02.12.11

Great Weekend Reads

This week: Nathaniel Rich says the green movement's greatest problem is lack of imagination, Malcolm Jones hails "a first-class nightmare" in Swamplandia!, and a delicious, illustrated slice of French history.

Welcome to the Total Weather Apocalypse

Climate change is too mild a term to describe the terrifying changes the earth will experience as it heats, says reviewer Nathaniel Rich. We need artists and filmmakers to awaken America to the disaster ahead.

The green movement, like the nuclear movement before it, is in the awkward position of having to forecast events that no one on earth has experienced before: namely, the extinction of human beings. The anti-nukies were fond of quoting from eschatology—Revelation primarily—to summon the apocalyptic scenarios that a nuclear war would unleash. J. Robert Oppenheimer, after watching the explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, was reminded of a line from Hindu scripture: "Now I am become death, shatterer of worlds."

Greenies, when pressed to describe the onset of transformational climate change, often turn to a somewhat milder metaphor from the Industrial Age. A version of it appears near the beginning Mark Hertsgaard's new assessment of the environmental crisis, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth:

Imagine that our civilization is traveling in a train, heading downhill, picking up speed, and approaching a landscape obscured by storm clouds. We can hit the brakes by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and we must. But the train's momentum ensures that it will be a long time before we actually come to a halt, and before we do, we will cross a great deal of unknown territory.

The train metaphor has several telling shortcomings. For it to reflect reality, certain revisions would need to be made. Most of the train's passengers, for starters, are unaware that the train is headed for disaster. The conductor (the U.S.) may realize the trouble we're in, but if so, he has been shackled and locked in a utility closet by kamikaze hijackers (ExxonMobil, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Koch Industries, the Republican Party). Also the train is not going downhill; it has run off a cliff. We can hit the brakes, but that won't save us from the plunge.

The green movement has political problems, publicity problems, and money problems, but one of its most fatal concerns is a language problem. "Global warming" is a flaccid, misdirected term. The concern about rising temperatures is not that the globe will suffer. Earth will be fine: It's tolerated ice ages and an age, between 30 million and 100 million years ago, when the planet was 29 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it is today and the Antarctic ice sheet did not exist. The planet will survive this. Human beings will not. "Climate change" is even worse—the climate changes every day, after all. We need something stronger. Auto-Extinction. Carbon Poisoning. Weather Apocalypse. As in: At current emission levels, we will suffer Total Weather Apocalypse by 2050.

The language problem is connected to the green movement's other major challenge: failure of imagination. Here the movement begins at a significant disadvantage. The human mind is uniquely unprepared to grasp the basic facts of Weather Apocalypse for two reasons. For one, the transformation is gradual, taking decades. If the mortgage and personal debt crises have taught us anything, it's that Americans are not good at planning in advance—not two years, let alone two generations. If every day of 2011 is three degrees warmer than every day of 2010, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. But plants, animals, and insects would—this is why the migration patterns of thousands of species have advanced toward the North and South Poles by about four miles per decade during the last 50 years. Mountains would also "notice"—that is why their snowpacks are shrinking, and melting into the sea.

The second disadvantage is the scale of the transformation. It is far too profound to intuit. Hertsgaard explains, for instance, that three feet of sea level rise (a figure within cautious estimates for the next century) would put an estimated 28 square miles of Shanghai underwater. Two feet of sea rise would put "2,200 miles of roads in Washington, DC, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina at risk of regular inundation." This sounds scary enough. But it's very hard to imagine what that would look like, what it really means.

Hertsgaard's book is filled with facts like this. If current emissions trends persist, "the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will exceed 700 parts per million by 2100." The temperature will increase by a "minimum of 9°F over the average temperature of the pre-industrial era. The Earth would be hotter than at any time in the past 50 million years." And "the aquifers beneath the North China Plain—which is home to more than 200 million people and produces 60 percent of China's wheat—will dry up entirely in 30 years."

