Apples by Frank Browning
Published by North Point Press
Copyright © 1998 Frank Browning
Late one August evening in 1992, when I was living in San Francisco, I found myself scrolling through the electronic card catalogue of the University of California. The university was closed, but a laptop computer and a telephone line kept its vast cataloguing system perennially open. Obsession, insomnia, and the byzantine tracking system of the UC library had converged that summer, leading me into one of the most arcane, and yet obvious, branches of apple lore: the search for the apple's true birthplace.
I knew already that a modest disagreement had lingered for more than a century over the origins of the apple. Only a few Christian fundamentalists continued to insist that the apple came from "the Holy Lands." Waverley Root, the estimable food historian and author of Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, declared that the first apples grew near the Baltic Sea, but he declined to elaborate on the "etymological evidence" he relied upon for his conclusion. Referring to fossils and carbonized remains of apples in prehistoric Swiss and Celtic settlements, he dismissed the conventional notion that the Romans introduced apples to northern Europe. Oddly, he seemed thoroughly unaware that geneticists have identified more than a dozen distinct species of apple, whose homes range from British Columbia to Sichuan Province, and that these prehistoric remains may bear no relation to the sweet table apples of the Romans.
Within horticulture, biologists and naturalists have pursued their own debate about the apple's origins: either southwest Asia, in the Caucasus Mountains, or south-central Asia, on the slopes of the enormous range that separates China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Both areas were crossed by the great Silk Route that brought the charms of the Orient to the early cultures of the Mediterranean.
I also knew that the world-renowned Russian geneticist Nicholai Vavilov had visited both the Caucasus and Kazakhstan and favored the latter as the site of the modern edible apple's origin. But it was hard to find much of Vavilov's work in English, which was why I was spending my evenings wandering about the library's electronic nervous system. There seem to be certain unwritten, mysterious laws about electronic library catalogues. Never once did my tapped-out inquiry deliver quite the same menu of references as it had previously.
This time I asked for any title, subject, or author with the name "Vavilov" in it. The first fifteen or twenty listings were in Russian, followed by a few journal articles in English published during the 1920s (most of these concerned grains). Then came item 32. It stood apart from the rest: The Vavilov Affair.
What sort of "affair" could this starched-collar geneticist have been involved in? A few lines into the synopsis came another flag: "Foreword by Andrei Sakharov." What possible interest could the famous dissident and human rights activist have in a long-dead scientist?
For the next week I set everything else aside, roaming deeper into the library. I searched through old newspaper clippings and requested musty journals long since dispatched to the library's storage archives twenty miles away. Vavilov, it turned out, had traveled by mule train across southern Asia and, upon arriving in Alma-Ata, pronounced the Kazakh capital the origin of the earth's edible apples. The reason for Andrei Sakharov's interest was that Vavilov, who had identified the birth sites of more plants than anyone in history, died a grisly death in a Soviet prison, the victim of the Soviet Union's worst scientific scandal.
A few days later I learned that a small team of American agricultural researchers had opened new contacts with a group of Kazakh scientists who had quietly carried on Vavilov's work. In fact, the Americans told me, there was a remarkable octogenarian, a Kazakh native who had devoted his life to studying the vast apple forests of Kazakhstan. The man's name was Djangaliev, and his team was even now on a field expedition into the forests. Perhaps, they said, I should contact him, though the only number they had was his institute's fax number in Alma-Ata.
Two weeks later, I was on an Aeroflot jumbo jet flying from Moscow to Alma-Ata. Eighty-year-old men don't live forever, I reasoned, and apples, even wild apples, ripen only once a year. The best time to visit a wild apple forest was when the fruit was ripening on the tree.
Time is often confusing to first-time flyers in the old Soviet Union. My flight was scheduled to leave Moscow at 2 p.m. and arrive in Alma-Ata at 5:30, which it almost did, except that after three hours in the air, it was obvious we were still at maximum altitude and nowhere near the mountain range at the eastern end of Kazakhstan. No one had told me that Aeroflot listed all departures and arrivals in Moscow time-even for a two-thousand-mile flight to a city whose local time was three time zones later. At 8:30 the fat, loose-jointed jumbo jet rolled to a stop behind an attractive one-story building slightly smaller than the terminal in Lexington, Kentucky.
