To be honest I didn’t know who this man was five years ago. He does look a little like my father, except in my life Dad never wore anything that dapper, nor would he have been very likely to have a spade in his hand. Long handled shovel (handle made of manuka, smoothed by sweat) yes, spade not as likely.
I don’t think Dad knew who this man is either – he never mentioned his name – and I’m very sure that Dad would have mentioned him had he been aware of him. Interesting, someone whom I think my father didn’t know, was profoundly influential in his life, and as a result, in mine. Even more interesting is that the man, who died in 1926, has been hugely (but 99.9% of the time – invisibly) influential in vast numbers of people’s lives, around the world.
OK, so who is he, and what did he do that’s so all fired up and fabulous? The man is Luther Burbank. He developed over 800 new varieties of plants, including over 200 varieties of fruit, a cornucopia of vegetables, nuts and grains, and hundreds of ornamental flowers.
Dad grew (and we enjoyed) Shashta Daisies (still faithfully growing at our family home 40 years later), Elephant Heart plums and a host of vegetables, fruit and flowers that might’ve been developed by Burbank. I have a particular fondness for the Elephant Heart plum – not a particularly large tree, but the fruit was huge, freestone and blood red – and ah, heart shaped.
I first became aware of Burbank when I read Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation. Burbank developed the Burbank potato which went from the ’silver bullet’ in terms of its blight resistance being useful for the Irish; to a glittering new career in the 1950s as fries for the fast food industry. Ozeki does a good job of describing the various aspects of postmodern horticulture versus the more traditional approaches. I think she does a bit of a number of Burbank – it is true he produced a potato which has gone on to become an almost monocultured vegetable, but the negative implications conjured by Ozeki is far from Burbank’s intent. It’s easy to take shots are dead pioneers when one’s own creations are so, um, valuable to so many people. Nothing like a good work of fiction to put food on the average person’s table. But then I suppose that’s what the drive-thru is for.
Anyway, I was inspired by Ozeki’s book to read Burbank’s Harvest of the Years autobiography (published posthumously in 1926). I was utterly astounded to find a copy in the Wellington City Library – who would’ve thought it? Thankfully, it’s not a step-by-step life story but rather a narrative of Luther Burbank’s life story told through his personal philosophies. I find it completely ironical that the current mass debate about ‘intelligent design’ finds traction in the same society that gave us fast food founded so strongly on a resource developed by a man at such complete odds to the idea. Burbank even writes about going to discussions (book clubs(?)) about Mr Darwin’s new, provocative book, ‘The Origin of Species’.