Seven hundred parts per million, 50 million years, 60 percent of China's wheat—these are large numbers but blindingly abstract. You have one-in-a-million odds of winning the lottery, but that doesn't stop millions of people from spending their savings on lotto tickets every day. Alternatively, your odds of being eaten by a shark are 1 in 300 million. But thanks to Jaws, a film made 36 years ago, an inordinate percentage of Americans suffer from selachophobia.

The goal should not be to terrify the bejesus out of the public, lest they scrunch their noses and give up. It is not too late to mitigate the scale of the disaster. But greater specificity would be helpful. To take a single example, Hertsgaard quotes a professor at Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment saying that "The temperature rise that is already in the pipeline for the next 30 years is projected to reduce corn yields in the Midwest by 10 to 20 or even 30 percent, [which] could lead to a replay of the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s." We need to see the black blizzards sweeping across the plains, engulfing entire towns, the cars with headlights on in the middle of the day, the homes in which every surface is covered with a fine layer of dust except the white imprint of a child's head on a pillow.

The coming transformation of the planet will make life dull, hard, ugly, and restricted. It's not for journalists like Hertsgaard to imagine what this will be like. It's a job for filmmakers, artists, and novelists. We're still waiting for the green generation's version of Einstein's Monsters, Guernica, The Stand, La Jetée, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Martian Chronicles.

“Climate change” is even worse—the climate changes every day, after all. We need something stronger. Auto-Extinction. Carbon Poisoning. Weather Apocalypse

And not for propaganda reasons. It's much too late to avoid consequences, as Hertsgaard makes clear: "Even if global emissions had been capped in the year 2000, the temperature rise already locked in to the system would cause glaciers to shrink and polar ice to keep melting for hundreds of years and oceans to keep expanding for thousands." To save ourselves, he writes, we will "have to rethink our entire agronomic system" and bring about "fundamental changes in where government money goes, including taking billions of dollars away from some of the most powerful interests in the world, above all the oil and coal industries."

Hertsgaard realizes how likely that is. In Hot, he adopts a pragmatic mode that is increasingly taking hold in the green community. Its main precept is that it's too late to reverse course. We can only mitigate the damage, and adapt to the grisly world we've created.

Hertsgaard cites adaptation measures like planting more trees to shade homes against high temperatures, constructing seawalls, and allowing vulnerable sections of the Gulf Coast to slip into the sea (which sections, he doesn't specify). Behavior will have to change (he is proud of his young daughter's stinginess with running water), and carbon, one day, will be taxed. Measures like this will help the planet adapt. But in order to adapt ourselves, we will need to imagine more vividly what this future will look like. We need to see the smoke coiling over the farmland in California's Central Valley, the tops of the Miami skyscrapers emerging from Biscayne Bay like buoys, the mobs of desperate people arriving at the foot of Manhattan, willing to do anything for food.

Nathaniel Rich, contributor

"A First-Class Nightmare"

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Swamplandia! By Karen Russell 336 pages. Knopf. $24.95. ()

One of the most talked about debuts of the year, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, follows a young girl's adventures in the Florida swamp to rescue her sister. Critic Malcolm Jones calls it a big-hearted novel that you shouldn't miss.

Before Disney World and its theme-park clones arrived, Florida lured tourists with a quaintly surreal menu that included towering pyramids of water-skiing maidens, sunken gardens, make-believe mermaids, snake farms, bird acts, and alligator wrestlers. Most of these roadside attractions went belly up once the theme parks arrived, but a handful linger on, their lurid, handpainted billboards still punctuating the backroads from Pensacola to Key West like oversize postcards gathering dust in tourism's dead-letter box.

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell's audacious, beguiling debut novel, describes just such an imperiled attraction. Tucked way down on the Gulf Coast, the park is all but deserted. Almost no one comes to ride the airboats or stare at the leathery monsters in the gator pit. And now the main attraction, Hilola Bigtree, the family matriarch who crowned every show with a high dive into a pool of alligators, has succumbed to cancer. Addled by grief, the surviving Bigtrees—the dad and three kids—at first try to soldier on, but Hilola's absence soon puts an even bigger hurt on the box office. Before long, the customers are demanding their money back. As Ava, the 12-year-old narrator, observes, "They didn't take a 45-minute ferry ride to eat corn dogs with some big lizards and some extremely sorry-looking children!"

Watching a family fall apart is never fun, so it is a testament to Russell's talent that she makes the Bigtrees' troubles enthralling for more than 300 pages. First Kiwi, the 17-year-old son, departs to land a job working in the World of Darkness theme park. Then the dad, Chief Bigtree, goes to the mainland to hustle up some financing. That leaves Osceola, 16, and Ava, who awakens one morning to find that Ossie, who claims to be in contact with the spirit world, has headed deeper into the swamp to elope with a ghost who's been dead since the '30s. So off goes the indomitable Ava to rescue her sister. The Bigtrees are not the most practical clan, but they do not lack for gumption.

Russell introduced the Bigtrees in a couple of the stories included in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a debut collection that won raves for its young author, who was subsequently featured in The New Yorker's debut fiction issue and chosen as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists. The only thing wrong with the Bigtree stories was that they left you craving more, especially more about Ava. Apparently Russell felt the same way. The best of Swamplandia! is Ava all the way. Precocious but never cute, she delivers her story with indelible precision ("The sun was lowering itself behind the tree line at an angle, as carefully as a round man descending a ladder").

Another character who recurs is the gypsy Bird Man, a creepy guy in a long black coat who offers to guide Ava in her search for Ossie. "There are several such men who travel around Florida's parks and backwaters," Ava tells us. "These men are like avian pied pipers" who lure problem birds out of the trees and "send them spiraling over the sloughs." As soon as she joins up with the Bird Man, Ava's story turns into a tale that could have been concocted by Flannery O'Connor in partnership with the Brothers Grimm—in other words, a first-class nightmare.

Unfortunately, there's more to the book: Russell narrates Kiwi's misadventures in the mainland theme park as a sort of comic counterpoint to Ava's journey. But as funny as some of these episodes are, they ultimately feel like something imported from an altogether different novel. That said, nothing can diminish Ava's epic search for her sister. Her struggles and her heroism are what make the book's conclusion—a family expelled from its kingdom but still patched back together—feel genuinely earned.

A Florida native, Russell ably captures her state's wonky blend of natural beauty and carny effects. She understands that in the Sunshine State, the word authentic almost always comes clad in irony's quotation marks—the Bigtrees, for example, are Anglos masquerading as Native Americans. But she also knows that in spite of a century's despoliation and behind all the roadside gaudiness, there is still a lot to love, especially when what you love is going, going, gone (in Florida, Eden is almost always in the rearview mirror). You will admire this novel for its prose, but you will love it for its big heart.

Ava's story turns into a tale that could have been concocted by Flannery O'Connor in partnership with the Brothers Grimm—in other words, a first-class nightmare.

Malcom Jones, Culture Writer and Editor, Newsweek/The Daily Beast

Vegetables Fit for a King

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Vilmorin: The Vegetable Garden By Werner Dressendörfer 108 pages. Taschen. $99.99. ()

A lushly illustrated book of the famed French seed purveyors Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie.'s famous vegetables leads David Lincoln Ross through their remarkable place in history.

Should you come to the Château de Versailles and chance to visit its potager du roi—the kitchen garden of the king—its gardeners would tell you their vegetables are direct descendants of plants first nurtured and commercialized by the Parisian seed merchants Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie. more than 250 years ago.

The château's kitchen gardens were originally established by Louis XIV, the Sun King, and have outlasted the Bourbon family's ancien régime, epic revolutions, four going on five republics, one directory, a reign of terror, two Napoleonic empires, one invasion in 1870, two world wars, the Vichy regime, numerous public uprisings and riots, and the European Community, with its burdensome host of agricultural edicts and regulations.

