Wednesday, June 19, 2013

She is not only ape about apes.

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, plants, memoirs, polemics

Jane Goodall is known for her lyrical writing, and her new book—which hardly mentions chimpanzees!—is, if anything, even more lyrical. With the help of Gail Hudson, she has written Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants. At first, a reader may wonder why a primatologist would write about plants. As she tells us in the opening chapter, her first love was a tree, a beech (named Beech) in which she sat and read or drew or wrote for many a childhood hour. That is not all.

By the second half of the book, her hortatory purpose emerges in full. She has seen a good deal more of the world than most of us ever will. Everywhere, among the wonder and beauty, there is damage and tragedy. Of course, her beloved chimps are in danger, but their greatest peril is the shrinking forest. Where 50 years ago the tiny Gombe reserve was surrounded by forest and a piece with it, now it is an isolated enclave, with bare ground, or monoculture farm fields, right up to the boundary. If we save and restore the forest, we will also save the apes…if not, not.

This is happening everywhere. At one time, the First World exemplified the "taming of the wilderness" in favor of agriculture and agribusiness. For example, nearly every acre of the United States that is arable is devoted to that purpose. While this comes to just under half the total land area, and cities and roads and other pavements take up only about 5%, much of the rest is logged or otherwise exploited, including an increasing proportion of our national parks and monuments. And this is the "new world"! Now the Third World is going full steam ahead, building, plowing and planting, polluting, and generally straining to outdo all our worst sins.

The first half of the book is descriptive, of the author's life and of a systematic trek through the plant world, from the various aspects of the plants themselves to the uses made of them by animals and humans. Starting in chapter 11, things turn dark. Its title is "Plants that can harm". Why do plants make so many chemical substances? Many, many of them are insecticides, bitterants (to discourage browsing mammals) or downright poisons. Some of these substances can be used as medicines (the subject of Chapter 10); indeed, nearly every medicine is either extracted from a plant or chemically derived from a plant chemical. But so are many poisons and "recreational" drugs. All the ways a plant can heal or harm are a product of human redirection of chemicals the plants make for self defense.

But even "good" crops are not without their dark side. In the West, we may have outlawed slavery, which was largely agricultural, but agriculture, particularly the picking of fruits and vegetables, is still an area rampant with abuses, of workers, of the land, and of domestic animals. And in "developing" countries the abuses are the worst, including continued slavery. Think about that the next time you buy cotton underwear without checking whether it was both organically and ethically grown.

The last five chapters describe suggestions for taming agriculture itself. It has become the master and we the slaves. This can be turned around, and the featured initiatives, including Roots & Shoots, which Ms Goodall and a group of teens started in Tanzania 22 years ago, show at least part of the way. Crops such as coffee and cacao (chocolate) grow poorly in monoculture, compared to polyculture with appropriate plant companions. With more time and research, we are likely to find that many crops share this characteristic. This in not new: read Malabar Farm by Louis Bromfield; the farm has been in operation since 1939. One tidbit: corn grows better when it shares the field with alfalfa. Other innovative ways of growing crops, some of them thousands of years older than agribusiness, just might feed more people than the current "big business" way we have fallen into in the West.

Even at her most polemical, Jane Goodall writes lyrically, and manages to avoid being too "preachy". But we need out preachers. She is one of the best.

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