Figures and Ground

Jessica Rath: take me to the apple breeder
Pasadena Museum of California Art,
Pasadena, California
October 28, 2012–February 24, 2013
Ellen Birrell

But the love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we shall ever need—if only we had eyes to see. Original sin, the true original sin, is the blind destruction for the sake of greed of this natural paradise which lies all around us—if only we are worthy of it. —Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire1

take me to the apple breeder is Jessica Rath’s deceptively simple meditation on the future and the past of a single genus of fruit, the apple. The complex journey of this work is at once a flight through the pages of a book into a study orchard and breeding farm; from the “making” of science to the “making” of art; and finally to a point deep in the early story of our human becoming when we were simply a species among species, acted upon by our environment and acting upon it in turn.

For some time now, I have had stewardship of a small stretch of endangered riparian habitat in Southern California, but long ago, in my ecological dark ages, I lived in Tucson for a year. Edward Abbey was still in residence, giving off sulfurous whiffs of both environmental anarchism and misanthropic intolerance.2 But local Latina-makes-good Linda Ronstadt’s glorious paean to roots music, Canciones de Mi Padre, was proudly on the playlist of every radio station in town, and I was flummoxed to find that one of the big cultural attractions of the place, the “Desert Museum,” was not a doughty neoclassic building with oak-lined vitrines of sawdust filled revenants, but rather something more akin to a stroll park studded with living follies. Presenting a sampling of local flora and fauna, the message of the Desert Museum3 was sprightly and comforting: “These creatures are your neighbors, and here we have collected them up close and safely—both for you and for them, too!” I took this safety bit to imply that “out there” wasn’t out there anymore, at least for the (wild) animals. But, calling this desert zoo a “museum” seemed a bit premature to me, given the robust and dangerous wildness I sensed during those several sunsets I passed amongst the Saguaros in the open desert on the edge of town, careful to be quiet as the predatory slither and watchful hoot reigned in the rosy dusk. Did this museum sample these bits of habitat because they were judged to be both exemplary and imminently historical?

Seeds grow, cracking with insinuating filaments, sucking mineral moisture to form green tissues that rise to harvest the sun. On some whim of locking DNA, this tissue grows tall and straight—or weeping or whorled; its buds open early—or late; its blossoms fragrant—or not, blushed or pale. This one succeeds by making an irresistible appeal to an abundant pollinator. Or it doesn’t. No matter, here is another seed with a different mitochondrial contract. It lands in the right soil and times its tender tissue to the local weather. It bears a fruit—perhaps a lemon, or a rose hip or any of a number of heterozygous sexual reproducers (ourselves included). But in this case, it is an apple.

Ah, simple, one thinks, I know what an apple is, the grainy brown mush of a bruised Red Delicious as familiar as that first day of school (the ancient association of apples and knowledge, how far back it goes). But just what is an apple? Maybe it’s like porn—you know it when you see it. I hope you are laughing, but it is not an idle question if you look at it from the plant’s point of view. Culturally, we know an apple to be the stuff of myths religious (original sin), patriotic (Johnny Appleseed), and juvenile (an apple a day). Materially, an apple is not much bigger than your fist and sweet, but only if you have primarily encountered it in the average American market.

"Jessica Rath, "Ghost Orchard," installation view, Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2013.

Jessica Rath, Ghost Orchard, installation view, Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2013. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Writer Michael Pollan sticks the domesticated apple’s sweetness firmly in the human hand and mouth. His 2001 book, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World, examines four domesticated plant species and the contracts they have evolved with and through human agency for survival. His preface to the book runs in part: “These are stories, then, about Man and Nature. We’ve been telling ourselves such stories forever, as a way of making sense of what we call ‘our relationship to nature’—to borrow that curious, revealing phrase. (What other species can be said to have a ‘relationship’ to nature?)”4

This is a gentle retort to Edward Abbey’s rather more misanthropic figure/ground relationship: Figure—bad. Ground—good. Or to, say, Bill McKibben’s apocalyptic despair about both our responsibility for climate change and the threat it poses to our own and other species’ survival.5 Instead Pollan proposes a middle way, decidedly prelapsarian, that claims human agency as a part of nature, not apart from it. For Pollan, there is no original sin, and his retort to McKibben might be that starship earth continues on its very long journey, mistakes, losses, and change all part of the trip.

Pollan’s figure-ground relationship is exemplified by this description of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) in the opening essay of the book:

The peculiar craft you’d have caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged a figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed the scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting in the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out.6

For Pollan then, the figure-ground relationship of “Man and Nature” is actually a pair of figures—Chapman and the apple seeds he scavenged from middens of Pennsylvania cider mills—who together and interdependently go out to find new ground.

Each fruit of a wild apple tree, Malus sieversii, makes roughly seven shiny black assortment packs of DNA to pass on to the future. No two of these seeds will produce the same form or fruit as either of its parents, or even as its sister seeds. A healthy, full-grown tree might have thousands of apples on it every year, each bearing seven or more different DNA guesses for success. This is an excellent biological strategy for species survival and diversity, but each seed sprouted is only one figure on only local ground. The genetic variety in any handful of seeds ensures the species’ ability to offer some workable solution to the problem of growing fruitfully in almost any foreign field, but the plant risks extinction if it cannot spread. How does a figure rooted in its ground move?

Jessica Rath, "Apple Shadow," installation view, Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2013.

Jessica Rath, Apple Shadow, installation view, Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2013. Photo: Brian Forrest.

Compare this to the Malus domestica of any variety you might find in your market, or might have ever found in any market or orchard that bred a consistent type of fruit throughout human history. The farming of apples, like all orchard fruits, is largely dependent on what modern industrial agriculture calls “inputs”: fertilizers, pesticides and the like.7 Such chemical aggressiveness is necessary because these particular trees are in fact bricolage trees with very limited resistance because genetically they are all the same: “cloned bud wood” grafted onto a disease-resistant rootstock. Grafting is an ancient technique for plant propagation thought by some to have begun in China several thousands years BCE. While it seems odd to us that you can cut a living twig from one tree and slip it under the bark of another related tree and count on it to grow “true,” as they say—that is, produce fruit of the original variety that the cutting was taken from—the technique simply relies on a plant’s ability to root from cuttings, an ability we mammals have never evolved. To “clone” a plant, then, all you have to do is take a cutting and root it. In the case of a graft, the rooting takes place in the flesh of another plant, not in the dirt. Talk about figure/ground confusion! The price then of a consistent, sweet, and appealing (to humans) fruit is species diversity: all the cloned grafts of any cultivar contain the DNA of one single seed.


  1. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 207.
  2. That is, if you were to agree with his critic, Murray Bookchin, a decidedly more urban anarchist, who accused Abbey of being both an eco-terrorist and a racist. See Bob Sipchen, “Ecology’s Family Feud: Murray Bookchin Turns Up Volume on a Noisy Debate,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1989, (accessed January 27, 2013).
  3. Properly called Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum,
  4. Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World (New York: Random House, 2001), xxv.
  5. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2010).
  6. Pollan, Botany of Desire, 3.
  7. For a thorough analysis of the differences between conventional farming, organic farming, and sustainable farming, see Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, particularly Chapter 8, “All Flesh Is Grass” (New York, Penguin Books, 2006), 123–33.
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