GoodFruit.com pays tribute to the oldest domestic fruit tree in North America.
Hidden from view, down an embankment in an unremarkable business park north of Boston stands a very, very old pear tree.
The Endicott tree may be the oldest cultivated fruit tree in North America and is protected as a national landmark.
Historians estimate it was planted more than 380 years ago in the early 1630s. For reference, the Declaration of Independence was signed about 140 years later.
My hunt for this tree, which still produces pears, was exciting. I suppose I should have celebrated when I finally located the Endicott tree, but I didn’t.
Instead, I paused, stretched out on a grassy slope facing the diminutive tree and wondered how it survived centuries of encroachment by industry and suburbs.
In the early July sun, I could see a few small pears growing under a canopy held together by support wires and steel, surrounded by an iron fence that propped and protected the historic tree.
I was surprised how it appeared caged and suspended like an upside-down marionette, cornered in by a parking lot. The setting for this tree is in stark contrast to the grand old Bartlett “dinosaur” trees from my grandfather’s orchard in Washington state.
Many of my summer childhood days were spent climbing those giants, hiding in the canopy with binoculars looking for pirates and an occasional barn cat.
Though the Endicott tree was not what I expected, it was captivating. Every crag in the bark was deep, every pear nearly identical in size and shape, and it truly was a wonder to me that it was still producing.
It’s worth noting that the tree’s stubborn survival and historic significance has earned a spot for its genetic daughters to be propagated and protected at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Oregon.
I highly recommend anyone traveling near Danvers, Massachusetts, to seek out this tree.
Less than a century ago, Swedenâ€™s remote forests and mountain pastures swelled with womenâ€™s voices each summer. As dusk approached, the haunting calls of kulning echoed through the trees in short, cascading, lyricless phrases. Though often quite melodic, these werenâ€™t simply musical expressions. They were messages intended for a responsive audience: wayfaring cattle. Kulning was a surefire way to hurry the herds home at the end of the day.
According to Susanne Rosenberg, professor and head of the folk music department at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and kulning expert, the vocal technique likely dates back to at least the medieval era. In the spring, farmers sent their livestock to a small fÃ¤bod, or remote, temporary settlement in the mountains, so cows and goats could graze freely. Women, young and old, accompanied the herds, living in relative isolation from late May until early October. Far from the village, they tended to the animals, knitted, crafted whisks and brooms, milked the cows, and made cheeseâ€”often working sixteen hour days. Life on the fÃ¤bod was arduous work, but it was freeing, too. â€œIt was only women, and they had all this free space to make a lot of noise,â€ says Jinton. â€œThey had their own paradise.â€
The herds grazed during the daytime, wandering far from the cottages, and thus needed to be called in each night. Women developed kulning to amplify the power of their voices across the mountainous landscape, resulting in an eerie cry loud enough to lure livestock from their grazing grounds.
One should always take caution when hanging out with someone kulning, as it canâ€™t be done quietly. Rosenberg, whoâ€™s researched the volume of kulning, says it can reach up to 125 decibelsâ€”which, she warns, is dangerously loud for someone standing next to the source. Comparable to the pitch and volume of a dramatic soprano singing forte, kulning can be heard by an errant cow over five kilometers away. This explains how the song might reach a distant herd, but what prompts animals to trot over remains a bit of a mystery. â€œThat we have to ask the cows!â€ says Rosenberg. â€œBut itâ€™s really no stranger than calling a dog.â€
Much like trained pets, cows feel loyalty to the humans who care for them. According to Rosenberg, it only takes one solid affinity between a cow and a woman to bring the whole herd home. â€œThereâ€™s always at least one cow that is the smart cow, in a herd,â€ she says. â€œSheâ€™s like the leader cow.â€ Once this particularly enlightened cow hears the call, Rosenberg suspects, she heads toward the source, encouraging the rest of the herd to follow suit.
To do this at such great volume requires learning the proper technique, which, it turns out, is a far cry from that of classical or popular singing. â€œItâ€™s more like calling,â€ says Rosenberg. â€œLike if you see somebody on the other end of the street, itâ€™s the way you would use your voice naturally to try to get their attention.â€ Kulning was taught orally. Young women learned from the old, imitating the songs of their elders and slowly adding individual flair and vocal ornamentation. Rosenberg, who now teaches kulning in a classroom setting, says the key to the call is improvisation. â€œYou have to have variation, because you never know how long youâ€™re going to be calling for.â€ In other words, you have to keep singing until the cows come home.
