Take the case of the Roxbury Russet, thought to be one of the first apple cultivars selected in the United States. A seedling tree—a “pippin” in the jargon of the trade—old enough to bear this appealing fruit was discovered in the town of Roxbury in the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime prior to 1649. Smaller than your fist, and, despite the “russet” of its name, dusky and golden in hue, this apple was sweet enough for eating, stored well, and could be fermented into the popular hard cider of the day. As late as 1778, the variety’s popularity led Thomas Jefferson to plant lots of Roxbury Russets in one of his orchards at Monticello, but now, more than four hundred years since that single seed sprouted in the middle of what is now the city of Boston, the variety’s popularity has faded. Wikipedia attributes this sad demise to the Russet’s “dull and heavily marked face.”8 Humans are fickle allies.
Very few cloned grafts of the seed we know as Roxbury Russet are alive today, but two of them are in the orchard at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ARS Plant Genetics Resource Unit (PGRU) in Geneva, New York, near Cornell University. Pollan makes brief mention of this extraordinary garden in his apple essay. The Russet is one of around 2500 heirloom cultivars collected initially by Philip Forsline for this USDA-sponsored salvage operation. The PGRU orchard contains two grafted clones for each apple variety, like the Roxbury Russet, threatened with extinction. Pollan calls the PGRU the “botanical ark”9 of apples, and there is no question that a flood is coming, and not just because of Bill McKibben’s climate changed “Eaarth.” No, far more pragmatic and frugal, the USDA might be said to be saving for a rainy day: the collapse of species diversity in a valuable food crop. If the genus Malus sieversii goes extinct in the wild, no doubt due to Abbey’s version of original sin, we will have only the genetic variety present in the grafted Malus domesticas left to us.
Let’s follow the Roxbury Russet into the gallery, because you will find it there among a group of exquisite high-fire vitrified porcelain apple sculptures that Rath, inspired by Pollan’s essay, spent several years making. The two apples in Roxbury Russet (2012) are each a slightly different shape, with matte, freckled manila shoulders that rise above an engulfing tide of yellow icing glaze applied paint-like from the bottom up. The sculpture certainly shows a “face heavily marked,” but it is never dull! These two sober-sided Roxbury Russets appear on a table next to a single grand Dulcina (2011), posing on her back like Goya’s provocative La Maja Desnuda, candy apple red and very shiny, bedecked with tiny white flecks that made me think of Vija Celmins’s night sky paintings. Nearby, another colonial-era survivor is represented by two apple sculptures collectively titled Yellow Bellflower (2011), which on close examination are two versions of the same cast, each turned to show a different face—if you will—to the viewer.
Across this table and another, arrayed without benefit of protecting vitrines, spreads Rath’s stroll park of porcelain apple follies, some as small as the tip of your thumb, for example Sunset Cluster (2012) or PI 588933.12 (Unnamed Cluster) (2011), and others as large as the cupped hands of a giant—the fabulous Deacon Jones (2012) larger than a newborn human’s head. After her first visit to Geneva, Rath brought home dozens of different apples from the ark and made many models until she felt she had rendered the vital presence of each of these nine. Rath tells us that each of the nine apple sculptures is “life size,” a question posed again elsewhere in the gallery. Then she spent two years making the porcelain casts and designing and perfecting each individual high-fire glaze. Such figures! Surely this work is a labor of love akin to Chapman’s moving of apples from one ground to another or Forsline’s collecting, elegiac memorializer that he was. It is undertaken with the exquisite patience of the many human plant cloners who judged a particular fruit appealing enough to domesticate.
Opposite the apples, a line of leafless trees marches in single file around the room. Photographed in front of taut white backdrops flooded in brilliant daylight, the trees are imposing in scale, some as large as seven feet tall. Sometimes as many as five trees are in a picture, and sometimes only one, but all are as rigidly excised from their background by the blank white curtain behind them as is possible short of being plucked from the earth. These figures are never allowed to recede into the camouflage of distance or into the grouped diffusion of fellow flora. Not unlike the portrait work of Richard Avedon, these trees, fixed somewhere between portraits and specimens, surrender themselves up to our parsing gaze.
This is not the first time Rath has offered us a very close examination of the physical body of a fruit tree, and in a related indexical form. In 2009, Rath debuted her monumental Tree Peel, a full-size latex cast of an ancient and dying apricot tree found in her backyard in Los Angeles. The latex cast of the tree’s surfaces was turned inside out and sutured back together over a padded steel armature, spongily replicating the presence of the real tree, warts, termites, and all. In the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis that year, the tree’s tumescent and grubby sallowness woozily reached toward the skylight, rooted to a simple black plate on the floor, repulsively uncanny.
The photographic trees are not titled by cultivar as most of the apples are, but rather in a way that initially seems wistful or poetic. Against their photographic forcing, titles like Sisters Smiling (2011) or Clone Weeping with Resistance (2011) beg a kind of recognition of their emotional state or demand sympathy for their plight. We are at once offered an imperial scrutiny of each tree in every visible particular and, simultaneously, a decidedly emotional entry into some sort of anthropomorphic interiority. This is a very complicated viewing experience.
