afford to pay the doctor
A year or so ago, Sauri had a small clinic. The doctor has left and the clinic is now padlocked. The villagers could not afford to pay the doctor and buy the medicines, so the doctor departed.

An increasingly erratic climate
A few years back, Sauri’s residents cooked with locally collected fuel wood, but the decline in the number of trees has left the sublocation bereft of sufficient fuel wood. The community has no money for fertilizers, medicines, school fees, or other basic needs that must be purchased from outside of the villages. This year the rains are failing again, another disaster in an increasingly erratic climate, quite possibly a climate showing the increasing effects of long-term man-made climate change emanating from the rich world.

Survival depends on addressing a series of specific challenges
This village could be rescued, and could achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but not by itself. Survival depends on addressing a series of specific challenges: nutrient-depleted soils, erratic rainfall, holoendemic malaria, pandemic HIV/AIDS, lack of adequate education opportunities, lack of access to safe drinking water and latrines, and the unmet need for basic transport, electricity, cooking fuels, and communications. All of these challenges can be met, with known, proven, reliable, and appropriate technologies and interventions.

A cost that is tiny for the world but too high for the villages
The crux of the matter for Sauri sublocation can be stated simply and directly: Sauri’s villages, and impoverished villages like them all over the world, can be saved and set on a path of development at a cost that is tiny for the world but too high for the villages themselves and for the Kenyan government on its own.

Thursday, February 26, 2015 @ 07:02 AM
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A preview of the unpublished book A CIVILIZATION WITHOUT A VISION WILL PERISH: AN INDEPENDENT SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH by David Willis. CHAPTER 1: INDIFFERENCE TO POVERTY (Part 61). This blog is a continuation of the review of The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Life Time, by Jeffrey Sachs, published in 2005

Chapter 12: On-the-Ground Solutions for Ending Poverty
The end of poverty will require a global network of cooperation among people who have never met and who do not necessarily trust each other. One part of the puzzle is relatively easy. Most people in the world, with a little bit of prodding, would accept the fact that schools, clinics, roads, electricity, ports, soil nutrients, clean drinking water, and the like are the basic necessities not only for a life of dignity and health, but also for economic productivity. They would also accept the fact that the poor may need help to meet their basic needs, but they might be skeptical that the world could pull off any effective way to give that help.

The world’s remaining challenge
If the poor are poor because they are lazy or their governments are corrupt, how could global cooperation help? Fortunately, these common beliefs are misconceptions, only a small part of the explanation, if at all, of why the poor are poor. I have noted repeatedly that in all corners of the world, the poor face structural challenges that keep them from getting even their first foot on the ladder of development. Most societies with good harbors, close contacts with the rich world, favorable climates, adequate energy sources, and freedom from epidemic disease have escaped from poverty. The world’s remaining challenge is not mainly to overcome laziness and corruption, but rather to take on geographic isolation, disease, vulnerability to climate shocks, and so on, with new systems of political responsibility that can get the job done.

The tools for sustainable development
In the next chapters I lay out the strategy for ending extreme poverty by 2025. The strategy focuses on the key investments – in people and in infrastructure – that can give impoverished communities around the world, both rural and urban, the tools for sustainable development. We need plans, systems, mutual accountability, and financing mechanisms. But even before we have all of that apparatus – or economic plumbing – in place we must first understand more concretely what such a strategy means to the one billion-plus people who can be helped. It is the bravery, fortitude, realism, and sense of responsibility of the impoverished and disempowered, for themselves and especially for their children, that give us hope, and spur us on to end extreme poverty in our time.

Together with colleagues from the UN Millennium Project and the Earth Institute, I spent several days in July 2004 in a group of eight Kenyan villages known as the Sauri sublocation in the Siaya district of Nyanza Province, about 44 kilometers from Kisumu, in western Kenya. We visited farms, clinics, a subdistrict hospital, and schools in Sauri and the environs. We met with international organizations working in the region, including ICRAF (the World Agroforestry Center), the UN Development Program, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The visit made vivid both why extreme poverty persists in rural areas and how it can be ended.

The situation is more grim than described in official documents
We found a region beset by hunger, AIDS, and malaria. The situation is far more grim than is described in official documents. The situation is also salvageable, but the international community requires a much better understanding of its severity, dynamics, and solutions if the crisis in Sauri and the rest of rural Africa is to be solved.

They are impoverished, but they are capable and resourceful
In response to an invitation from our group, more than 200 members of the community came to meet with us. Hungry, thin, and ill, they stayed for 3½ hours, speaking with dignity, eloquence, and clarity about their predicament. They are impoverished, but they are capable and resourceful. Though struggling to survive at present, they are not dispirited but determined to improve their situation. They know well how they could get back to high ground.

Leguminous (nitrogen-fixing) trees
I canvassed the group on the material conditions of the community, and received very perceptive accounts of the grim situation. Only two of the 200 or so farmers at the meeting reported using fertilizer at present. Around 25% are using improved fallows with nitrogen-fixing trees, a scientific farming approach developed and introduced into Sauri by ICRAF. With this novel technique, villagers grow trees that naturally fix nitrogen, meaning that the trees convert atmospheric nitrogen, which most food crops cannot use directly, into a nitrogen compound that food crops can use as a nutrient. The leguminous (nitrogen-fixing) trees can be planted alongside maize or other food crops. By choosing the right timing for planting and the right combination of trees and crops, the farmer gets a natural substitute for chemical nitrogen fertilizer.

The ICRAF technique could be scaled
So far, just one fourth of Sauri farmers use the new method. It costs money to introduce the technique and one planting season is lost. Farmers may also need to add some non-nitrogen fertilizers, especially potassium, which is also costly, too costly for the impoverished farmers. All of these additional complications could easily be addressed, and the ICRAF technique could be scaled up throughout the village, if only there were additional financial resources available to ICRAF and the village to jump-start the process.

Saturday, February 21, 2015 @ 05:02 AM
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A preview of the unpublished book A CIVILIZATION WITHOUT A VISION WILL PERISH: AN INDEPENDENT SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH by David Willis. CHAPTER 1: INDIFFERENCE TO POVERTY (Part 56). This blog is a continuation of the review of The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Life Time, by Jeffrey Sachs, published in 2005

It is possible to bridge seemingly irreconcilable positions
The commission gave me a wonderful opportunity to test my favorite hypothesis about collective rationality, which is that if you put people of strongly opposing views in a room together, and infuse their discussion with data, background studies, and unhurried time for debate, it is possible to bridge seemingly irreconcilable positions among its members of the group. I have come to call this process analytical deliberation. It works.

We reached a consensus
The commission was deeply divided at the start about who was “to blame” for Africa’s roiling disease crisis: Africans for their mismanagement, the pharmaceutical industry for its greed, the rich world for its malign neglect. Did Africa need more aid, or just better use of those resources that it had at hand? Could anti-AIDS drug treatment be applied in Africa? On these and a dozen other issues, the first day of the two year process was contentious, to say the least. On the last day, when the report was issued, we had reached a consensus that extended not only to the 18 commissioners and hundreds or so experts in the working groups, but also to major representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and the NGO community.

Three basic issues
We had worked diligently and assiduously to bring forward evidence and a consensus on three basic issues:
First, is disease a cause of poverty, a result of poverty, or both? The commission concluded that causation runs strongly in both directions. Poor health causes poverty and poverty contributes to poor health.
Second, why do poor countries have a life expectancy several decades shorter than rich countries? Why, especially, is Africa’s life expectancy, at 47 years in 2000, more than three decades less than the 78 years of the rich countries? The commission identified eight areas that accounted for the vast proportion of the gap in disease burden: AIDS, malaria, TB, diarrheal disease, acute respiratory infection, vaccine-preventable disease, nutritional deficiencies, and unsafe childbirth.
Third, how much should the rich world help the poor world to invest in health? The commission calculated that donor aid ought to rise from around $6 billion per year to $27 billion per year (by 2007). With the combined GNP of the donor countries equal to around $25 trillion dollars as of 2001, the commission was advocating an annual investment of around one thousandth of the rich-world income. The commission showed, on the best epidemiological evidence, that such an investment could avert eight million deaths per year.

The report found a wide audience
The report of the Commission on Macroeconomics and Health had quite a notable reception. Reports come and go. This one, I think it is fair to say, came and stayed. It made the important point that we, as a generation, can do something dramatic to improve our world. The report found a wide audience, in part, because it was based on a broad and surprising consensus. It was launched with the kind of pizzazz that it deserved, with Brundtland; the UK Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short; Ray Gilmarin, the CEO of Merck; and Bono as enthusiastic supporters.

A decade of intensive work in Africa has added to my determination to fight against the prejudices and misperceptions that leave hundreds of millions of impoverished people stranded in unnecessary suffering. Africa gets a bad rap as the “corrupt continent.” Even when such sentiments are not racist in intent, they survive in our societies as conventional wisdom because of existing widespread racism. Many African governments are desperately trying to do the right thing, but they face enormous obstacles of poverty, disease, ecological crisis, and geopolitical neglect or worse.

Africa lacks irrigation, and more than 90% of the food crops are rain fed
Since the issuance of the Macroeconomics and Health Report and the launch of the Global Fund, I have turned my own attention in Africa to issues beyond public health. Africa needs solutions not only for disease control, but also for chronic hunger, rural isolation, and growing environmental degradation, often the result of still-booming populations. As in the case of disease, there are special reasons why Africa is particularly hard pressed in each of these areas. In other words, geography has conspired with economics to give Africa a particularly weak hand. I have noted that Africa lacks navigable rivers with access to the ocean for easy transport and trade. Moreover, much of Africa’s population lives in the interior of the continent rather than at the coast. Indeed, sub-Saharan Africa’s highest population densities are in the highland regions, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, because rainfall reliability and soils tend to be a bit better there than in the interior lowlands and coast. Yet these highland populations are isolated from the international divisions of labor. In general, Africa lacks irrigation, and more than 90% of the food crops are rain fed. Rainfall tends to be highly variable in the subhumid savannah and the arid Sahel near the Sahara. Farmers lack access to roads, markets, and fertilizers. Soils have been long depleted of nutrients as the result of repeated harvests without benefit of chemical or organic nutrient inputs. Without transport, telecommunications, clinics, and fertilizers, the hunger-disease-poverty nexus has only deepened.

The worst poverty trap in the world
The combination of Africa’s adverse geography and its extreme poverty creates the worst poverty trap in the world. Yet the situation in Africa is not hopeless. Far from it. Just as my malaria-expert colleagues taught me about bed nets, indoor spraying, and effective antimalarial medicines, and just as my HIV/AIDS-knowledgeable colleagues taught me what can be accomplished through effective prevention programs linked to access to anti-AIDS drugs, so my colleagues in tropical agriculture, rural electrification, road building, and safe water and sanitation began to teach me what could be done in these other areas of vital concern.

A combination of investments well attuned to local needs
Africa’s problems, I have come to understand, are especially difficult but still solvable with practical and proven technologies. Diseases can be controlled, crop yields can be sharply increased, and basic infrastucture such as paved roads and electricity can be extended to the villages. A combination of investments well attuned to local needs and conditions can enable African economies to break out of the poverty trap. These interventions need to be applied systematically, diligently, and jointly, since they strongly reinforce one another. With focused attention by African countries and the international community, Africa could soon have its own Green Revolution, and achieve a takeoff in rural-led growth, thereby sparing the coming generation of Africans the continued miseries of drought-induced famine. Sooner that I expected, I received an important new opportunity to put these ideas into practice.

Monday, April 2, 2012 @ 05:04 AM
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UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       1991




Chapter 3: The fertile Substrate

Chapter 4: The Vital Fluid

Chapter 5: The Dynamic Cycle

Chapter 6: The Primary Producers

Chapter 7: The Tenuous Balance



Chapter 8: Human Origins

History does not merely resurrect a dead past. In the words of Thucydides: “Knowledge of the past is an aid to interpretation of the future.” If we can truly learn from past experience, we may be better able to improve our current use of the environment. If we focus our attention exclusively upon the predicaments of the moment, however, we may find ourselves repeatedly surprised by a host of bewildering problems seeming to come out of nowhere, without a past and hence without direction. How did these problems arise? Chances are, the seeds of the phenomena we witness today were planted some time ago by our predecessors, as indeed we are planting the seeds of the future – perhaps unknowingly – at this very moment.