Dusk was losing its last light as I walked down into the plane's cargo bay and picked up my bag from the wooden luggage racks (I'd been advised that prudent Aeroflot passengers never check their bags). Inside the Intourist lounge a small greeting party awaited my arrival. A man with graying hair and expectant eyes stepped forward.
"Mr. Browning," he said, emphasizing the g, rather the way some New Yorkers say "Longuyland." He thrust his thick, sturdy hands out to grasp mine. Quickly his interpreter, a blond fortyish woman with matching everything--eyeliner, purse, shoes, nails--stepped up.
"I am Gallina Alexandrovna and this is Dr. Aimak Djangaliev. We would like to welcome you to Alma-Ata." Beside her stood Kazakhstan's Deputy Minister of Ecology, the chief of the National Forest Service, another assistant, and of course the driver.
I was the first Western Journalist Djangaliev had ever met.
Aimak Djangaliev was four years old when the Russian Revolution swept through the northern plains of Kazakhstan. His father, a prosperous sheepherder who could neither read nor write, had owned a large two-story house and commanded the respect of his seminomadic community until it was collectivized by the Bolsheviks. Through the eighty years Dr. Djangaliev had lived when I met him in 1992, he had survived the promises and torments of revolution, the purges and tortures of the Stalinist terror, the desperation and heroics of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, the steady, soul-numbing encroachment of the Brezhnev bureaucracy, and the final collapse of the horrible and wondrous edifice that had been the Soviet Union. Except during the war years and his time at the university, he had devoted himself to his "great passion," the study and preservation of the world's original apple forests on the slopes of Kazakhstan's Tian Shan, or Heavenly Mountains. It was in these forests, thick groves of trees that meander on for hundreds of miles, that Djangaliev escaped Stalin's agents and eventually won renown for his work. Before I arrived in Alma-Ata, my American contacts had subtly warned me to be prepared for a difficult but remarkable man whose tough ego had been the source of his salvation.
Alma-Ata (pronounced Alma A-TAH) sits between two rushing glacial streams, the Greater and the Lesser Almatinka Rivers, that have their headwaters high in the snow-packed peaks to the southeast and disappear into a haze in the vast, and center of the country. The name Alma-Ata, which means "father of apples," was invented by the Russians after the revolution (and changed to Almaty in 1994, three years after Kazakh independence). It had been a trading center on the Silk Route at least since the time of Alexander the Great. Imperial Russia staked out a military post there midway through the nineteenth century and gradually imported Cossack forces to hold it in the name of the czar. In those days the deep ravines and undulating slopes were blanketed by forests of apples and apricots. Green, red, yellow, rusty orange--large and sweet, small and bitter--apples ruled the land, and their forests set the acidity of the soil, made peace with specific herbs and flowers, attracted the birds and bears and antelope that would spread their seeds far and wide. That is how it appeared to Djangaliev when he was a boarding-school student there in the 1920s.
By 1992, however, when he was showing me his gardens and forests, Djangaliev could barely contain his rage and disgust at what three generations of Russian planners and bureaucrats had done to his precious fruit forest. He and his wife, Tatiana, a specialist in wild apricots, took me out to an orchard where forty years earlier he had transplanted one particularly promising strain of wild apple trees. From the smooth, tight appearance of the bark, the vigor of new growth, the size of the crop on them, these trees looked to be no more than a third their actual age. He said he had never pruned them, irrigated them, or fertilized them. The nearly ripe fruit varied in size, but much of it was as fine-skinned and colorful as New England McIntosh.
Djangaliev could see that I was struck by their appearance, and he had a good deal to tell me about these trees, but first he tugged me and his translator over to a clear space where we could see more clearly into the mountains. He began pointing with powerful gestures up to them. He was a tall man, as many Kazakhs are, and his shoulders were still sturdy and broad. The bones in his wrists were wide. His fist seemed fierce.
"If you look at the mountain over there, you'll see some dachas, some small buildings. This is one of the ways of destroying wild forests."
He was upset and wanted me, the American Journalist, to know it.
"So people remove fertile land and build houses there. Well, if we treat our nature like that we'll have nothing in future, will we? The representatives of bureaucratic classes, some rich people, built their dachas in the mountains."
Now he was railing.
"They never give it a thought who produced this fragrant air and who is responsible for the beauty and fertile land. So they begin destroying it."
These were the weekend and summer cabins of the elite of Alma-Ata. Each one had a quarter or a half acre of land, tied to the highways by crude gravel drives. Already we could see hundreds of dachas; at the current construction rate there would soon be thousands. Once Western developers set to work on the pristine ski slopes just above the dacha zone, it could come to resemble Vail or Steamboat Springs.
Djangaliev is not a sentimental preservationist. He is proud of the modern industrial world the Kazakhs have built and of the productivity of modem Kazakh agriculture. He takes particular pride in the fact that, all through World War II, Kazakhstan turned itself into the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, that Kazakh grain nourished him and the troops with whom he fought on the western front. And, though he had a torturous life with the Communist Party, he retains a grain of the Marxian faith in progress and the force of history. His angst over the steady destruction of the apple forests derives from his conviction that, without such natural preserves, science and progress will be stymied.
As we stood there in the late August afternoon, he led me over to one of the wild apple trees he transplanted in 1949. The apples on this tree are medium-sized and without blemish. "This one I call Krasota [or Beauty]," he said, nodding his head to me, his gray eyes opening wide. That is also the name of his mother and his granddaughter, his interpreter, Gallina, explained.
This apple, Beauty, which he has studied for four decades, he hopes might become vital breeding stock in the future of Kazakh horticulture. It seems resistant to many of the standard apple diseases, offers good commercial potential, and requires no irrigation to reach moderate size. Its botanical name is Malus niedvetskyana number 49. A few rows away is another variety, Malus sieversii number 1001. This one is a large, dusky-green apple, and it grows from the tips of long willowlike limbs attached to short, stocky trunks. It may also possess special breeding qualities, he believes.
Djangaliev's counterparts in the United States and Europe are not so confident that these particular varieties will change the shape of contemporary fruit growing, nor do they consider Malus niedvetskyana a species distinct from Malus sieversii, the basic Kazakh apple. But they agree that these lower slopes of the Tian Shan and another vast, almost untouched region to the northeast of Alma-Ata called the Dzungarian Alps constitute the center of origin for the ancestors of nearly all the apples we eat today. For horticultural scientists, that is vital information. Because the apple, or Malus, has survived so long on these slopes, and because until recently it has been undisturbed by man, it has retained rich genetic diversity. The modern apples we find at fruit stands and supermarkets represent but a tiny slice of all the possible apples that have existed in the world. They are the descendants of thousands of years of selection for color, size, shape, and growth habits. But they are also the chance descendants of the fruit and seedlings carried by travelers of the Silk Route and wild birds and animals that ate the fruit and scattered the seed as it passed through their digestive tracts. The apples that reached Persia, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and eventually central and northern Europe contain less than 15 to 20 percent of the genetic material found in these ancient Asian forests. Locked away in the genetic codes of that other 80 percent are the still unexplored possibilities of what an apple might become: Apples resistant to rots and blights and insects. Apples untouched by deep killing freezes. Apples of tantalizing yet unknown taste. Apples possessed of deep, rich skin tannins and tingling fresh fragrances that could be the basis of new untasted wines and ciders.
Even an afternoon's walk through those sun-dappled, grovelike forests reveals a variety of wild fruit that the European or American wanderer has never imagined. It is almost like a journey back into an unkempt primordial garden.
Djangaliev wanted me to see, touch, smell these forests as quickly as possible, to absorb viscerally the intense "appleness" of this place called "father of apples." The next day he arranged for one of his expeditionary teams to pick me up for its trek into the mountains.
Copyright © 1998 Frank Browning
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