In fact all five of the photographs called “sisters” are, in a sense, social: that is, the trees appear in groups. In Sisters Smiling, five trees “smile,” that is, each branch tips up at its end like the corners of a smiling mouth. But by the last photograph, Sisters Weeping (2011), two trees with draping limbs lean toward and mingle with each other, as if embracing. All the other social sisters—Sisters Normal, Sisters Small and Different, and Sisters Columnar with Difference (all 2011)—hang adjacent to this last sad pair of trees.
In between the weepers and the smilers are six other photographs titled “clones,” a photography joke I could not help but laugh at. Each “clone” shows a single and singular tree, as all grafted fruit trees are. Clone with Central Leader (2011) is the largest of these. Looming more than seven feet tall, it begs Audubon’s “Double Elephant Folio” question: Are these life size? Clone with Central Leader also brings to mind that incomprehensible Lucas Film rumble, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. As if its scale and title were not enough, covering this clone’s feet is a litter of dead apples, and I am suddenly transported to Dorothy’s side as the mean, scary apple trees are cleverly provoked by Scarecrow into providing sweet nourishment. Here between Rath and Geneva, I am in Oz, well and truly fed.
John Ruskin in Modern Painters (1843–60) helps me identify these titles as a species of poetry, employing the rhetorical mode that he called after Aristotle “the pathetic fallacy.” Encyclopedia Britannica defines this as “the poetic practice of attributing human emotion or responses to nature, inanimate objects, or animals. The practice is a form of personification that is as old as poetry, in which it has always been common to find smiling or dancing flowers, angry or cruel winds, brooding mountains, moping owls, or happy larks.”10 The fallacy is pathetic in the sense of pathos, which persuades through emotion, evoking sympathy or pity.
Did Chapman feel pathos for his apple seeds? Is this the nature of “man’s relationship to nature,” to return to Pollan, or Abbey’s “love of wilderness” and “loyalty to the earth?” If any of this genuine feeling is fallacious, it can only be in the narrow scientific sense of proof, that is, if not actual causes, these genuine sentiments are corollaries of diverse species’ mutual appeal to each other for survival. History, in this sense, can be described as a continual struggle for method.
As you might have guessed, there is also a very literal read of these titles (and the images), as pragmatic and frank as the USDA might ever want them to be. Sisters are pippins—seedling trees of a single pollinated cross. Clones are grafted trees. Weeping, spreading, and columnar, of course, all refer to form. I am not sure smiling is a term of art, but it certainly is descriptive. And all this brings us to what Rath found when she went to the PGRU and Cornell: the future of the apple—contained in a living museum, yes, but adjacent to a breeding nursery—robust, varied, and productive, a pretty good bargain for a pile of seeds.
To the figures Chapman and Forsline (and, of course, Rath), we can now add another apple ally: Dr. Susan K. Brown, the apple breeder of the show’s title. Her work and that of her colleagues is to take the genetic treasure trove of the PGRU historical collection and propagate new varieties of apples with resistances to many kinds of threats. The USDA is anticipating the rainy day of any single clonal variety’s collapse due to pandemics, such as HLB or Citrus Greening Disease, which is currently threatening commercial citrus orchards in the United States. In anticipation, Brown is cross-pollinating existing apple varieties wild and domestic at her Cornell nursery, cloning the most promising of these and trying them out in different growing situations and on different market tastes. Prelapsarian? Maybe not, but pragmatic and evolutionary.
The last extensive stand of wild apple forest, Malus sieversii, is in southern Kazakhstan. Each seed-grown tree is unique, and in their grouped diffusion they present a manifold array of form and flavor and survival options. They are also robustly healthy. Still, by all accounts this forest is diminishing rapidly, falling not to pandemics and pests, but to the pressures of human population growth, a form of Abbey’s “blind greed” that may not be blind, just very needy.
I’ve never been there, but I have a vivid picture of two figures in the scented wild apple woodland of my imagination. They stand on the same ground but 100 or 200 years apart. The earlier one—name him Audubon, Darwin, or even Linnaeus—describes and names and collects what he sees, killing what he collects because in the face of such abundance, what does the loss of this single example matter. Its bones will be apotheosized into a cultural life in the minds and places of men. The later figure—named Forsline or Brown (or many others throughout history unknown to you or me)—also describes and names what she sees, but is very careful to collect the living tissue in order to propagate and save it. Of course, this last figure is a modern-day, scientifically armored version of the most ancient greedy plant lover of them all: the farmer.
Now if we can only figure out how to domesticate the weather, perhaps our flood losses won’t be so great.
Ellen Birrell is an artist and lemon farmer. She is one of the co-founders of Project X and X-TRA. She edits and writes on a Macintosh computer.
- “Roxbury Russet” entry, Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roxbury_Russet (accessed January 25, 2013). My dictionary tells me that the archaic definition of “russet” is homely.↵
- Pollan, Botany of Desire, 46. An interesting article about Forsline’s work may be found at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/jan06/apples0106.htm (accessed January 26, 2013).↵
- Encyclopaedia Britannica online, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/446415/pathetic-fallacy (accessed January 25, 2013).↵