Who brought us the av­o­cado?

The Victoria Standard - - Front Page - CAROLYN BAR­BER

Na­tional Geo­graphic writer Daniel Stone re­cently re­turned to Beinn Breagh where, four years ago, David Fairchild’s descen­dants gave Stone their bless­ing to bring Fairchild’s story to light and re­galed the au­thor with sto­ries of the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury botanist’s life and work. Stone’s riv­et­ing work of his­tor­i­cal non-fic­tion en­ti­tled The Food Ex­plorer: The True Ad­ven­tures of the Globe-trot­ting Botanist Who Trans­formed What Amer­ica Eats is now com­plete. The eas­ily con­sumed tale may change the way we look at ev­ery­day pro­duce. The Stan­dard sat down with Stone dur­ing his stay in Baddeck, be­tween speak­ing en­gage­ments in part­ner­ship with the Alexan­der Graham Bell Foun­da­tion and Cape Bre­ton Part­ner­ship’s Creative Is­land ini­tia­tive.

Carolyn Bar­ber: You write in the book that “Fairchild’s in­ge­nu­ity faced the an­gry crit­i­cism of a na­tion crouched in fear.” In 1912, Fairchild’s friend-turned-neme­sis Charles Mar­latt suc­ceeded in hav­ing the Plant Quar­an­tine Act passed. To Mar­latt, Fairchild’s new plant im­ports were “plant en­e­mies”, go­ing so far as to rec­om­mend build­ing a wall to keep new plant species out. This tone, and lan­guage, has once again sur­faced in Amer­ica.

Daniel Stone: That part of the book was com­ing to­gether dur­ing this po­lit­i­cal mo­ment in Amer­ica. As the wave was crest­ing, I took com­fort in know­ing that this has hap­pened be­fore and this is per­haps a cy­cle. Ev­ery so of­ten, maybe ev­ery 100 years, nations that ex­pand through ex­plo­ration and ad­ven­ture tend to come back to­gether and close their eyes. Maybe for a decade, maybe for two. That it hap­pened be­fore gives me hope that [the ex­pan­sion] will hap­pen again.

CB: Is the Plant Quar­an­tine Act of 1912 still in ef­fect?

DS: Yes, it's been amended and changed sev­eral times. I usu­ally like to say that, when you get on a plane to the United States and you have to fill out that lit­tle form on the plane that says 'I haven't been on a farm or not bring­ing in fruit', that's a re­sult of the Act. That was a re­sponse to Fairchild's work.

CB: Fairchild’s quest for new and in­ter­est­ing ed­i­ble plants took him all over the world. Other than Beinn Breagh, where did the re­search for this book take you?

DS: I spent a lot of time in Florida where he and Mar­ian lived af­ter he re­tired in Coral Gables. I spent a cou­ple months in Ja­pan trac­ing the steps of the cherry blos­som episode in the book. Fairchild had foot­steps in most coun­tries. Most of his records are in Wash­ing­ton or Mary­land or Florida or here. I thought about go­ing to Java, to parts of the Malay ar­chi­pel­ago, Venice, Bavaria, Mor­rocco. But, he was only in each place for a short pe­riod and it was 100 years ago. I didn't have con­fi­dence there would be any record of him. One place I fol­lowed his trav­els and foot­steps was in Na­tional Geo­graphic. Fairchild did 12 fea­ture sto­ries for the mag­a­zine over the span of 20 years. His first one is in Su­ma­tra. Over­time you could see all the places he's vis­it­ing, how he de­scribes the places, the peo­ple, the foods and tastes, and then the mag­a­zine started run­ning pho­to­graphs in the 19 teens and you could see what these places look like. So that is about as close as you could get to vis­it­ing those places at the time that he vis­ited them.

CB: How did the story of such an in­flu­en­tial per­son ring so qui­etly for so long?