  • The story of mankind begins more than three million years ago, when a genus of primates evolved to the point where it became recognizably humanoid.
  • Over extended periods of time, biological evolution appears to proceed very slowly by a long series of small, almost imperceptible, changes.
  • Then, periodically, thresholds are reached that trigger seemingly sudden transformations, due to chance occurrences of genetic mutations, or to shifts in environmental conditions, or – more likely – to combinations or sequences of these.
  • Ever since Charles Darwin first elaborated on the possible circumstances of human origin in his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, anthropologists have been speculating on the sequence of events that gradually brought about the astonishing metamorphosis of a tree-dwelling, quadripedal, herbivorous ape into a ground-dwelling, bipedal, tool-making, omnivorous hominid.
  • A crucial step appears to have been the shift from four-legged to two-legged locomotion.
  • This was followed by further structural and functional evolution. The eyes were adapted to stereoscopic vision for judging distances.
  • The hands developed a capability for the precision grip used in making and employing tools.
  • The brain grew in size and function as it developed the ability to process more information and to generate complex logical thoughts.

Our species’ birth place was apparently in the continent of Africa, and its original habitat was probably the subtropical savannas which constitute the transitional areas of sparsely wooded grasslands lying between the zone of the humid and dense tropical forests and the zone of the semiarid steppes. We can infer the warm climate of our place of origin from the fact that we are naturally so scantily clad, or furless; and we can infer the open landscape from the way we are conditioned to walk, run, and gaze over long distances.

  • Fossil discoveries in East Africa during recent decades have revealed facts that have added dramatically to our knowledge of human origins.
  • For at least 90% of its career, the human animal existed merely as one member of a community of numerous species who shared the same environment.
  • Humans neither dominated other species nor brought about any fundamental modification of the common environment. They were gatherers, scavengers, and hunters.
  • They diversified their diet to include the flesh of animals as well as nuts, berries, fruits, seeds, succulent leaves, bulbs, tubers, and fleshy roots.

The story of how humans ascended from their humble apelike origins to venture far from their birthplace, and range over a variety of climates and landscapes, is a remarkable saga of audacity, ingenuity, perseverance, and adaptability. In fact humans have proved to be the most adaptable of all terrestrial mammals. Their mode of adaptation was not entirely genetic or physical: there was not enough time for that. Rather, their adaptation was in large part behavioural. Instead of relying on physical prowess, they had to use inventiveness to survive the elements and to compete successfully against stronger animals. In the course of their migration and expansion, our ancient forebears therefore had to develop and mobilize all the cunning and intelligence that eventually made them – and us – so unique a species. The increase of brain size and manual dexterity, as well as the invention of various stratagems, gradually enabled humans to overcome the constraints of their ancestry.

  • By 1 million years ago, hominids had become taller (about 1.5 meters in height), and had acquired a larger brain.
  • Some evidence has been found in Southern and Eastern Africa of repetitive occurrences of brush fires, apparently set by humans nearly a million years ago, signifying the beginning of human manipulation of the earth’s ecosystems.
  • The use of fire became even more important when humans moved out of the tropics into colder climes.
  • By about 250,000 B.P. (Before the Present), humans had evolved into the type that anthropologists call Homo sapiens, and had spread to Europe and Asia.
  • Some time before 50,000 B.P., a race of humans called Neanderthals, who lived during the last Ice Age, were making cutting tools with flaked flint.
  • By about 40,000 years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), evidently indistinguishable from us today in physical features and in intelligence, had gained dominance.
  • Clad in garments made of animal skins, able to make and use a variety of implements, and armed with a growing array of weapons – including spears and bows and arrows – humans were able to range and settle in locations and climes far from their ancestral home.

All the while they continued to evolve biologically through genetic change and natural selection, increasingly aided by cultural and technological development. To survive the harsh winters of colder climates, they had to find or construct shelters, and to huddle in family or tribal groupings for mutual assistance and the rearing of their slow-growing offspring. In their leisure time, they painted animals on cave walls and carved ritual objects. They also had to contrive increasingly sophisticated methods of obtaining and storing foods, including the selective gathering, processing, and preservation of biological products, and eventually the domestication of plants and animals.

  • This series of changes has been termed the Paleolithic (Early Stone Age) Transformation.
  • Gradually, as they continued to elaborate and perfect their tools of wood, bone, and stone, as well as their techniques and social organization, humans assumed an increasingly active and eventually dominant role in shaping their environment.
  • Each modification of the environment entailed additional human responses, which in turn further modified the environment, so that a process of escalating dual metamorphosis was instigated.
  • Human intelligence and culture were both cause and effect in that fateful interplay. The peculiarly dynamic and progressive evolution of human ecology is the true history of our species.
  • In time, the practice of clearing woodlands and shrublands by repeated firings also set the stage for the advent of agriculture.
  • As vegetation is affected by fire-setting hunters, so are soils. Following repeated fires and deforestation, soil erosion and landslides often result in the greatly increased transport of silt by streams, and in the deposit of that silt in river valleys and estuaries.
  • The gradual intensification of land use continued throughout the Paleolithic period, so that by its later stages nearly all the regions of human habitation had experienced some anthropogenic modification of the floral and faunal communities.

Humans recognized nutritional and medicinal plants, observed their life cycles, and learned to encourage and take advantage of their natural propagation patterns. They learned to build rafts and boats of various type and thereby to exploit aquatic resources. As they became more mobile, the rivers and lakes that were once barriers became arteries of travel and transport. They developed implements for grinding and cooking vegetable and animal products, and weapons for hunting larger game animals. Success in these endeavors provided them with the leisure to develop social and cultural activities: music, dances, rituals, ceremonies, storytelling, rites of passage, creative arts, and the crafting of useful and decorative articles. Their success also brought about a growth in population, which in turn induced further geographic expansion and intensification of land use in quest of additional sources of livelihood.

Chapter 9: The Agricultural Transformation


Tuesday, March 27, 2012 @ 07:03 AM
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UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       1991



Chapter 2: Man’s Role on God’s Earth

We live on a unique planet bathed in the light and warmth of a nearby star we call the sun. Alone among the planets revolving around that star, ours is endowed with the fortuitous – though ever tenuous – combination of conditions capable of generating and sustaining the miracle of life. And what a rich and abounding variety of life our earth has spawned! It includes millions of types of creatures, each unique in form and function, yet all engaged interdependently in an elaborate dynamic performance, like players in an enormous philharmonic orchestra. Altogether, the multitude of plants and animals coexist both competitively and cooperatively in a more or less stable community self-regulated by an intricate set of checks and balances.

