Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Control of Nature

Merveille des quatre saisons: as beautiful as its name

Merveille des quatre saisons, Cimarron, Parris Island Cos. The names of heirloom lettuces read like poetry. Handsome heads of blush-tinted leaves and spears of speckled greens have been bred over the years by gardeners seduced by the tender blanched leaves that arise from the heart of a plant. Forellenschluss, Rouge d’Hiver, Lollo Rossa. One grower might be captivated by crinkles, another by the mysteries of deep dark red. In the end, which is never the end, we have hundreds, no thousands, of named varieties created by gardeners who allowed single selected plants to produce tall clusters of short-lived flowers and then saved the seed. We believe we are the only animal capable of such manipulations, and possibly this is true. Controlled breeding is still being practiced by individuals who are swept away by a passion to create something new, different, and beautiful.  Frank Morton of Philomath, Oregon, breeder of Flashy Butter Oak and Hyper Red Rumple Waved lettuces is one such pioneer. Morton sells his own creations and those of gardeners past in his Wild Garden Seed catalog.

More often in today’s world, however, plant breeding is the purview of University agricultural research departments, which tend to concentrate more on corky root and downy mildew resistance than texture and taste. Lettuce DNA has been analyzed, and molecular markers identified. Breeders introduce genes of wild lettuce plants into cultivated varieties in order to help California growers produce thousands of acres of greens that withstand the indignities of thousands of miles of travel.

It is amazing to think that these two extremes, one prompted by passion and wonder, the other by dollars and cents, can coexist in the same region, and even in the same person. It is no stretch of the imagination to speculate that a researcher who spends her days implanting wild, blight-resistant genes into tomatoes might go home to her garden and choose the healthiest producer of the tastiest Black Krim tomatoes and save its seed. Placing one foot in front of the other has brought our culture to this place where we believe, on some theoretical level, that it is possible to triumph over “imperfections” caused by a plant’s own physiology or the wants and needs of other species; where we believe it is possible to have control over diseases in tomatoes and over the bolting of lettuce.  

The desire for control is universal; it is understandable. It is what sets the human animal apart from, as far as we know, all others. We seek order, fitting the world in all its complexity into a system of our own invention and engaging in a never-ending task of naming nature. "Humans seldom value what they cannot name," said biologist Elaine Brooks. But what value is there in knowing names if we forget how to converse with the other-than-human world?  

The conversation in the garden shifts, continuously. It is the whispers that help to keep the dialogue respectful, and mostly non-violent. A few grasshoppers have hatched in the greenhouse this spring. They appear to be third instar, just ½ inch long, and not overly populous. Birds swoop in through the open sides on warm days. I watch and wait. Guarding against last year’s infestation may be a wasted expense of energy this year. With trepidation I remove the hooped cover that protects a row of Toscano kale. Now almost a foot tall, it is too robust for rabbits. Will it be there tomorrow? I kick dirt into a groundhog hole. Is it abandoned or will the homeowner indignantly dig it out again? Is the garter snake that lives in the greenhouse making the holes of golfball-size diameter I find here and there? These are the simple questions that keep me coming back day after day for answers, which will prompt more questions.

There’s no denying that I seek answers so that I might have some measure of control. Respectful control, conversational control, but control nonetheless. Those who decry the control of nature might see nature as some great unspoiled “Other.” Rather, nature is the row of beans that will not prosper unless the lambs’ quarters and dandelions are weeded out. It is the soil ecosystem beneath the turf. It is the turf. Successful manipulation of natural systems requires respect for the diverse forces at work for and against one’s efforts. And in fact, those who participate in the control of nature on a human scale may be better equipped to understand how much control is too much.

A good conversation includes pauses for reflection so that latent ideas might rise to the surface. It takes many seasons to breed a lettuce worthy of the name “Marvel of Four Seasons." Between times of growth are periods of dormancy. The embryo becomes quiescent, tranquilly at rest, until conditions are once again right for germination. The gentle conversation of breeding may last a lifetime.  

Becoming attuned to seasonal growth patterns and the whole other-than-human farm community is an exercise in humility. It is a lesson in perspective. We might use this tender type of manipulation as an internal compass pointing to circumstances where control may be necessary and good for us, as one animal species living together with countless others. Mostly though, hope lies in remembering that, in conversation, it is best to do more listening than talking.