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← How one tree grows 40 different kinds of fruit

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Showing Revision 12 created 09/27/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. 100 years ago,
  2. there were 2,000 varieties of peaches,
  3. nearly 2,000 different varieties of plums
  4. and almost 800 named varieties
    of apples growing in the United States.
  5. Today, only a fraction of those remain,
  6. and what is left is threatened
    by industrialization of agriculture,
  7. disease and climate change.
  8. Those varieties that are threatened
    include the Blood Cling,

  9. a red-flesh peach brought
    by Spanish missionaries to the Americas,
  10. then cultivated by Native
    Americans for centuries;
  11. an apricot that was brought
    by Chinese immigrants
  12. who came to work
    on the Transcontinental Railroad;
  13. and countless varieties of plums
    that originated in the Middle East
  14. and were then brought by Italian,
    French and German immigrants.
  15. None of these varieties are indigenous.
  16. In fact, almost all of our fruit trees
    were brought here,
  17. including apples and peaches and cherries.
  18. So more than just food,
  19. embedded within these fruit
    is our culture.
  20. It's the people who cared for
    and cultivated them,
  21. who valued them so much
    that they brought them here with them
  22. as a connection to their home,
  23. and it's the way that they've passed
    them on and shared them.
  24. In many ways, these fruit are our story.
  25. And I was fortunate enough
    to learn about it
  26. through an artwork that I created
    entitled the "Tree of 40 Fruit."
  27. The Tree of 40 Fruit is a single tree

  28. that grows 40 different
    varieties of stone fruit.
  29. So that's peaches, plums, apricots,
    nectarines and cherries
  30. all growing on one tree.
  31. It's designed to be a normal-looking tree
    throughout the majority of the year,
  32. until spring, when it blossoms
    in pink and white
  33. and then in summer,
    bears a multitude of different fruit.
  34. I began the project
    for purely artistic reasons:
  35. I wanted to change
    the reality of the everyday,
  36. and to be honest,
  37. create this startling moment
    when people would see this tree
  38. blossom in all these different colors
  39. and bear all of these different fruit.
  40. I created the Tree of 40 Fruit
    through the process of grafting.

  41. I'll collect cuttings
    in winter, store them,
  42. and then graft them
    onto the ends of branches in spring.
  43. In fact, almost all
    fruit trees are grafted,
  44. because the seed of a fruit tree
    is a genetic variant of the parent.
  45. So when we find a variety
    that we really like,
  46. the way that we propagate it
    is by taking a cutting off of one tree
  47. and putting it onto another --
  48. which is kind of crazy to think
  49. that every single Macintosh apple
    came from one tree
  50. that's been grafted over and over
    from generation to generation.
  51. But it also means that fruit trees
    can't be preserved by seed.
  52. I've known about grafting
    as long as I can remember.
  53. My great-grandfather made a living
    grafting peach orchards
  54. in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
  55. And although I never met him,
  56. any time anyone would mention his name,
  57. they were quick to note
  58. that he knew how to graft as if he had
    a magical or mystical capability.
  59. I decided on the number 40
    for the Tree of 40 Fruit

  60. because it's found
    throughout Western religion
  61. as not the quantifiable dozen
    and not the infinite
  62. but a number that's beyond counting.
  63. It's a bounty or a multitude.
  64. But the problem was that when I started,
  65. I couldn't find 40 different
    varieties of these fruit,
  66. and this is despite the fact
    that I live in New York state,
  67. which, a century ago,
  68. was one of the leading
    producers of these fruit.
  69. So as they were tearing out
    research orchards
  70. and old, vintage orchards,
  71. I would collect branches off them
  72. and graft them onto trees in my nursery.
  73. So this is what the Tree of 40 Fruit
    look like when they were first planted,

  74. and this is what they look like
    six years later.
  75. This is definitely not a sport
    of immediate gratification --
  76. (Laughter)

  77. It takes a year to know
    if a graft has succeeded;

  78. it takes two to three years
    to know if it produces fruit;
  79. and it takes up to eight years
    to create just one of the trees.
  80. Each of the varieties grafted
    to the Tree of 40 Fruit

  81. has a slightly different form
    and a slightly different color.
  82. And I realized that by creating a timeline
    of when all these blossomed
  83. in relationship to each other,
  84. I can essentially shape or design
    how the tree appears during spring.
  85. And this is how they appear during summer.
  86. They produce fruit from June
    through September.
  87. First is cherries, then apricots,
  88. Asian plums, nectarines and peaches,
  89. and I think I forgot one
    in there, somewhere ...
  90. (Laughter)

  91. Although it's an artwork
    that exists outside of the gallery,

  92. as the project continues,
  93. it's been conservation
    by way of the art world.
  94. As I've been asked to create
    these in different locations,
  95. what I'll do is I'll research varieties
  96. that originated or were
    historically grown in that area,
  97. I'll source them locally
    and graft them to the tree
  98. so that it becomes an agricultural history
    of the area where they're located.
  99. And then the project got picked up online,

  100. which was horrifying and humbling.
  101. The horrifying part
    was all of the tattoos that I saw
  102. of images of the Tree of 40 Fruit.
  103. (Laughter)

  104. Which I was like, "Why would
    you do that to your body?"

  105. (Laughter)

  106. And the humbling part
    was all of the requests that I received

  107. from pastors, from rabbis and priests
  108. who asked to use the tree
    as a central part within their service.
  109. And then it became a meme --
  110. and the answer to that question
    is "I hope not?"
  111. [Is your marriage
    like the Tree of 40 Fruit?]

