Curiouser and Curiouser
Lessons in unintended consequences, little green creatures and the limits of human wisdom
In the interests of full disclosure, you need to understand that I’m a search engine junkie. Nobody who knows me will be surprised at that revelation, but mostly it comes from the sheer fun of learning about stuff – all kinds of stuff. As the editor of a magazine about travel – a field that encompasses topics from airport kiosks to Zimbabwe – and with Google and its ilk just an‘enter’button away, there are a virtually unlimited number of information rabbit holes down which I can disappear. Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but it certainly has done in my deadlines on more than one occasion.
The subject du jour this month is viticulture and the pests that have plagued grape growers since the biblical days of Noah. Reading through Lark Gould’s story about Washington, DC, and the burgeoning wineries in surrounding Virginia counties ( Living Potomac Style, page 24), I found myself stuck on the reference to phylloxera. I’d read about this blight before, but for some reason this time hankered to learn more.
Phylloxera – more specifically phylloxera vitafoliae – is a greenish aphid-like creature, nigh well indestructible and with a voracious appetite for the leaves and roots of the grapevine. Native to North America, phylloxera was apparently held in check because the roots of American vines are resistant to the insect’s attacks.
Then in 1862, a French wine merchant named Monsieur Borty imported some American cuttings to plant in his Rhône vineyard, thereby unleashing the deadly pestilence on the entire French wine industry. Unlike their American cousins, the French vines were unable to withstand the onslaught, and by 1884, twothirds of French vineyards had been eradicated and the rest were in peril. Despite a reward of 300,000 francs for a remedy and a multitude of idiotic and downright poisonous proposals, French wines seemed doomed. That is, until a French botanist named Jules Émile Planchon proposed the outlandish (to the French) solution of grafting French vines to American rootstock – yes, the same roots that had brought the plague in the first place. French prejudice against the American grape proved almost as pernicious as the bugs themselves, but by the 1890’s France’s vineyards were undergoing large-scale replanting with the resistant vines. Et violá – vive la vin!
Now this saga of botanical blunders made me curious. Surely M. Borty, the unwitting villain of the piece, did not set about to destroy France’s ancient wineries. Equally certain, the opposition to the‘American solution’may have been prideful, but it was wellmeaning. Notwithstanding, both choices wound up being shortsighted and terribly destructive. Which begs the question: How much of history’s‘great wisdom’have we accepted unchallenged, only to discover in hindsight that we should have known better?
Remember the corollary to Murphy’s Law –“nature sides with the hidden flaw.”
In our travels, we encounter all manner of the marvelous, the unique, the imaginative. In large part these rare moments are the ones that make the journey worthwhile. Sometimes we bring these new ideas home with us and they thrive; others need to be grafted onto the vine of our own experiences in order to come to flower. Still others need to be left alone and just appreciated for where and what they are. And it will take all our wisdom to determine which is which among them.
In spite of that, we should never be afraid to gather the treasures along the way. BT