27 April 2007


As researchers examine the Amazon more carefully, it appears that huge areas contain not only wild plants, but have been stocked with people-friendly cultivars of useful species. More and more, it looks as if the Amazon, like much of the Americas, was a carefully cultivated garden before the Europeans showed up and abused it into a thicketed wilderness. It appears that our idea of wilderness—black forest so dense you can barely walk, where people "take only photographs and leave only footprints"—is a notion burned into our psyches during an anomalous blip: the first two centuries following the Mayflower, in which the gardeners who had tended the Americas for millennia were exterminated, leaving the hemisphere to descend into an neglected tangle of "primeval forest." It's likely that this so-called intact forest had never existed before, since humans arrived here as soon as the glaciers receded and began tending the entire landmass with fire and digging stick.
We've known for some time that it's time to kick things up a notch in terms of extending, enriching and diversifying our permaculture efforts at Braamekraal, but its been harrd going in terms of deciding how to proceed. The basic plan we figured out a decade ago still holds good, by and large, but the details need filling-in. What pioneer tree species? Understory varieties? And time, too, to apply the hard-won lessons of the past ten years. What edible varieties will the Mouse Birds leave alone? What fruit trees are bound to attract the Baboons? Ten years ago we didn't even know that Mouse Birds existed! The devil is always in the details!

Reading Toby Hemenway's fascinating write-up of the pre-Columbian Americas has set ideas detonating like fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. His insights and accounts also resonate strongly with some very puzzling things about the South- and Meso-American natives.
Here's a small, green berry. Its a bit poisonous, so if you eat it, you'll almost certainly get a severe tummy-ache. It's an annual that grows all over, seeding itself pretty freely, but nobody in their right mind would want to actually eat it!
What vision, what insight, possesses a gardener, inspring them to expend years, perhaps generations, of effort to selectively breed this semi-nasty little berry into the beautiful Tomatoes we love so much?

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