Friday, April 24, 2009

Jane S. Smith's "The Garden of Invention"

Jane S. Smith is an independent author and Adjunct Professor of History at Northwestern University. Her books include Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology; Elsie de Wolfe: A Life in the High Style, the biography of the pioneer decorator who turned good taste from an attribute into an industry; and Fool's Gold, winner of the Adult Fiction Award from the Society of Midland Authors.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, and reported the following:
The Garden of Invention revisits the expansive period between the Civil War and the Great Depression, a time when agriculture was moving west across the continent, when plant inventors were popular heroes, and when the public clamored for new varieties for farm and garden that would extend seasons, increase yields, look beautiful, or simply (and wonderfully) be different from anything seen before.

Page 99 opens Chapter 5: A Personal Interlude. As the chapter title hints, the story here takes a brief detour into the private life of Luther Burbank, the charismatic plant breeder who is the central figure in The Garden of Invention. In reality, though, the personal and the professional were always united for Burbank, from the moment when he read Darwin in the public library and was inspired to develop the Burbank potato (still the favorite of McDonald's fries and Idaho license plates), to the Congressional debates five years after his death when Burbank's reputation as a selfless, long-suffering genius helped pass the Plant Patent Act of 1930, the world's first legislation treating living things as intellectual property.

On page 99, we see Burbank's triumphant return from California to Massachusetts, a happy mix of seed potatoes, bank checks, business contacts, and crates of California prunes. The moment epitomizes the sharpness joined with simplicity that made him such an enduringly popular figure. The "interlude" here is the period between Burbank's successes in California's new fruit industry and his emergence as the world-famous "Wizard of Santa Rosa," an inventor hailed as the equal of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and also lauded as an exemplar of scientific genius, spiritual wisdom, and even as an expert on child-rearing. Once celebrated, now largely forgotten, Burbank's legacy is full of valuable surprises.

Page 99, The Garden of Invention:

Chapter 5: A Personal Interlude

In the fall of 1888, soon after he sold the bulk of his retail nursery business, Burbank took a seven-week trip to Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C., that was the longest time he would ever be away from his California gardens. It was a sentimental journey, a triumphal return, and a time for well-earned relaxation. It was also a business trip with multiple objectives. There were new customers to find, new plants to bring back to California, and publicity outlets to cultivate.

Thirteen years earlier, Burbank had gone west with a small nest egg, his clothes, a few books and seeds, ten seed potatoes, and a hamper of food. Now he armed himself with three hundred dollars in cash, five hundred dollars in bank checks, and an array of California wonders to dazzle the folks back home. He brought copper ore, abalone shells, petrified wood, and samples of redwood, olive, palm, and eucalyptus-all natural curiosities as yet unknown in Massachusetts. He packed a box of prunes large enough to offer samples to the crowd that came to hear him speak at the Lunenburg cattle fair, an annual event that carried much honor for the local boy made good. He enjoyed giving interviews to all the local papers that now ran long stories on his many marvelous successes. When asked for suggestions on what farmers in Massachusetts should raise, his favorite joke was to answer, "enough money to move to California."
Read more about the book and author at the official The Garden of Invention website.

--Marshal Zeringue