And like the royal kitchen garden at Versailles, so too has the Vilmorin firm survived, indeed flourished over the intervening decades and centuries. Today, it is the fourth-largest seed company in the world, according to the company's website.

In 1743, Pierre d'Andrieux, a noted botanist and seed supplier to King Louis XV, partnered with Claude Geoffroy, daughter and inheritor of her family's seed business in Paris, and opened for business on a Parisian quai facing the Ile de la Cité; they married two years later. Their daughter, Adelaide, married Philippe-Victoire de Vilmorin in 1774, and the seed firm's name was soon changed to Vilmorin-Andrieux; it remained in family hands until 1937, when it became a public company.

During the siècle des lumières, the 18th century Enlightenment, and on into the early 19th century, you could say that serious scientific enquiry, based on empirical observation and unfettered research, flowered, pun intended, as never before in history. In virtually every field of knowledge from medicine and evolution to mathematics and botany, sweeping, paradigm-shifting discoveries transformed all aspects of life, from the mass production of tinned goods to steam-driven ships and trains.

It was against this background that the descendents of Adelaide and Philippe-Victoire came into their own, propelling Vilmorin-Andrieux to its pre-eminent position as a seed breeder and purveyor, first in France, then Europe and eventually around the world.

And to think that it all began with the humble sugar beet.

As demand soared for sweets and the cost of importing sugar from Europe's colonies climbed, seed suppliers like Vilmorin soon focused on the lowly sugar beet as a possible cheaper source of this ever-more popular ingredient. The company was among the first and perhaps the most successful in breeding and selling commercially viable seeds of several breeds of super-sugary beets. While the company, then and to this day, sells ornamental flower seeds of all types, it is the beet and a colorful array of other grains and vegetables—all mainstays of any kitchen garden—that secured Vilmorin's reputation and riches.

As Werner Dressendörfer, a botanical historian, notes in his excellent introduction to Vilmorin: The Vegetable Garden, thanks to huge strides in botanical research by Carolus Linnaeus in the 1700s, who devised a plant classification system, and Gregor Mendel, who conducted experiments in breeding and hybridization in the 19th century, generations of the Vilmorin family were au courant with the latest botanical breakthroughs. What's key, however, is that succeeding generations of the Vilmorin family chiefs knew how not only to apply them in the company's research labs to produce ever more abundant or concentrated breeds, but also how to efficiently introduce commercial quantities of seeds to the nation's farmers, and soon, all across Europe.

And what better way to advertise their plump, colorful, delicious looking vegetables than by employing the most popular visual medium of the era, the color lithograph. Beginning in 1850 and through every year through 1896, the Vilmorin firm distributed a large-format color print of its latest vegetable offerings—hefty potatoes, red, ripe strawberries, colossal sugar beets, tempting gourds, prolific peas, leafy cabbages, and engorged cucumbers. Even as the new art and technology of photography made its entrance by mid-century (Daguerre and his followers eventually eased aside color lithography as the visual technology of choice in advertising), the exquisite hand-painted portraits of various legumes share all the charm and warmth of quaint American scenes captured by Currier & Ives. Make no mistake, Vilmorin's colorful "annuals" (pun intended again) were key marketing tools, expressly intended to promote the company's seeds via super-sized images of each species to as wide an audience as possible.

Taschen's new edition of Vilmorin's prints is astonishing in their vivid colors and exceptional detail. Each plant or plant family featured in the set of plates is complemented by a short botanical description by Dressendörfer in the introductory guide. Printed on heavy paper stock and suitable for framing, it won't be long before your kitchen and those of your gardening aficionados are decorated floor to ceiling with these sumptuous images, most of which were originally painted by the noted French floral and botanical watercolorist Elisa-Honorine Champin, according to Dressendörfer.

After enduring bouts of tuber envy and salivating over salsify, one might as well toss one's trowel in the air and revel in Vilmorin's collection of vegetal images as nothing less than pornography for the "jardinier" or gardener in all of us!

David Lincoln Ross, Contributor

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