Sunday, March 6, 2011

Southern heirlooms and the conservation of diversity

He does not have a web site (or I'd link to it), but Mr. Creighton Lee Calhoun Jr. has been collecting heirlooms for the last 30 years at his orchard in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Last fall, Kevin Hauser made a video of his visit with Mr. Calhoun, and last week the New York Times ran a feature about him and his trees. (Registration, annoying but free, may be required to view this article.)

Calhoun is Johnny Appleseed in reverse, for where John Chapman spread seeds and genetic diversity, Calhoun harvests it, not as fruit but as budwood that he grafts onto living trees.

He's conserved more than 400 apple varieties from the Southeast, and is the author of Old Southern Apples, recently republished in an expanded second edition.

“I just went around in my car and talked to people,” he told the Times. “I’d spot an apple tree in their yard or out in their pasture or behind the barn, and I’d ask them about it.”

The Times tells Calhoun's story against the familiar backdrop of modern monocrop agriculture and the decline of plant diversity:

The disappearance of these apples represents not only a loss of delightfully different flavors and textures, but genetic diversity, and is something Mr. Calhoun has spent a good part of his life trying to prevent.

Though I second these sentiments with all my heart, I'm not sure that "genetic diversity" quite captures what is at stake with these old varieties, each of which genetically speaking is but one tree.

Simple genetic diversity would best be served by sowing apple seeds, Chapman style, and letting trees grow wild as they still do in parts of Kazakhstan.

Instead we are talking about conserving something even more interesting and valuable: genes that have a special relationship to us; bits of fruit-bearing life to be sure, but also of history and culture, and peoples' stories.

That's the work of apple conservators like Lee Calhoun.

“A lot of Southerners who have an ancient tree know that tree is rare and that it’s dying fast, but they don’t know what to do about it,” Mr. Calhoun said. "When somebody like me comes along, and says, ‘I’ll graft it for you and give you a tree and save one for my own orchard,’ they’re delighted.”

Calhoun's story is further told in this 2000 story by Linda Burnham and this 2008 profile in Edible Piedmont magazine.

Note: Kevin Hauser scooped me on this story, which is only fitting since Kevin met Calhoun last year. Thanks to an alert reader for forwarding the Times story to me last week.

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