Cows, however, werenâ€™t the only ones on the receiving end of kulning. The call could ward off predators in the woods, and served as a form of communication between women who were otherwise isolated from one another. If a cow went missing, for instance, a woman on one farm might cry out using a particular melody to pass the message to those within earshot. Once the cow had been located, her far-off neighbor would convey the news back to her in song.
Lost Indian crops of North America: a) goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri); b) sumpweed/mars helder (Iva annua); c) little barley (Hordeum pusillum); d) erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum); e) maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana).
We Europeans got potatoes, tomatoes, sweet corn, and tobacco from the Indians, but they apparently also cultivated a wide repertoire of crops which nobody adopted and which have been entirely forgotten.
Adventurers and archaeologists have spent centuries searching for lost cities in the Americas. But over the past decade, theyâ€™ve started finding something else: lost farms.
Over 2,000 years ago in North America, indigenous people domesticated plants that are now part of our everyday diets, such as squashes and sunflowers. But they also bred crops that have since returned to the wild. These include erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive cousin, Asian knotweed), goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, and maygrass. We havenâ€™t simply lost a few plant strains: an entire cuisine with its own kinds of flavors and baked goods has simply disappeared.
By studying lost crops, archaeologists learn about everyday life in the ancient Woodland culture of the Americas, including how people ate plants that we call weeds today. But these plants also give us a window on social networks. Scientists can track the spread of cultivated seeds from one tiny settlement to the next in the vast region that would one day be known as the United States. This reveals which groups were connected culturally and how they formed alliances through food and farming.
Natalie Mueller is an archaeobotanist at Cornell University who has spent years hunting for erect knotweed across the southern US and up into Ohio and Illinois. She calls her quest the â€œSurvey for Lost Crops,â€ and admits cheerfully that its members consist of her and â€œwhoever I can drag along.â€ Sheâ€™s published papers about her work in Nature, but also she spins yarns about her hot, bug-infested summer expeditions for lost farms on her blog. There, photographs of the rare wild plants are interspersed with humorous musings on contemporary local food delicacies like pickle pops.
Indigenous to the Americas, erect knotweed grows in the moist flood zones near rivers. Itâ€™s a stalky plant with spoon-shaped leaves, and it produces achenes, or fruit with very hard shells to protect its rich, starchy seeds. Though rare today, the plant was common enough 2,000 years ago that paleo-Americans collected it from the shores of rivers and brought it with them to the uplands for cultivation. Archaeologists have found caches of knotweed seeds buried in caves, clearly stored for a later use that never came. And, in the remains of ancient fires, theyâ€™ve found burned erect knotweed fruits, popped like corn.
Mueller told Ars Technica that erect knotweed was likely domesticated on tiny farms on the western front of the Appalachians. There are clear differences between it and its feral cousins. After years of comparing the ancient seeds with wild types, Mueller has found two unmistakable signs of domestication: larger fruits and thinner fruit skins. We see a similar pattern in other domesticated plants like corn, whose wild version with tiny seeds is almost unrecognizable to people chomping on the juicy, large kernels of the domesticated plant.
Obviously, bigger seeds would make the erect knotweed a better food source, so farmers selected for that. And the thinner skin means the plants can germinate more quickly. Their wild cousins evolved to produce fruits tough enough to endure river floods and inhospitable conditions for over a year before sprouting. But farm life is cushy for plants, so these defenses werenâ€™t necessary for their survival under human care.
Still, even the domesticated fruits of the erect knotweed have skins so tough that Mueller has not been able to crack them using the stone tools typical of the Woodland era. Working with a team at Cornell, sheâ€™s been trying to reverse engineer how they could have been eaten.
â€œThe fruit coat is really hard, and it would have been necessary to break through it,â€ she mused. â€œItâ€™s like buckwheatâ€”the sprouts are nutritious. So maybe they ate the sprouted version.â€
As for whether early Americans ate popped knotweed like popcorn, she was less certain. â€œThe only way to preserve it is to burn it, so [the remains we find] could have been accidents while cooking. It might have been for drying.â€ But yes, people from long ago might have munched on popweed.
