The Heavenly Mountains
Let’s play a quick game of word association. I’ll say a word, and I want you to say the first word that comes into your head in response.
Okay, here goes:
Did you think Borat? If you’re reading this in the second decade of the twenty-first century, I bet you did. Sacha Baron-Cohen’s fictitious Kazakh journalist is world-famous. Now let’s try it again, but you need to come up with a different word.
Anything? Anything at all?
Weird isn’t it? Kazakhstan is the world’s ninth-biggest country, at 2.7 million square kilometres, it’s fractionally smaller than Argentina, almost as big as India, and nearly twice as big as the entire European Union. Yet all we know about it is a made-up comedy character. At the start of his book In Search of Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared, Christopher Robbins challenges a fan of Borat, arguing that no one would dare portray such a negative racial stereotype of Jews, African-Americans or the Welsh. “Well of course not,” replied the puzzled fan, “That’s why he invented a country!”
Robbins goes on to illustrate how Kazakhstan suffers from our ignorance about ‘The ‘Stans,’ that mysterious and chaotic collection of states below Russia:
Was that the country where the president boiled his enemies alive? No, that was the reputation of the Uzbek president south of the border. Was it the place where the president had golden statues made of himself and placed on revolving platforms to lead the sun? No again, that was next door in Turkmenistan. It was an anarchic, narco-state wasn’t it, embroiled in a permanent civil war? No, that was the fate of poor, blighted Tajikistan.
In fairness, our ignorance is hardly surprising. The Russian Tsars closed the country to outsiders during their expansion eastwards, and then it was swallowed by the Soviet Union. It was an incredible trick: the ninth largest country in the world simply disappeared. And it’s re-emergence since the collapse of the USSR has had a profound impact on our understanding of the apple.
The first westerner to discover the great apple forests of Kazakhstan was Carl Friedrich von Ledebour, a German-Estonian botanist and professor of science at Tartu University in Estonia, who also founded its school of botany. The nineteenth century was a time of scientific classification, of epic, years-long journeys to discover and catalogue as many different species of everything as we could. Darwin’s journeys aboard the Beagle may be the most famous of these voyages, because the diversity he saw inspired his theory of natural selection, but he was only one of many undertaking similar expeditions. Von Ledebour took a particular interest in the flora of the Russian Empire, and became the first person to catalogue it comprehensively. Within this study, he identified for the first time a species he called Pyrus sieversii, better known to us know as Malus Sieversii, the wild apple of Central Asia. He discovered these apples in the Tien Shan, or Heavenly Mountains, tucked in the south-western corner of Kazakhstan.
In 1854 the Russians built a fort called Verniy (‘loyal’ in Russian) in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, to protect this far-flung corner of their empire. The fort grew, taking in Russian peasants and Kazakh nomads who had been driven from their traditional lands, and by the early 20th century it was a thriving city. In 1921 the residents voted to change the name of their city to Alma-Ata, which means ‘Father of Apples’, and in 1929 the city became the capital of Kazakhstan.
That same year, Alma-Ata received a distinguished visitor. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was a botanist, geneticist, agronomist and geographer, a brilliant scientist, hailed by some who knew him as a genius. Having grown up in a poor rural village that was perpetually hit by crop failures and food rationing, he was obsessed by food security and the prevention of famine both at home in Russia and around the world. He believed that the best way to understand plants and the potential for their cultivation was to establish their original source in the world, and developed an over-simplistic but not entirely inaccurate theory that the likely origin of a species of plant was the place where today it shows the greatest genetic diversity. Effectively, such places were nature’s laboratories, where different permutations were worked through until the best ones were developed. Vavilov travelled the world collecting thousands of seeds, and established the world’s largest seed bank in Leningrad.
In 1929 he was travelling by mule train across Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, attempting to reach western China via a mountain pass. ‘The path turned out to be more difficult than we expected, and, in fact, we lost two of the horses,’ he wrote later. ‘But somehow we reached the northern slopes of the range where we found a road leading directly to Alma-Ata.’
What he found there astounded him. In Five Continents, the book that set out his theory of plant origins, he wrote:
Thickets of wild apples stretch out through an extensive area around the city and along the slopes of the mountains, here and there forming a real forest. In contrast to the small, wild apples of the Caucasus, the wild apples of Kazakhstan are represented mainly by large-fruited varieties, not differing much from cultivated species. It was the first of September and the time when the apple ripen. We could see with our own eyes that here we were in a remarkable centre of origin of apples, where cultivated forms did not rank noticeably above wild ones and where it was difficult to distinguish wild apples from those cultivated. Some of the forms in this forest were so good in respect to quality and dimensions that they could be directly grown in a garden…
The slopes of the Tien Shan were, he believed, a ‘living laboratory where one can see the evolutionary process unfolding before one’s eyes.’
Five Continents was the most important book on plant origins ever published up to that point. It had the potential to radically improve our understanding and cultivation of important pants. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the world forgot all about Vavilov and his sensational discoveries, just as it forgot about Kazakhstan.
Vavilov’s problem was that he believed science should be kept separate from politics. That may sound perfectly reasonable, but Joseph Stalin, who came to power in 1924, disagreed. Around the same time, Vavilov befriended an ambitious young scientist called Trofim Lysenko. Eleven years younger than Vavilov, Lysenko was a peasant by background who had gained his degree from a correspondence course. When he met Isai Prezent, a political ideologue, their fusion of politics and science began to find favour within the Soviet hierarchy.
By this point, the science of plant genetics was well understood. Gregor Mendel’s work in the mid- to late nineteenth century had established the basic principle of genetic inheritance. Controversial at the time, it was rediscovered and elaborated upon in the 1900s by a number of scientists, including British biologist William Bateson, with whom Vavilov had spent time studying plant immunity.
Bateson was the first person to use the term ‘genetics’ to describe the study of heredity, and was the main champion of Mendel’s ideas once they had been rediscovered. So it came as a shock when Lysenko, who Vavilov had once regarded as his protégé, rejected the entire basis of Mendelian genetics. Lysenko falsely claimed to have invented the process of ