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Piecing The Fragments of a Motion Picture Film

We Stop To Take a Backward Glance

"When you speak of environment as an active influence," Mr. Burbank was asked, "do you mean the soil and the rainfall and the climate?" "Yes," was the reply. "I mean those; but not only those; I mean, too, such elements of environment as the Union Pacific Railroad."

"I will explain," Mr. Burbank continued. "Go out into the woods, almost anywhere in the United States, and hunt up a wild plum tree, and you will find that it bears a poor little fruit with a great big stone. You see, the only purpose which the wild plum has in surrounding its seed with a fruit is to attract the animals so that they may carry it away from the foot of the parent tree and plant it in new surroundings, for the good of the offspring and the race. It takes very little meat, and very little in the way of attractive appearance to accomplish this purpose; and besides, the wild plum has to put so much of its vitality into stone, in order to protect the seed within it from the sharp teeth of the same animals which carry it away, that it has little energy left to devote to beauty and flavor. Then take the same wild plum after it has been brought under cultivation and as it grows in the average backyard, and you will find a transformation-less stone, more meat, better flavor, finer aroma, more regular shape, brighter color. This, however, represents but the first stage in the progress of the plum; with all this improvement the backyard plum still may not be useful for any commercial purpose; because people with plum trees in their backyards are likely to eat the fruit off the tree, or to give it to their neighbors, or to cook and preserve it as soon as ripe. So, even the cultivated backyard plum may be perfectly satisfactory for its purpose without having those keeping qualities necessary in a commercial fruit. And this is the point at which the Union Pacific Railroad entered into its environment-at least into the environment of the California plum. The railroad became a factor in plum improvement by bringing millions of plum-hungry easterners within reach-by affording quick and economical shipping facilities where there had been no shipping facilities at all before. Much as the time of transcontinental travel was reduced, the backyard plum could not withstand the journey. But with an eager market as an incentive, made possible through the railroad, people began to select plums for shipment, until the plum graduated from its backyard environment and became the basis of a thriving industry. The railroad, by bringing customers within reach of those who had plums which would stand shipment, and charging as much to ship poor plums as good plums, encouraged selection not only for shipping plums, but toward a better and better quality of fruit which, without doubt, in the absence of the market which the railroad provided, would never have been produced. Thus we see three important stages in the transformation of the plum. First, the wild era. Second, the backyard era. Third, the railroad era."

When we stop to think of it, all of the great improvements in plant life have been wrought in the railroad era-using the railroad, figuratively, to represent all of the invention, wealth and progress which have accompanied it. There are, after all, but one hundred and forty generations between us and Adam, if the popular notions of elapsed time are correct-but one hundred and forty father-to-son steps between the Garden of Eden and now-but one hundred and forty lifetimes, all told, in which whatever progress we have made has been accomplished. Yet our plants go back, who knows how many tens of thousands of generations? It took the plum tree all of these uncounted ages, in which it had only wild environment, to produce the poor little fruit which we find growing in the woods. It took only two or three short centuries of care and half-hearted selection to bring about the improvement which is evidenced in the common backyard plum. And it took less than a generation, after the railroads came, to work all of the real wonders which we see in this fruit today. The last two generations of the human race, in fact, have accomplished more toward real progress-have done more to make transportation and quick communication possible--have gone further in invention, art, science, and general knowledge-than the one hundred and thirty-eight generations, which preceded them, combined. So, up to two or three human generations ago, the plants, with their start of tens of thousands of generations, were abreast of or ahead of human needs. But human inventive genius, going ahead hundreds or thousands of years at a jump, bringing with it organization and specialization, has changed all of that. In our race across the untracked plains before us, we have outrun our plants. That is all. And, having outrun them, we must lend a hand to bring them up with us if they are to meet our requirements.

Shall we content ourselves with watering our plants when they are dry; and enriching the soil when it is worn out; shall we be satisfied merely to be good gardeners? Or shall we study the living forces within the plants themselves and let them teach us how to work real transformations?

It is conceivable that a manufacturer of machinery might become successful, or even rise to be the foremost manufacturer in his line, without giving a moment of consideration to the atom-structure of the iron which he works-with never a thought of the forces which Nature has employed in creating the substance we call iron ore. It is conceivable that one might become a good cook-a master chef, even-without the slightest reference to, or knowledge of, the structural formation of animal cells and vegetable cells. Or that one might succeed as a teacher of the young-might become, even, a nation-wide authority on molding the plastic mind of youth-without ever being assailed by the thought that the forbears of the nimble-minded children in his care, ages and ages ago, may have been swinging from tree to tree by their tails. And so, in most occupations, it has been contrived for us that we deal only with present-day facts and conditions-that there is little incentive, aside from general interest or wandering curiosity, to try to lift the veil which obscures our past-or to peer through the fog which keeps us from seeing what tomorrow has in store. In plant growing, more than in any of the world's other industries, does the scheme of evolution and a working knowledge of Nature's methods cease to be a theory -- of far-away importance and of no immediate interest-and become an actual working factor, a necessary tool, without which it is impossible to do the day's work. Whether plant improvement be taken up as a science, or as a profession, or as a business-or whether it be considered merely a thing of general interest, an idle hour recreation-there is ever present the need to understand Nature's methods and her forces in order to be able to make use of them-to guide them-there always stares us in the face that solitary question: "Where and how did life start?"

We have seen in this volume a color photograph of corn as it grew four thousand years, perhaps, before the days of Adam and Eve. It took less than eight seasons to carry this plant backward those ten thousand years. How this plant was first taken back to the stage in which it was found by the American Indians, thus revealing the methods which they crudely used to improve it-and how it was taken back and back and back beyond the Pharaohs and then back forty centuries before the time of man-how we know these things to be true-and how, as a result of these experiments we are about to see it carried forward by several centuries-all of these things are reserved for a later chapter where space will permit the treatment which the subject deserves. The illustration is cited here merely as one of thousands, typical of plant improvement, in which, in order to work forward a little, we must work backward ages and ages. It is cited here to show that what is merely an interesting theory to the mass of the world's workers, becomes a definite, practical, working necessity to the man or woman who becomes interested in plant improvement. It is cited here so that we may be helped to get a clearer mind picture of Mr. Burbank's viewpoint-of that viewpoint which, after all, has enabled him to become a leader in a new line, the founder of a new art-instead of remaining a nurseryman or gardener.

"In my viewpoint," says Mr. Burbank, "there is little that is new-little that has not been discovered by others-little that has not been accepted by scientists generally-little that requires explanation to those who simply see the same things that I have seen. I have no new theory of evolution to offer-perhaps only a few details to add to the theories which have already been worked out by men of science. And I make these observations and conclusions of mine a part of this work for two reasons: First, because they are products not of imagination, reasoning, or any mental process-but the practical observations and conclusions which have gained force and proof, year by year, in a lifetime of experience with plants-throughout forty years of continuous devotion to the subject, during which time I have tried more than one hundred thousand separate experiments on plant life; and, as such, represent an important phase of my work. Second, because an ever-present interest in evolution-an ever-eager mind to peer backward and forward-is essential not only to the practice of plant improvement, but even to the barest understanding of it. To gain the first quick glimpse, let us liken the process of evolution to a moving picture as it is thrown on the screen. Imagine for example that some all-seeing camera had made a snapshot of Nature's progress each hundred years from the time when plant life started in our world to the present day. Imagine that these progressive snapshots were joined together in a motion picture reel, and thrown in quick succession upon a screen. We should see, no doubt, as the picture began to move, a tiny living being, a simple cell, the chemical product, perhaps, of salty water-so small that 900 of them would have to be assembled together to make a speck big enough for our human eyes to see. As snapshot succeeded snapshot we should see that two of these microscopic simple cells in some way or other formed a partnership-possibly finding it easier to fight the elements of destruction in alliance than alone. We should see, beyond doubt, that these partnerships joined other partnerships, and as partnership joined partnership, and group joined group, these amalgamations began to have an object beyond mere defense-that they began to organize for their own improvement, comfort, well being, or whatever was their guiding object. We should see that, whereas each simple cell had within it all of the powers necessary to move about and live its life in its own crude way, yet with the amalgamation of the cells there came organization, development, improvement. Some of the cells in each amalgamation, let us say, specialized on seeing, some on locomotion, some on digestion. Thus, while each simple cell had all of these powers in a limited way, yet the new creature, as a result of specialization, could see better, move more readily, digest more easily, than the separate elements which went into it. And so, through the early pictures of our reel, there would be spread before us the development of the little simple cell into more and more complex forms of life-first vegetable, then animal-into everything, finally, that lives and grows about us today-into us, ourselves.
In an actual motion picture as it is thrown on the screen, it is only the quick progressive succession of the pictures that makes us realize the sense of motion. If we were to detach and examine a single film from the reel, it would show no movement. It would be as stationary and as fixed as a child's first kodak snapshot. In the motion picture of Nature's evolution, the world, as we see it about us in our lifetime, represents but a single snapshot, detached from those which have preceded it and from those which are to succeed it. And so, some of us-too many of us-not confronted with the same necessity which irresistibly leads the plant student into the study of these forces-viewing only the single, apparently unmoving picture before us, have concluded that there is no forward motion-that there has been no evolution-that there will be none. The plant student, above all others, has the greatest facilities at his hand for observing not only the details of the picture which is now on the screen-but for gaining glimpses-fragmentary glimpses-of pictures which have preceded-of piecing these together-and of realizing that all that we have and are and will be must be a part of this slow, sure, forward-moving change that unfailingly traces itself back to the little simple salt-water cell. As we go further and further into the work we shall begin to see the film fragments which to workers in other lines are obscured, unnoticed, unknown. We shall be able to observe details of the process-carried home to us with undeniable conviction-indisputable to any man who believes what he actually sees-which will give us a realistic view of the whole motion picture which to the world at large has always been denied. We shall find that, dealing, thus, with Nature's forces at first hand, our work will inspire an interest beyond even the interest of creating new forms of life. And, as our work unfolds, the side lights which we shall see will clear up many or most of the doubts which are likely to take possession of us at the outset.

It may be well, at this point, however, to take space to refer to the single question most frequently asked by thousands of intelligent men and women who have visited Mr. Burbank's experiment farms. This question, differing in form, as the individualities of the questioners differ, usually runs like this: "If we are descendants of monkeys, why are not the monkeys turning into men today?"

Let us learn Mr. Burbank's answer to this question by turning to the golden-yellow California poppy, so called, and the three entirely new poppies (illustrated here in natural colors), which he produced from it. In order to make clear the truth which the poppies prove, it is necessary to explain the successive steps of the operation. Mr. Burbank first grew a yardful of the wild, golden-yellow poppies, such as cover California's hills. The individual poppies of this yardful-a million of them, at a guess-resembled each other as closely as one rose resembles another rose on the same bush, or as one grape resembles another on the same bunch, as one pea resembles another in the same pod. Yet among those million poppies-all looking alike to the unpracticed eye-there could be found by a close observer as many individual differences as could be found among any million human beings in the world. Among those million poppies, each with its distinct individuality, Mr. Burbank found three which had a decided tendency to break away from the California poppy family and start a separate race of their own. This same tendency could be observed among a million men, a million roses, a million peas, a million quartz crystals, or a million of any of Nature's creations. Those one, or two, or three out of every million with tendencies to break away are sometimes called the freaks or "sports" of the species.It seems as though Nature, never quite satisfied with her creations, is always experimenting, with the hope of creating a better result-yet limiting those experiments to such a small percentage that the mass of the race remains unchanged-its characteristics preserved its general tendencies unaffected. The California poppy, as it grows wild, is a rich golden-yellow. In spite of individual differences, this color is the characteristic of the kind. It is a fixed characteristic, dating back at least to the time when California, because of the poppy covered hills, received its name-the land of fire-from the early Spanish navigators that ventured up and down the coast. Out of the billion billions of wild poppies that have grown, each million has no doubt contained its freaks or its "sports"-its few experimental individuals which Nature has given the tendency to break away from the characteristics of their fellows. Yet in the history of the California poppy family, as far back as we can trace, none of these freaks or "sports" had ever achieved its object. Among the "sports" which Mr. Burbank found in the million poppies he grew were one with a crimson tendency, one with a white tendency, and one with a lemon-yellow, fiery-red tendency. If Mr. Burbank had not intervened, these freaks, quite likely, would have perished without offspring. But by nurturing them, separating them and saving their seeds, within a few brief seasons he was able to produce three new kinds of the California poppy. Each kind had all of the parent poppy characteristics but one. They were California poppies in habits, in growth, in shape, in size, in form, in grace, in texture, in beauty. Yet in color they differed from the California wild poppy almost as a violet differs from a daisy. One of these freaks developed into the solid crimson poppy, another into the pure white poppy, and still another into the fire-flame poppy-all shown here. The details of method employed and the application of these methods and the underlying principles to the improvement of other flowers, fruits, trees and useful and ornamental plants, will be left for later chapters. But as an illustration, this poppy experiment brings home three things: First, that Nature creates no duplicates. Second, that although each of Nature's creations has its own distinctive individuality, all the time she takes special precautions to fix, preserve, and make permanent the characteristics of each of her races or kinds. Third, that there is always present in all of her creations the experimental tendency to break awvay from fixed characteristics-to start new races-to branch out into entirely new forms of development. Through Mr. Burbank's intervention, in the case of the poppy, this tendency was crowned with success; in ten thousand years, perhaps, without intervention at all, the same result might have been attained. From the fern at the water's edge, to the apple tree which bears us luscious fruit-from the oyster that lies helpless in the bottom of Long Island Sound, to the human being who rakes it up, and eats it-every different form of life about us may, thus, be traced to the experiments which Nature is continually trying, in order to improve her creations. As to the question so often asked, monkeys are no more turning into men than golden-yellow poppies are turning into crimson, white or fire-flame poppies. In monkeys, as in men and poppies and quartz crystals-there is ever present the tendency to break away from the kind, yet Nature is always alert to prevent the break-unless it demonstrates itself to be an advance, an improvement-from occurring. She gives us, all of us, and everything-individuality, personality-unfailingly, always at the same time preserving in each the general characteristics of its kind. Yet all the time she is creating her freaks and "sports"--all the time she is trying new experiments-most of then doomed to die unproductive-with the hope that the thousand freaks among a billion creations may show the way toward a single improvement in a race.
In this hurried backward glance, we have, by no means, gone back to the beginning of things. Even the moving picture of Nature's course from the salt-water cell to us, covering what seems an infinity of time, may be but a single stationary film in a still greater moving picture-and that, too, but a part of a greater whole. Indeed, the further we go into our subject, the more we are convinced that instead of having followed the thread of life to its beginning, we have merely been following a raveling which leads into one of its tiny strands. The more we learn definitely about the process which we trace back to the simple salt-water cell, the more we are led to inquire into those other forms of energy-into the chemical reactions-into the vibrations which manifest themselves to us as sound, heat, light-into electricity and those manifestations whose discovery is more recent, and whose nature is less well understood. The more we observe the phenomena in our own fields of activity, the more we realize the futility of trying, in a single lifetime, to explore Infinity. The more content we feel, instead, to learn as much as we can that is useful and practical, of the single strand of life's thread which has to do more immediately with the thing in hand.

"What do you put in the soil to make your canna lilies so big?" "How often do you take up the bulbs of your gladioli?" "How late do you keep your strawberry plants under glass?" These, and a hundred others of their kind, are the questions which visitors at the experiment farm are continually asking Mr. Burbank. It is not that Mr. Burbank undervalues the care of plants, or does not appreciate the importance of cultivation. But his questioners fail to realize that his work has been with the insides of plants and not with their externals. Of the details of working method-of the little tricks that save time-of Luther Burbank's bold innovations-which many gardeners may have dreamed, but none have ever dared to do-of these, in the volumes to come, we shall find plenty. Yet, we shall find ourselves, too, searching the times when things were not as they are, in order to get glimpses of things as they are to be-and all, not from that standpoint of theory, but merely to help us in the very practical, useful work of coaxing from Nature new forms of plant life-better forms than, uncoaxed, she would give us-plants which because of their greater productivity will help us lower our constantly increasing cost of living-plants which will yield us entirely new substances to be used in manufactures-plants which will grow on what now are waste lands-plants which, by their better fruit, or their increased beauty, or their doubled yield, or their improved quality, will add to our individual pleasures and profits, and to the pleasures and profits of the whole world.

-In order to work forward a little, we must work backward ages and ages.

This text is from: Luther Burbank: his methods and discoveries and their practical application. Volume 1 Chapter 9