Pondering the intrinsic mutuality of life on earth, one cannot but wonder at the discordant anomaly that has so recently intruded upon nature’s pluralistic harmony: How did one species gain such overwhelming dominance over so many others, indeed over the very processes that control all life? And how could the members of this clever species fail so utterly and for so long to realize the dire consequences of their carelessly exercised dominance?

For soil thou art

  • The Hebrew Bible provides a profoundly symbolic account of the act of creation, the beginning of life on earth and the origin and role of humankind.
  • The first two chapters in the Book of Genesis give not one but two accounts of creation.

Latent in one of the main founts of Western Civilization we have two opposite perceptions of man’s destiny. One is anthropocentric: man is not part of nature but set above it. His manifest destiny is to be an omnipotent master over nature, which from the outset was created for his gratification. He is endowed with the power and the right to dominate all other creatures, toward whom he has no obligations.

The other view is more earthly and modest. Man is made of soil and is given a “living soul,” but no mention is made of his being “in the image of God.” Man is not set above nature. Moreover, his power is constrained by duty and responsibility. Man’s appointment is not an ordination but an assignment. The earth is not his property; he is neither its owner nor its master. Rather, man is a custodian, entrusted with the stewardship of God’s garden, and he can enjoy it only on the condition that he discharge his duty faithfully. This view of humanity’s role accords with the modern ecological principle that the life of every species is rooted not in separateness from nature but in integration with it.

  • Over the generations, it has generally been the arrogant and narcissistic view, implied in the first Biblical account, that has prevailed.
  • It has repeatedly been cited and used as a religious justification or rationale for man’s unbridled and relentless exploitation of the environment.
  • The question now is whether we have learned our lesson and are ready at last to accept the long-ignored second view of our proper role in relation to nature.
  • The ancient Hebrew association of man with soil is echoed in the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.
  • This powerful metaphor suggests an early realization of a profound truth that humanity has since disregarded to its own detriment.
  • Other ancient cultures evoke powerful associations similar to those of the Hebrew Bible.
  • In the teachings of Buddha, not only the earth itself but indeed all its life forms (even those that may seem lowliest) are spiritually sacred.

Worship of the earth long predated agriculture and continued after its advent. The earth was held sacred as the embodiment of a great spirit, the creative power of the universe, manifest in all phenomena of nature. The earth spirit was believed to give shape to the features of the landscape and to regulate the seasons, the cycles of fertility, and the lives of animals and humans. Rocks, trees, mountains, springs, and caves were recognized as spectacles for this spirit, which the Romans attributed to their earth goddess, Tellus.

The cult of the earth spirit is perhaps the oldest and most universal element in all religions. The Australian aborigines and the African Bushmen, among the last to have maintained the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer mode of life, have always sanctified and revered the earth as the great provider, the source of all inspiration and sustenance. So did the American Indians. In 1852, when the United States Government wished to purchase the land of the Indian tribes in the Northwest, their Chief Seattle sent back this eloquent reply:

How can we buy or sell the sky or the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. To harm the earth is to heap contempt upon its creator.

  • Other cultures and religions did not consider agriculture to be a violation of the earth, but – quite the contrary – a way to make the earth happy and fruitful.
  • The belief that agriculture is necessarily good, however, ultimately became self-defeating. The hillsides of Persia, like those of other uplands in the Near East and around the Mediterranean, were deforested and subjected to erosion, while the irrigated bottomlands, like those of Mesopotamia, suffered silting salinization.
  • As soil is the material substrate of life, water is literally its essence. Our interest in how soil and water function in the biosphere and in how they can be managed or mismanaged, derives as much from necessity as from innate scientific curiosity.
  • Superficial observers of history who ignore the role of environmental factors may ascribe the defeat of an empire to moral decay, cultural enfeeblement, lead poisoning, or lack of military preparedness – when actually the main contest had already been decided by the abuse and degradation of vital resources.

The failure to heed the lessons of the past is reflected in the Koran: “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them? They tilled the soil and populated it in great numbers. There came to them their apostles with clear signs, which they rejected, to their own destruction. It was not Allah who wronged them, but they wronged their own selves.”

Today there is clear and urgent reason for us to be concerned over the adequacy of land and water resources to satisfy the demands of our own profligate civilization. Our concern is not merely for the availability of these resources but for their quality as well. The encroachment of urban, industrial, transportation, and even recreational activities on the landscape, along with the application of “efficient” modern techniques of agriculture, construction, mining, and waste disposal, exert growing pressure on the limited resources of good land and water.

  • Among the many nations abusing their natural endowment, America is not the least offender. This country’s fundamental strength depends on its great soil and water resources, and their wasteful and destructive exploitation is surely sapping the nation’s innate strength and jeopardizing its future.

We can take no comfort at all in the fact that the problem is universal. Absurdly, nations fight wars over every inch of their political boundaries while mindlessly sacrificing whole regions to environmental degradation. Their patriots salute the flag and take up arms to defend their country against external enemies, while neglecting its environment and ignoring the real attacks being waged from within on the land they purport to love. Thousands of years are required for a soil to form in place, yet this amazingly intricate work of nature can be destroyed by man, with remarkable dispatch, in just a few decades. We must understand that, on the timescale of human life, the soil is a non-renewable resource. So is a mature forest, a river, a lake, or an aquifer. They belong not only to those who are the titled owners at this moment, but to future generations as well. In an even more profound sense, both soil and water belong to the biosphere, to the order of nature, and – as one species among many, as one generation among many to come – we have no right to destroy them.

Can a greater awareness of our environment and of our place in it help awaken us from our narcissistic indulgence, and foster a more appropriate sense of humility toward nature? And can this sense bring us any closer to our common physical, biological, and cultural moorings? Can it reconnect us spiritually with our humble origins, from which we have for so long been separated yet never completely severed?

  • Clearly something has gone wrong in our relation with nature, and it behooves us to ponder what it is and how it started.
  • Just as a mature person must learn to consider the circumstances and needs of others, so a mature society must restrain its exploitation of resources and consider both the rights of future generations and the needs of other species.

A glimpse of earth from space should be sufficient to restore the true perspective. It shows the planet whole, without political or tribal boundaries. How beautiful, how colorful, how delicate is this ball of lapping waters, floating continents, and swirling clouds gliding in a thin veil of air. And how small, unique, and solitary is this one and only home of ours. We must listen to its signals of distress, for it is our parent and we are all its dependent children.


Chapter 3: The fertile Substrate

Saturday, March 24, 2012 @ 04:03 AM
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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




Wednesday, March 21, 2012 @ 03:03 PM
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UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       1991




A few years ago I was invited to deliver a public lecture to the faculty and students of the University of Massachusetts on the basic principles and current issues of my profession of soil and water science, as a vital aspect of environmental science. The honor entailed the challenge of presenting the essentials of that profession to the educated public in a way that would be succinct and interesting, yet not superficial. The challenge stayed with me long after that lecture was delivered, and it impelled me to undertake the larger effort that has culminated in this manuscript. I wish therefore to express my gratitude …



Chapter 1: Prologue

All terrestrial life ultimately depends on soil and water. So commonplace and seemingly abundant are these elements that we tend to treat them contemptuously. The very manner in which we use such terms as “dirty”, “soiled”, “muddled”, and “watered down” betrays our disdain. But, in denigrating and degrading these precious resources, we do ourselves and our descendants great – and perhaps irreparable – harm, as shown by the disastrous failures of past civilizations.

Before I began my research, I had held the rather prevalent idea that human abuse of the environment is a new phenomenon, mostly a consequence of the recent population explosion and of our expansive modern technological and materialistic economy. Ancient societies, I presumed, were more prudent than ours in the way they treated their resources. For the most part, that has turned out to be a romantic fiction. My research has led me to the conclusion that manipulation and modification of the environment was a characteristic of many societies from their very inception. Long before the advent of agriculture, humans began to affect their environment in far-reaching ways that destabilized natural ecosystems.

In many of the older countries, where human exploitation of the land began early in history, we find shocking examples of once-thriving regions reduced to desolation by man-induced soil degradation. Some of these civilizations succeeded all too well at first, only to set the stage for their own eventual demise. Consider, for example, the southern part of Mesopotamia (“the land between the rivers”) which, as every schoolchild knows, was a great “cradle of civilization.”  We need only fly over this ancient country, now part of Iraq, to observe wide stretches of barren, salt-encrusted terrain, crisscrossed with remnants of ancient irrigation canals. Long ago, these were fruitful fields and orchards, tended by enterprising irrigators whose very success inadvertently doomed their own land.

The poor condition of the “Fertile Crescent” today is due not simply to changing climate or to the devastation caused by repeated wars, though both of these may well have had important effects. It is due in large part to the prolonged exploitation of this fragile environment by generations of forest cutters and burners, grazers, cultivators, and irrigators, all diligent and well intentioned but destructive nonetheless. The once-prosperous cities of Mesopotamia are now tells, mute time capsules in which the material remnants of a civilization that lived and died there are entombed. Similarly ill-fated was the ancient civilization of the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan.

A haunting example of soil abuse on a large scale can be seen in the Mediterranean region, which has borne the brunt of human activity more intensively and for a longer period than any other region on earth. Visit the hills of Israel, Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus, Crete, Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, and eastern Spain. There, rainfed farming and grazing were practiced for many centuries on sloping terrain, without effective soil conservation. The land had been denuded of its natural vegetative cover, and the original mantle of fertile soil, perhaps one meter deep, was raked off by the rains and swept down the valleys toward the sea. That may have been the reason why the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthagenians, and Romans, each in turn, were compelled to venture away from their own country and to establish far-flung colonies in pursuit of new productive land. The end came for each of these empires when it had become so dependent on faraway and unstable sources of supply that it could no longer maintain central control.

The inability to ensure a dependable supply of water has also been a frequent cause of failure. A poignant example is the sad fate of Fatehpur Sikri, the magnificent capital built in northern India in the late 16th century by the Moghul emperor, Akbar the Great. Less than two decades after its completion, notwithstanding the splendor of its architecture, Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned entirely, for no other reason than the simple lack of water. Still more significant were the chain-well systems developed in ancient Persia. Some of these have remained in operation for several millennia, while abandoned remnants of others stand as mute testimony to the dangers of groundwater mismanagement.

There were, on the other hand, a few societies that did better than others. Some ingenious and diligent societies developed technologies that enabled them to thrive in difficult circumstances for many centuries. Judicious management of soil and water is exemplified in some of the arid regions of the Near East and the American Southwest. Equally impressive is the evidence regarding the long-lasting wetlands-based societies of Meso-America and South America. Remarkably productive wetland management systems have survived intact in China and other parts of Southeast Asia. In contrast with the historic failures of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, the irrigation-based civilization of Egypt sustained itself for more than five millennia – though it is now beset with problems of unprecedented severity.

Every one of the insidious man-induced scourges that played so crucial a role in the decline of past civilizations has its mirror image in our contemporary world. But it seems that the mirror is warped, and the problems it reflects are magnified and made monstrously grotesque. Human treatment of the environment has grown worse, and in our generation it has brought us to a point of crisis. Salinization, erosion, denudation of watersheds, silting of valleys and estuaries, degradation of arid lands, depletion and pollution of water resources, abuse of wetlands, and excessive population pressure – all are now occurring more intensively and on an ever-larger scale. Added to the old problems are entirely new ones, including pesticide and fertilizer residues, domestic and industrial wastes, the poisoning of groundwater, air pollution and acid rain, the mass extinction of species and, finally, the threat of global climate change.

Among the most egregious examples of latter-day abuse is the drying of the Aral Sea in the USSR, once the world’s fourth largest fresh-water lake, now made briny and charged with poisonous chemical residues. An even greater disaster is the progressive decimation of the tropical rain forests and the resulting wholesale eradication of entire ecosystems. Intensified runoff, accelerated erosion, and flooding of lowlands are now widespread, and in places – for example, in Bangladesh – the results are disastrous. The degradation of vegetation and land in arid regions, a process called desertification, is occurring on a continental scale in Africa and elsewhere. Irrigated lands in such disparate countries as Australia, Pakistan, India, USSR, and the United States are losing their initially bountiful fertility and in district after district are being withdrawn from production.

Yet there are hopeful developments, too. We know much more about the natural and man-induced processes at work; we understand and can anticipate some of their consequences. Degradation and pollution are not inevitable. They can be controlled. We can avoid the major abuses and devise better modes of environmental management. Land and water husbandry can be improved and sustained.

  • While helping to establish the first settlements in the highlands of the Negev Desert, I had the unique opportunity to witness the compression of four millennia in the history of land and water management into a mere score of years.
  • Following my experience in the Negev, I was asked to undertake a very different kind of mission to the tropical rain forests and drenched river valleys of Southeast Asia.
  • My experience there and later in other parts of the Third World led me to realize the fallacy of our initial, simplistic assumption that, given enough machinery, fuel, chemicals, and know-how from the outside, underdeveloped lands could be reclaimed straightaway and cultivated without any serious environmental, social, and economic problems.
  • During the 1960s and early 1970s, I took part in the intensive effort to improve the efficiency of water-use that resulted in doubling crop yields while reducing average crop water requirements by one-third – a singular achievement of the State of Israel.
  • I believe that any rational control over the impact that human activity has on the environment must be based on a fundamental understanding of the processes at work.
  • It is in the interest of promoting and disseminating such an understanding that I have undertaken this book.


Chapter 2: Man’s Role on God’s Earth


Monday, March 19, 2012 @ 03:03 AM
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Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple

If you were on the banks of the Ohio River in 1806 – somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say – you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you’d caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed he scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.

The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already known by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomac that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but its safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth – a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their lot.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that ‘it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,’ and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman’s story. It’s the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. ‘Exotics,’ we’re apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat.

  • More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plant’s point of view – pomocentrically,’ you might say.
  • He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him.
  • Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.
  • The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America, in which Chapman played such a pivotal role.
  • Chapman preferred to get out ahead of the settlers moving west, planting a nursery on a tract of wilderness he judged ripe for settlement and then waiting. By the time the settlers arrived, he’d have apple trees ready to sell them.
  • By the 1830s John Chapman was operating a chain of nurseries that reached all the way from western Pennsylvania through central Ohio and into Indiana.
  • It was in Fort Wayne that Chapman died in 1845 – wearing the infamous coffee sack, some say, yet leaving an estate that included some 1,200 acres of prime real estate. The barefoot crank died a wealthy man.
  • Apples don’t ‘come true’ from seeds – that is, an apple tree grown from a seed wild be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parents.
  • Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees, for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible.
  • Most judged them good for little but hard cider. Apples were something that people drank. Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.

Two facts about these seeds are worth noting. First they contain a small quantity of cyanide, probably a defense the apple evolved to discourage animals from biting into them; they’re almost indescribably bitter.

The second, more important fact about those seeds concerns their genetic contents, which are likewise full of surprises. Every seed in that apple, not to mention every seed riding down the Ohio olongside John Chapman, contains the genetic instruction for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents. If not for grafting – the ancient technique of cloning trees – every apple in the world would be its own distinct variety, and it would be impossible to keep a good one going beyond the life span of that particular tree.

  • More than any other single trait, it is the apple’s genetic variability that accounts for its ability to make itself at home in places as different from one another as New England and New Zealand, Kazakhstan and California.
  • Wherever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations – at least five per apple, several thousand per tree – that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home.
  • True domestication had to await the invention of grafting by the Chinese who discovered that a slip of wood cut from a desirable tree could be notched into the trunk of another tree.
  • Once this graft ‘took,’ the fruit produced on new wood growing out from the juncture would share the characteristics of its more desirable parent, allowing the Greeks and Romans to select and propagate the choicest specimens.
  • According to Pliny, the Romans cultivated twenty-three different varieties of apples, some of which they took to England.
  • The earliest immigrants to America had brought grafted Old World apple trees with them, but in general these trees fared poorly in their new home.
  • But the colonists also planted seeds, often saved from apples eaten during their Atlantic passage, and these seedling trees, called ‘pippins,’ eventually prospered (especially after the colonists imported honeybees to improve pollination).
  • 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.
  • By reverting to wild ways – to sexual reproduction 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 Asia and Europe, and discover the precise combination of traits required to survive in the New World.
  • The apple probably also found what it needed by hybridising with the wild American crabs, which are the only native American apple trees.
  • 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.
  • Chapman was selling cheaply something that everybody wanted – something everybody in Ohio needed by law, because a land grant required a settler to ‘set out at least fifty apple or pear trees’ as a condition of his deed.
  • The sensation of sweetness in the lives of most people came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. And in America that usually meant the apple.
  • Anthropologists have found that cultures vary enormously in their liking for bitter, sour, and salty flavours, but a taste for sweetness appears to be universal.
  • Sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy. By encasing their seeds in sugary and nutritious flesh, fruiting plants such as apple hit on an ingenious way of exploiting the mammalian sweet tooth: in exchange for fructose, the animals provide the seeds with transportation, allowing the plant to expand its range.
  • As parties to this grand coevolutionary bargain, animals with the strongest predilection for sweetness and plants offering the biggest, sweetest fruits prospered together and multiplied, evolving into the species we see, and are, today.
  • Alcohol is of course, the other great beneficence of sugar: it is made by encouraging certain yeasts to dine on the sugars manufactured in plants. The sweetest fruit makes the strongest drink, and in the north, where grapes didn’t do well, that was usually the apple.
  • Up until prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.
  • Just about the only reason to plant an orchard of the sort of seedling apples John Chapman had for sale would have been its intoxicating harvest of drink, available to anyone with a press and a barrel.
  • Eventually Prohibitionists would launch their campaign to chop down apple trees.
  • It wasn’t until this century that the apple acquired its reputation for wholesomeness – ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ was a marketing slogan dreamed up by growers concerned that temperance would cut into sales.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012 @ 08:03 AM
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Back cover

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald’s can enjoy a long golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them?

In blending history, memoir and superb science writing, Pollan tells the story of four domesticated species – the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. All four plants are integral to our everyday lives and Pollan demonstrates how each has thrived by satisfying one of humankind’s most basic desires.

Introduction: The Human Bumblebee

The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden – while I was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you’re doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighborhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And what I found myself thinking about was this: What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?

If this sounds like a laughable comparison, consider what it was I was doing in the garden that afternoon: disseminating the genes of one species and not another, in this case a fingerling potato instead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I’m in charge here, in other words, and behind me stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gardeners and botanists, plant breeders, and, these days, genetic engineers who ‘selected,’ ‘developed,’ or ‘bred’ the particular potato that I decided to plant. Even our grammar makes the terms of this relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects.

  • The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.
  • The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classical example of what is know as ‘coevolution’.
  • In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes.
  • Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized, really aren’t much different; we, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as indeed we have been ever since the birth of agriculture more than ten thousand years ago.
  • The size and taste of the potato have been selected over countless generations – by Incas and Irishmen, even people like me ordering French fries at McDonald’s.
  • The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in the arrangement.
  • All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.
  • Did I choose to plant the potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? In fact both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalogue.
  • Evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalogue on a particular January evening counts as one of them.
  • That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive.
  • All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.
  • And that’s when I had the idea: What would happen if we looked at the world beyond the garden this way, regarded our place in nature from the same upside-down perspective?
  • This book attempts to do just that, by telling the story of four familiar plants – the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato – and the human desires that link their destinies to our own.
  • Its broader subject is the complex reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world, which I approach from a somewhat unconventional angle: I take seriously the plant’s point of view.
  • The four plants whose stories this book tells are called domesticated species, leaving the erroneous impression that we’re in charge.
  • The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feed, heal, clothe, intoxicate, and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature’s greatest success stories.
  • There are fifty million dogs in America today, only ten thousand wolves. So what does the dog know about getting along in this world that its wild ancestor doesn’t?
  • The big thing the dog has mastered is us: our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes as part of a sophisticated strategy for survival.
  • We don’t ordinarily give plants as much credit as animals, but the same would be true of the genetic books of the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
  • Every Russet Burbank potato holds within it a treatise about our industrial food chain – and our taste for long, perfectly golden French fries. That’s because we have spent the last few thousand years remaking these species through artificial selection.
  • What is much less obvious, at least to us, is that these plants have, at the same time, been going about the business of remaking us.
  • I call this book The Botany of Desire because it is as much about the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the plants themselves.
  • My premise is that these human desires form a part of natural history in the same way the hummingbird’s love of red does, or the ant’s taste for the aphid’s honeydew. I think of them as the human equivalent of nectar.
  • The four desires I explore are sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. These four plants have something important to teach us about these four desires – that is, about what makes us tick.
  • Plant’s are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.
  • While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis (the astonishing trick of converting sunlight into food) and perfecting organic chemistry.
  • Even evolution evolves. About ten thousand years ago with the invention of agriculture, a group of angiosperms refined their put-the-animals-to-work strategy to take advantage of one particular animal that had evolved not only to move freely around the earth, but to think and trade complicated thoughts.
  • These plants hit on a remarkably clever strategy: getting us to move and think for them. Edible grasses incited humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them; plants so compelling, and useful and tasty they would inspire human being to seed, transport, extol, and even write books about them. This is one of those books.
  • For a great many species today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force. Artificial selection has moved into a world once ruled exclusively by natural selection.
  • Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or white leopard’s. This is the world in which we, along with Earth’s other creatures, now must make our uncharted way.
  • Each of the chapters that follows takes the form of a journey that either starts out, stops by, or ends up in my garden but along the way ventures far afield, both in space and historical time.
  • I look at these four species through a variety of lenses: social and natural history, science, journalism, biography, mythology, philosophy, and memoir.


Chapter 1: Desire: Sweetness. Plant: The Apple


Thursday, January 12, 2012 @ 07:01 AM
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Back cover

You can harvest your own apples, peaches, pears, cherries, and many other fruits and nuts from trees that grow naturally around you own home by using this book. Gene Logsdon has brought his extensive experience together with that of many organic orchardists across the continent to share with potential grove-owners everywhere. This includes his philosophy that the best grove is one in which the orchardist plays an intrinsic role in the ecology of the trees. Logsdon completely details the practical skills necessary to orcharding, including propagating trees, grafting, pruning, and fertilizing, also dispelling any mysteries about these skills through simple, easy-to-understand instructions.

Disease and pest control receive comprehensive consideration, again with the emphasis upon the natural, organic orchard. The home groveowner can do a great deal to minimize damage to his fruit and nut trees by knowing the natural predators and parasites of pests.

Fundamental to organic orcharding is raising varieties that grow naturally in your region as the most resistant to insect and animal pests, disease, and climate fluctuations. Since native trees are so important to the success of a grove, a substantial part of this book is devoted to varieties of major fruits, including apples, stone, and citrus fruits, and to nuts, such as almonds, chestnuts, pecans, and acorns. Minor fruit trees are not neglected either, nor are syrup- and oil-producing trees. All of these varieties are noted for their resistance or susceptibility to disease, and their climatic preferences, rounding out Organic Orcharding as the complete book on the natural food-bearing grove for the homeowner.

Front flap

Organic Orcharding: A Grove of Trees to Live In presents the philosophy of raising fruit trees, nut trees, and other food-bearing trees in a wholesome, ecologically sound manner such that the grove-owner becomes a benevolent, intrinsic facet of the growth of the orchard trees as Nature intended. Gene Logsdon has combined his experience with that of many organic orchardists throughout the country to offer the best guidelines to orcharding, including specific information on the ten zones according to tree hardiness to frost and other climatic variables in the United State and Canada.

  • Climatic variations within a region are important to a tree’s growth potential. Thus the first general rule for growing healthy food trees is to grow varieties that come from the area in which they’ll be raised.

The first part of Organic Orcharding details the techniques necessary to raising a grove of trees. Logsdon presents 12 plans of actual existing orchards, and also information on how to draw up your own plan, including hints such as labeling each tree as it’s planted – memory of what’s planted where usually fails a year or so after planting. The author also fully details how to plant tree seeds and seedlings, including what trees need special treatment, like scarification, stratification, and other propagation skills. He also removes the mystique from grafting scionwood onto various trees, by revealing through his thorough instructions just how simple grafting can be. Completing the book’s first part is information on fertilizing and pruning trees to stimulate best growth. All of these techniques are fully illustrated for easier understanding.

The second part of Organic Orcharding examines the state of disease and pest control in the organic grove. In this section, the concept of the well-integrated grove and the grove-owner comes into full play, for the natural control of many pests depends upon the encouragement of their natural predators. To do this the orchardist must be knowledgeable of the ecology of a grove of trees, and Logsdon discusses various diseases, insects, and animal pests, each in turn, including their natural enemies and those organic techniques that have prevailed against these pests in other orchards. For example, birds play an important role in controlling some insects, so Logsdon suggests ways to attract birds to the home grove, including illustrated instructions on building birdhouses suitable for individual species.

The final third of the book lists in detail all of the best fruit, nut, and syrup-bearing trees for each respective zone. The common fruit trees are covered, such as apple, peach, pear, and plum, including the best varieties for specific regions, along with the variety’s susceptibility to diseases, pests, and temperature fluctuations. Logsdon also describes the best varieties of underused trees, too, such as the mulberry, the persimmon, and the papaw. In chapters on nuts, he characterizes walnut, pecan, and chestnut varieties, but he also notes the qualities of hickories, hazelnuts, and pine nuts. No region is neglected as far as information on varieties goes, as exemplified by details on such trees as macadamia for Hawaii, citrus for the South and the West Coast, maples and birches for syrup in new England and Canada, and many, many more. Organic Orcharding:  Grove of Trees to Live In is the complete guide to growing food-bearing trees for the backyard or small grove-owner;  no doubt, this book will become the standard of its kind.