DS: Fairchild was a botanist, and we don't gen­er­ally cel­e­brate botanists. It’s not a ‘pop’ sci­ence role. He also trav­eled a lot, so he wasn't in the US very of­ten giv­ing in­ter­views, sit­ting for pro­files and por­traits. He wasn't like Thomas Edi­son who had this quirky house of him­self where peo­ple would come over for decades and visit. Fairchild was also very mod­est. He en­joyed peo­ple, but I never got the sense that he en­joyed talk­ing about him­self and all of his ex­pe­ri­ences and his ac­com­plish­ment.

CB: How dif­fi­cult was it for you to struc­ture all of this ma­te­rial into a book?

DS: It took me years. It was hard be­cause Fairchild did so much and went so many places and met so many peo­ple and had im­pact on so many com­mer­cial crop in­dus­tries. I found three main themes, and they're all themes of change. The first is the change from Fairchild as a young boy from Kansas be­com­ing a re­fined world trav­eller. The sec­ond is Amer­i­can food from a fairly blank agri­cul­tural cam­pus to, by the time of Fairchild’s pass­ing, the most pro­duc­tive and eco­nom­i­cally ef­fi­cient in­dus­trial food sys­tem in hu­man his­tory. That hap­pens in his 80 year life span. The third is Amer­ica, from a fee­ble, re­con­struct­ing na­tion af­ter the civil war to post-world War II, the big­gest and great­est su­per­power in world his­tory. I braid those three to­gether.

CB: In the epi­logue, you right that you didn't like end­ing the book. If you could write one or two more chap­ters, what would you cover?

DS: I would write more about Frank Meyer. One of the chal­lenges about Fairchild is that he got mar­ried in 1905 and stopped trav­el­ing in the way that he did ear­lier in his life. He's still trav­eled a lot, but it wasn't the kind of ki­netic, USDA agri­cul­tural ex­plorer type trav­els. In­stead, he hired a bunch of young men to con­tinue that work. One he sent to Gu­atemala to find bet­ter av­o­ca­dos. He sent an­other to Rus­sia to find bet­ter wheat. And, he sent Frank Meyer to China to lit­er­ally walk across China. China had been farm­ing for thou­sands of years and had some of the hardi­est crops in the world. And Mey­ers' job was to go find them by him­self. I mean I even thought of tak­ing men­tion of Meyer out of this book to write a se­quel about him, but my edi­tor thought there weren't many peo­ple want­ing to read a book about agri­cul­tural ex­plor­ers, so I just put them all in one book.

CB: Now that you have fin­ished your first book, where do you go now as a writer?

DS: It’s very dif­fi­cult to find an­other topic. You re­ally have to find a piece of your­self in a story to be able to com­mit three to four years, or longer, of re­search. You have to find some­thing that makes you wake up on a Sun­day morn­ing and just want to dive into it. I love his­tory. I am fas­ci­nated by food, what we eat, why we eat it, and what we might eat in the fu­ture. This story in­cluded all of them and I'd like the next story to in­clude, at least some of them.

CB: When did you know that you had a topic worth dig­ging into?

DS: It took a year of find­ing not just Fairchild's story and read­ing about him, but find­ing enough ma­te­rial - records, archives, di­aries, jour­nals and memos - that I could piece to­gether into an ac­tual story. But, the real mo­ment - which there is never re­ally one mo­ment – was when ev­ery­one I told said “Oh, that's re­ally in­ter­est­ing! I've never heard of him.” Or, “David Fairchild brought us the av­o­cado, no way!" That hap­pened time and time again. Ev­ery sin­gle time I thought to my­self, this is a story that ei­ther I should tell or some­one else should tell about this man – a man that hasn’t faded into his­tory, but he cer­tainly hasn't got his due as a trans­former of North Amer­i­can his­tory.

Photo by Carolyn Bar­ber / The Vic­to­ria Stan­dard.

(L-R) David Fairchild and Hugh Muller, grand­chil­dren of renowned botanist and plant ex­plorer David Gran­di­son Fairchild (1869-1954) spent the af­ter­noon of Aug. 12 in con­ver­sa­tion with Na­tional Geo­graphic edi­tor Daniel Stone, au­thor of The Food Ex­plorer: The True Ad­ven­tures of the Globe-trot­ting Botanist Who Trans­formed What Amer­ica Eats.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.