Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Now I want to visit Egypt, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan... - I may not be reading this book correctly

The book is Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine (2009) by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan. Here's the author's website. The title, but not the subtitle, suggests that this is book is a relative of The Omnivore's Dilemma and similar books. Third cousins, maybe.

Nabhan's book is a hybrid of biography, travel, bioscience, and advocacy. The biography is of a great Russian scientist, of whom I had never heard, the botanist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943). That last date should give a clue as to his end - what important Russian died of natural causes in 1943? Vavilov, who spent his life working on the science of food supply, was deliberately starved to death by Stalin.

Vavilov's story could hardly be more interesting. Because Vavilov traveled the world studying agriculture and  searching for seeds, wild and domestic, something not so different from what the author himself does, Nabhan mixes accounts of Vavilov's expeditions with his own travel to the same regions. As a result, I added a few places to my "To Go" list.

Specifically, Wahat Siwa, a Berber oasis in Egypt that now has 20,000 inhabitants. It's known for its variety of date palms, among other things. Lots of tourists go there now, since a paved road was built. I want to be one of them.

Then there are the Ethiopian highlands. I guess I have always wanted to go there, though, at least as long as I have known anything about Ethiopian culture. Nabhan, visiting an open air market under huge, shady trees, writes that he feels like he is visiting the original market, a cute conceit.

The valleys of Tajikistan, those were new to me, though. And the apple orchards of Kazakhstan. No, not the orchards, but the forests, the forests of wild apple and pear trees. Nabhan writes "[t]he fragrance of the Kazakh forest was unlike any I had ever known, for the pervasive smell of ripening and rotting apples and pears filled my nostrils." (113)

I don't think the point of the book was to encourage international travel, but that's the effect it had on me. Kazakhstanis - please preserve your apple forests. I want to see them.

Nabhan's prose and storytelling are functional. They're fine, nothing special. The book has a foreword by Ken Wilson, Executive Director of the Christensen Fund, that is so badly written I sometimes suspected parody. But I learned something - whatever your skill as a writer, commission a forward by someone much worse. Makes you look good.

I read this book because my sister-in-law thinks I should read more about science, and also because I agree with her. But every book like this I read means one novel of poetry book that I don't. That's this omnivore's dilemma.

Hey, speaking of travel: Morocco.


  1. This reminds of me a book called Apples Are from Kazakhstan that I happened upon and has been sitting at the bottom of my Amazon wishlist for years. I'd always been "into" Kazakhstan (whatever that could possibly mean) but when I heard about the apples I was like...

    Yes, well, someday, maybe.

    Also, at least when it comes to my own reading habits, books like this take the place of more like 2 or 3 novels or books of poetry. Sniff.

  2. This sounds like an interesting book, AR. I read a review of it a few months ago, I think, in The New Republic (maybe?) and thought it sounded good, so it's nice to hear you're enjoying it. We studied Vavilov and Lysenko a bit in a history and sociology of science course I took in college, so I'm interested in reading the book... though I share your dilemma and rarely read nonfiction!

  3. I'm glad you've discovered Vavilov, a personal hero. Now come on over and visit the Vaviblog and share some of your thoughts there.

    He's just finishing up in Palestine, before making his way to Egypt.

  4. I feel that same dilemma - so many good nonfiction titles on my shelves. And so many of them get passed up each time I have to pick my next book.

  5. My recollection is that you stated a desire to read more science and your sister-in-law, who shares this desire for herself, agreed to help you. Same result, different causality.
    I'm glad you read the book, in any case. I share your problem of viewing most non-fiction as a distraction from my preferred novel reading. As a "professional scientist" this might be a problem for me career, but I prefer to think of it as making me more "well rounded".
    This book made me want to visit Kazakhstan, too.

  6. Ooh, Apples Are from Afghanistan, that looks good. We should organize a bookblog junket to Kazakhstan.

    Lisa, I knew a bit about Lysenko's ideas, but nothing about the man himself. He was Vavilov's sworn enemy. Along with Stalin, he's the villain of the book.

    That Vavilov site is amazing, by the way, great work. Sparkling Squirrel - it may be more for you than for me.

  7. Funny to read this after reading obituary of Norman Borlaug today. All under the massive category of stuff I know nothing about.