About the author

Gene Logsdon, author of many other Rodale books (The Gardener’s Guide to Better Soil, Two Acre Eden, Small-Scale Grain Raising, Getting Food from Water, and Homesteading) has managed his own organic orchards, a 2-acre backyard grove in Pennsylvania, and at present a 22-acre farm in orchard in Ohio.


We should accept as a fundamental concept, the proposition that crops should be grown primarily for the purpose of satisfying man’s food requirements and not as a means of making particular human activities commercially profitable regardless of the overall effect on human welfare.

A.D. Pickett, “A Critique on Insect Chemical Control Methods”

For nearly a decade I tried not to write this book. One of my editors at Rodale Press, Bill Hylton, would suggest it, and I would change the subject. I did not know how to go about telling people how to grow fruit trees in a totally “organic” (or biological, as I prefer to say) system. There were, in my experience, diseases of fruit trees that in favorable weather could not be controlled even with the most potent chemicals, let alone without them. In addition, there was a growing number of virus problems in some tree fruits that defied all control methods, natural or man-inspired, making fruit production in some instances a fit venture only for poker players with a desire to lose money.

I fretted a long time over what seemed to be flaws in the organic argument: the seeming inability to cope adequately with fungal disease in tree fruits, and the rather vague insect-control program that applied to a medium- or large-size orchard. (It was at that time only beginning to be realized that the same criticism applied to chemical controls, too.) After some years of study and experimentation, I think I have the answers to my frettings, but ten years ago I certainly did not. I was raised on and worked on farms where financial worries dominated every decision. In the face of heavy debt, or in striving to avoid heavy debt, we felt unable to farm in as ecological a manner as we would have liked. As an agricultural writer, I came to know many fruit growers in the same situation. They grappled with staggering debt loads; with rigid and often senseless market standards; with a shrinking number of market buyers who often seemed to act in collusion with each other when they bid on farmer’s produce; with enormous competition from other growers; and with crop risks that would give a racetrack gambler ulcers. I found unsavory the idea of writing a book that would espouse methods these growers would only consider naïve and pompously insulting. No matter how carefully I worded my argument for a more natural and less financial approach to tree crop agriculture, I would insinuate that these farmers, who scratched out their livings raising fruit, were the bad guys ecologically, while I, who raised fruit without toxic chemicals but only for my own table, was one of God’s little ecological angles. I did not want to assume such a sanctimonious posture.

  • In realizing that finance, not biology, was the root of the farmers’ predicament, I was closer to a solution to my fretting than I understood at the time.
  • Only rarely did anyone answer my question by saying, “If I don’t spray, the trees will all die.”
  • If all fruit trees would die without spraying, or if the whole crop would be ruined, a fruit industry could not have arisen in the first place.
  • I began to study the history of chemical pest control in fruit trees.
  • Trees die from fungal or insect attack only if something has upset the ecological balance or if a species is introduced to the region not biologically acclimated to that region.
  • The history of chemical pest control is a history of conflict between profiteering humans and natural biology.
  • My conclusions about the orchard were the same as those about the forest.

The 1970 paper by R.W. Stark stated: “It seems to me that the tremendous economic growth of forestry in the past has blinded us to the fact that prior to our exploitation of the forests, forest pest problems were much less. In many of those areas that are still relatively undisturbed, problems are usually minimal. The majority of our pests are man-made.”

Robert Van Den Bosch in The Pesticide Conspiracy (New York, Doubleday, 1978) points out that about 30 years ago, when the synthetic insecticide era really got rolling, the Unites States used roughly 50 million pounds of insecticides a year and insects destroyed about 7% of our crops. Thirty years later, we dump 600 million pounds of insecticides on our land and lose 13% of our crop to insects! Van Den Bosch went on to say, “This reflects incredibly bad technology and extremely poor economics – unless, of course, one is selling insecticides.”

  • The renewed emphasis on biological pest controls that came during the 1970s further motivated me to write this book.
  • You can’t poison just part of an ecosystem. Persistence in trying to do so leads to a collapse of the whole system.
  • Scientists and orchardists are trying to work out a compromise – a combination of biological controls with some continued but decreased use of chemicals.
  • This method is called integrated pest management (IPM) and, for success, demands an extremely disciplined and knowledgeable attention to the orchard environment.
  • If fruit growers are prepared to accept IPM, it is my hope that a total biological-control system would be better yet and a goal possible to attain.
  • If I needed a last straw I stopped at a roadside stand in front of a large peach orchard where scores of customers, who had driven some distance, were turned away angry because he was sold out.
  • Since the locale had a good peach-growing climate, those disgruntled customers could have grown their own peaches without spraying.

Naturally, the orchardist had to spray, and spray, and spray ten more times. What was achieved? Disease continued to mount in his orchard despite the spraying. The grower’s bank account, by his own admission, dwindled rather than increased. His customers paid exorbitant prices for the fruit. Or got none at all. Nature was wasted and no one was satisfied, save perhaps the chemical companies who supplied the spray materials and the government regulators who parasitized a living from the fruit industry under the pretense of protecting consumers.

And so to this book. It is intended neither for the commercial grower trapped in a financial situation over which he has no control, nor for consumers who prefer to support that financial situation because they are too lazy to grow their own fruit. Biological orcharding won’t work in that kind of “progressive” society. Biological orcharding is economical in the original meaning of “economy” – the management of a household with a careful and thrifty use of resources. The truly biological orchard is a grove of trees to live in – literally to live in and from. The establishment of such a grove and its maintenance are quite different from that of a commercial orchard. For those who yearn for such a tree grove, for those who like the independence of raising their own food and wish now to advance beyond vegetable and berry gardens, for those I hope this book will be helpful.

In establishing my own grove, I’ve committed my share of blunders, and some of them will inevitably creep into this book. For this, I apologize. Let us all seek and learn together, for there is much more to be learned about biological food production than is known now. A nation of nearly self-subsistent grove dwellers is not an impossible dream. If you have a home or plan to have one, you are more than halfway there now.



Chapter 1: Life in a Grove of Trees: An Overview