Fertile ground 

Author explores Luther Burbank's garden of invention

Celebrity status usually involves Prada prancing, cushy jail time, reality TV, jet-setting photo ops in Africa, or all of the above. But once upon a time, a person could gain popularity by simply inventing something useful.

click to enlarge Jane Smith's new book, The Garden of Invention, traces the life and legacy of inventor Luther Burbank's plant breeding endeavors. "I think we are experiencing an enormous move back to the desire for greater variety," Smith says, "which was very much a force in Burbank's career."
  • Jane Smith's new book, The Garden of Invention, traces the life and legacy of inventor Luther Burbank's plant breeding endeavors. "I think we are experiencing an enormous move back to the desire for greater variety," Smith says, "which was very much a force in Burbank's career."

Luther Burbank invented, among other things, the Burbank potato, rainbow corn, the miracle plum and the Shasta daisy—each bred to be bigger, hardier, tastier or more aesthetically pleasing versions of their originals. He was one such celebrity of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when local food wasn't a movement, but the norm. The reality of local food systems at that time made it necessary to work within a confined geographical radius, but with Burbank's breeding experiments, biological boundaries began to expand.

The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, by cultural historian Jane S. Smith, explores the famous gardener's backyard bioengineering endeavors, and illustrates how his spirited craftiness ignited imaginations. Speaking of illustration, the book's art consists of old seed catalog drawings, horticultural cartoons and farm photographs. One of the best indications of Burbank's celebrity is the illustration from New York's Evening Journal, titled "Luther Burbank Tells Parents the Way to Grow Babies as Plants." It alludes to his peripheral (and perhaps dubious) status as a child-rearing expert.

It wasn't just Burbank's celebrity that made him intriguing, but also the diversity of his fanbase. He was a friend of both creative artists and mechanical inventors like Thomas Edison. According to Smith, he was as much a hero to the chamber of commerce as to the Sierra Club.

"I think it's fascinating that Burbank and everything he represented made him very much admired by Henry Ford and Frida Kahlo," says Smith, "as well as the urban reformer Jacob Reece and John Muir and all kinds of other people who you don't usually get to mention in the same sentence."

Part of Burbank's broad appeal, according to Smith, stems from the fact that food wasn't yet a controversy. The debates about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and fuel crops and exploitations by agri-business giants like Monsanto had not yet happened. Land grant colleges were on the rise, but the schools themselves were just barely up and running. One position in the USDA—an official title up until recent decades—was called the "plant explorer," proving that agriculture was every bit about inventive spirit as it was about business.

"There's this impression that nothing happened between [the eras of] Mother Nature and Monsanto," Smith says. "But there were huge amounts of guided nature going on between these two end points. It's not as though heirloom crops were growing in the Garden of Eden."

Smith says she wrote The Garden of Invention to tell a story about a fascinating man who helped change agricultural economies and literally planted the seeds for new varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables and flowers we often take for granted as merely a gift of nature. What she didn't expect, she says, was to find herself delving so far into the issues of ownership. After all, Burbank's legacy was more about transparency and experimenting than it was about control and power. Yet Smith's book, as she notes, begins and ends in the U.S. Patent Office.

"The question of who owns information and who owns control over the developing natural world is something that I hadn't really been expecting to be quite so strongly a part of the story," Smith says. "But it very quickly became obvious to me that questions of ownership were hugely important here. Not only of plants and seeds but also ownership of ideas and ownership of authority and, when you get somebody as famous as Burbank became, questions of ownership of his reputation."

In the first pages of the book Smith introduces the formation of the Patent Office, which was seen as a means "to promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts." But by the end of the book we are back at the Patent Office again, this time five years after Burbank died and Congress is passing the Patent Act of 1930, which designated the patenting of plants. Though the act was couched in the intention to encourage more invention, Smith observes that using Burbank as the raison d'tre for patenting plants was absurd—and most likely an exploitation of his celebrity.

"During the entire [Patent Act] debate one of the strong arguments the proponents were making was, 'We'll never have another Luther Burbank if we don't allow people to patent plants.' Now, in fact, they had a Luther Burbank without patents, so I don't think that conclusion is quite as inevitable as the proponents presented it. It gives you a sense of how the government was, in the beginning, the source of experimentation and free access to new developments and then, a century later, the chief agent of the privatization of nature."

Celebrity has its downfalls, even—and perhaps, especially—in the world of science. One of Smith's main hopes is that The Garden of Invention will go beyond being an intriguing biography of Burbank and horticulture to showing a need for inventive spirit. She was inspired by the diversity of his plants, which included tomatoes bred specifically for canning, or lilies that "grew as easily potatoes." These days a tomato is often bred—to the exclusion of other varieties—solely for one trait: to survive transportation. Burbank, however, experimented with the multiple paths one type of food or flower could take in order to serve multiple purposes.

"That spirit of possibility and of invention is a wonderful thing that I do think we're getting back to," says Smith. "I hope so. I hope that people will be inspired to go into science. That kind of 'gee whiz, boy-wonder' that inspired Burbank is something that we could really use." The Cave:Advertising:02 Production Art:IndyLogoDingbat2002.tifB:'",,"")>

Jane S. Smith reads from The Garden of Invention at Shakespeare & Co. Thursday, July 2, at 7 PM. Free.

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