  112. (Laughter)

  113. Like all good memes,

  114. this has led to an interview
    on NPR's "Weekend Edition,"
  115. and as a college professor,
    I thought I peaked --
  116. like, that was the pinnacle
    of my career --
  117. but you never know who's listening to NPR.
  118. And several weeks after the NPR interview,
  119. I received an email
    from the Department of Defense.
  120. The Defense Advanced Research
    Project Administration invited me
  121. to come talk about
    innovation and creativity,
  122. and it's a conversation that quickly
    shifted to a discussion of food security.
  123. You see, our national security
    is dependent upon our food security.
  124. Now that we've created these monocultures
  125. that only grow a few
    varieties of each crop,
  126. if something happens
    to just one of those varieties,
  127. it can have a dramatic impact
    upon our food supply.
  128. And the key to maintaining
    our food security
  129. is preserving our biodiversity.
  130. 100 years ago, this was done
    by everybody that had a garden
  131. or a small stand of trees
    in their backyard,
  132. and grew varieties that were
    passed down through their family.
  133. These are plums from just one Tree
    of 40 Fruit in one week in August.

  134. Several years into the project,
  135. I was told that I have one of the largest
    collections of these fruit
  136. in the Eastern United States,
  137. which, as an artist,
    is absolutely terrifying.
  138. (Laughter)

  139. But in many ways,
    I didn't know what I had.

  140. I discovered that the majority
    of the varieties I had
  141. were heirloom varieties,
  142. so those that were grown before 1945,
  143. which is seen as the dawn
    of the industrialization of agriculture.
  144. Several of the varieties dated back
    thousands and thousands of years.
  145. And finding out how rare they were,
  146. I became obsessed
    with trying to preserve them,
  147. and the vehicle for this became art.
  148. I would go into old, vintage orchards
    before they were torn out
  149. and I would save the bowl
    or the trunk section
  150. that possessed the original graft union.
  151. I started doing pressings
    of flowers and the leaves
  152. to create herbarium specimens.
  153. I started to sequence the DNA.
  154. But ultimately, I set out
    to preserve the story
  155. through these copper-plate etchings
    and letterpress descriptions.
  156. To tell the story of the George IV peach,
  157. which took root between
    two buildings in New York City --
  158. someone walks by, tastes it,
  159. it becomes a major commercial
    variety in the 19th century
  160. because it tastes just that good.
  161. Then all but vanishes,
  162. because it doesn't ship well
  163. and it doesn't conform
    to modern agriculture.
  164. But I realize that as a story,
    it needs to be told.

  165. And in the telling of that story,
  166. it has to include the experience
    of being able to touch,
  167. to smell and to taste those varieties.
  168. So I set out to create an orchard
  169. to make these fruit
    available to the public,
  170. and have the aim of placing them
    in the highest density of people
  171. that I could possibly find.
  172. Naturally, I started looking for an acre
    of land in New York City --
  173. (Laughter)

  174. which, in retrospect,
    seemed, like, rather ambitious,

  175. and probably the reason why nobody
    was returning my phone calls or emails --
  176. (Laughter)

  177. until eventually, four years later,
    I heard back from Governors Island.

  178. So Governors Island is a former naval base

  179. that was given
    to the City of New York in 2000.
  180. And it opened up all of this land
  181. just a five-minute ferry ride
    from New York.
  182. And they invited me to create a project
    that we're calling the "Open Orchard"
  183. that will bring back fruit varieties
  184. that haven't been grown
    in New York for over a century.
  185. Currently in progress,
  186. The Open Orchard
    will be 50 multigrafted trees
  187. that possess 200 heirloom
    and antique fruit varieties.
  188. So these are varieties that originated
    or were historically grown in the region.
  189. Varieties like the Early Strawberry apple,
  190. which originated on 13th Street
    and Third Avenue.
  191. Since a fruit tree
    can't be preserved by seed,
  192. The Open Orchard will act
    like a living gene bank,
  193. or an archive of these fruit.
  194. Like the Tree of 40 Fruit,
  195. it will be experiential;
  196. it will also be symbolic.
  197. Most importantly, it's going to invite
    people to participate in conservation
  198. and to learn more about their food.
  199. Through the Tree of 40 Fruit,

  200. I've received thousands
    and thousands of emails from people,
  201. asking basic questions
    about "How do you plant a tree?"
  202. With less than three percent
    of the population
  203. having any direct tie to agriculture,
  204. the Open Orchard
    is going to invite people
  205. to come take part in public programming
    and to take part in workshops,
  206. to learn how to graft, to grow,
    to prune and to harvest a tree;
  207. to take part in fresh eating
    and blossom tours;
  208. to work with local chefs
    to learn how to use these fruit
  209. and to recreate centuries-old dishes
  210. that many of these varieties
    were grown specifically for.
  211. Extending beyond the physical
    site of the orchard,
  212. it will be a cookbook
    that compiles all of those recipes.
  213. It will be a field guide
  214. that talks about the characteristics
    and traits of those fruit,
  215. their origin and their story.
  216. Growing up on a farm,
    I thought I understood agriculture,

  217. and I didn't want anything to do with it.
  218. So I became an artist --
  219. (Laughter)

  220. But I have to admit that it's something
    within my own DNA.

  221. And I don't think that I'm the only one.
  222. 100 years ago, we were all much more
    closely tied to the culture,
  223. the cultivation
    and the story of our food,
  224. and we've been separated from that.
  225. The Open Orchard creates the opportunity
  226. not just to reconnect
    to this unknown past,
  227. but a way for us to consider
    what the future of our food could be.
  228. Thank you.

  229. (Applause)