Another possibility is that the seeds were soaked in lime before being turned into a hominy-style porridge. Ancient Americans used limeâ€”the chemical, not the fruitâ€”to soften the hulls of maize before cooking it, in a technique called nixtamalization. Itâ€™s very likely the Woodland peoples used this prehistoric form of culinary science on other plants, too. So people 2,000 years ago may have been eating a rich, knotweed mush.
Mueller is currently cultivating her own erect knotweed to test various forms of preparation, but sheâ€™s not quite ready to go into the kitchen yet. â€œIâ€™m trying to be a good farmer and put my seeds back first,â€ she said. â€œIn five years of looking, Iâ€™ve only found seven populations of this plant. I want to conserve the seeds as much I can.â€ Sheâ€™s going to accumulate a sizable cache of seeds before wasting them on dinner.
Heather MacDonald reports on the latest academic breaktrough in gender equity. Naturally, it occurred in California.
Another day in academia, another twist in the bizarre world of identity studies. The Center for the Study of Sexual Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, is presenting a talk next week on â€œQueering Agriculture,â€ dedicated to the proposition that â€œit is absolutely crucial queer and transgender studies begin to deal more seriously with the subject of agriculture.â€
Queer theory has taken over student life on many campuses. Now that gay identity has been thoroughly institutionalized, declaring oneself â€œtrans*,â€ â€œgenderqueer,â€ â€œpangender,â€ or any of the other rapidly multiplying alternative sexes has become the last frontier of self-engrossed agitation available to students. But apart from the odoriferous leavings of female ginko trees, the â€œproblemâ€ of gender and plants did not seem to be a pressing one, making the application of queer theory to agriculture an innovation that even the most dogged observers of identity studies might not have seen coming. The talkâ€™s presenter, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the University of Maryland, will allegedly show that â€œthe growing popularity of sustainable food is laden with anthroheterocentric assumptions of the â€˜good lifeâ€™ coupled with idealized images and ideas of the American farm, and gender, radicalized and normative standards of health, family, and nation.â€
A new cultural psychology study has found that psychological differences between the people of northern and southern China mirror the differences between community-oriented East Asia and the more individualistic Western world â€“ and the differences seem to have come about because southern China has grown rice for thousands of years, whereas the north has grown wheat.
“It’s easy to think of China as a single culture, but we found that China has very distinct northern and southern psychological cultures and that southern China’s history of rice farming can explain why people in southern China are more interdependent than people in the wheat-growing north,” said Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia Ph.D. student in cultural psychology and the study’s lead author. He calls it the “rice theory.”
The findings appear in the May 9 issue of the journal Science.
Talhelm and his co-authors at universities in China and Michigan propose that the methods of cooperative rice farming â€“ common to southern China for generations â€“ make the culture in that region interdependent, while people in the wheat-growing north are more individualistic, a reflection of the independent form of farming practiced there over hundreds of years.
“The data suggests that legacies of farming are continuing to affect people in the modern world,” Talhelm said. “It has resulted in two distinct cultural psychologies that mirror the differences between East Asia and the West.”
It happened in Sudbury, as the Daily Mail reports:
A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals.
Hanging pigsâ€™ heads, limp rabbits and dead pheasants were upsetting the children.
The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of â€˜mutilated carcassesâ€™.
This seems implausibly puritanical. Any child with internet access and a stack of video games will have seen far worse.
These sentimental folk are part of an ever-growing collective ignorance about food and farming that is immensely damaging not only to the countryside, to farming and to animals â€” but also to ourselves.
Our lack of understanding of where food really comes from is helping to create mountains of food waste and a population of fat, unhealthy Britons.
This kind of urban deracination has real consequences. People who think that meat is manufactured somewhere in a factory laboratory look upon all animals as lovable Disney characters and are eager to ban hunting and all the other field sports. Meanwhile, demand for antiseptic and completely uniform food items makes old-fashioned family farming and human animal husbandry impossible and meat animals are that much more certain to be raised in unnatural factory farm hatcheries. Human ignorance and alienation from Nature and the countryside is bad for agriculture, bad for animals, bad for the countryside, and impoverishing to human culture.
Seedsman Greg Schoen got the seed from Carl Barnes, a part-Cherokee man, now in his 80’s, in Oklahoma. He was Greg’s “corn-teacher”. Greg was in the process of moving last year and wanted someone else to store and protect some of his seeds. He left samples of several corn varieties, including glass gem. I grew out a small handful this past summer just to see. The rest, as they say is history. I got so excited, I posted a picture on Facebook. We have never seen anything like this. Unfortunately, we did not grow out enough to sell. Look for a small amount for sale starting in August 2011.
Seeds Trust was not, in fact, listing any Glass Gem corn seed for sale. They did have Golden Bantam, an old-time favorite variety which my father swore by. I grew some myself in our backyard one year as a kid. Golden Bantam takes forever to mature. Everybody else is eating fresh sweet corn and you have weeks and weeks and weeks yet to wait, but it really does taste better.
Fueled by litigation and media-fed paranoia, the dissociation between homo urbanicus and Nature has broken through to a fresh new level of insanity, as demonstrated by this SF Chronicle story. Retail buyers are now increasingly demanding that growers make a desert in order to grow sanitized greens.
Dick Peixoto planted hedges of fennel and flowering cilantro around his organic vegetable fields in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville to harbor beneficial insects, an alternative to pesticides.
He has since ripped out such plants in the name of food safety, because his big customers demand sterile buffers around his crops. No vegetation. No water. No wildlife of any kind.
“I was driving by a field where a squirrel fed off the end of the field, and so 30 feet in we had to destroy the crop,” he said. “On one field where a deer walked through, didn’t eat anything, just walked through and you could see the tracks, we had to take out 30 feet on each side of the tracks and annihilate the crop.”
In the verdant farmland surrounding Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary and one of the world’s biological jewels, scorched-earth strategies are being imposed on hundreds of thousands of acres in the quest for an antiseptic field of greens. And the scheme is about to go national.
All kinds of formerly common wildlife vanished in the aftermath of WWII, when the Department of Agriculture popularized tidier, edge-to-edge farming practices which eliminated the hedgerows, borders, and waste spaces where birds and small animals could find shelter and reproduce. One conspicuous result was Goodbye, wild ringneck pheasant! from my native state of Pennsylvania, just for instance.
One can just picture the mind-boggling toll of losses produced by the countless thousands of acres of sterile bird-weed-and-animal-free arugula growing to fill the produce bins of Whole Foods.
Beef and dairy cattle and hogs are part of the cycle of life. They breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, and their digestion of food produces methane as well. Living animals, at least domestic ones, from the perspective of environmentalists, thus constitute a major source of greenhouse gas air pollution, and consequently need to be taxed in order to discourage bovine respiration and porcine flatulence.
The EPA’s proposed addition of “greenhouse gases” under the Clean Air Act would amount to the imposition of major new taxes on domestic agriculture and on American consumers.
The American Farm Bureau offers some figures and notes that taxing US beef and pork production will only move that production outside US borders.
Most livestock and dairy farmers would not be able to pass along the costs incurred under this plan,â€ said Mark Maslyn, AFBF executive director of public policy. â€œSteep fees associated with this action would force many producers out of business. The net result would likely be higher consumer costs for milk, beef and pork,â€ said Maslyn, in comments submitted to EPA.
According to Agriculture Department figures, any farm or ranch with more than 25 dairy cows, 50 beef cattle or 200 hogs emits more than 100 tons of carbon equivalent per year, and thus would need to obtain a permit under the proposed rules. More than 90 percent of U.S. dairy, beef and pork production would be affected by the proposal, Maslyn noted.
Permit fees vary from state to state but EPA sets a â€œpresumptive minimum rateâ€ for fees. For 2008-2009, the rate is $43.75 per ton of emitted greenhouse gases. According to Maslyn, the proposed fee would mean annual assessments of $175 for each dairy cow, $87.50 for each head of beef cattle and $20 for each hog.
In addition, Maslyn said the proposed rules would be ineffective because of the global nature of greenhouse gases. â€œReduction of a ton of greenhouse gases anywhere will make a difference, but if a ton is removed in Iowa and replaced by a ton in China, then no net effect occurred,â€ he said. â€œA livestock tax and regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act will impose restrictions and added costs on the U.S. economy without reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.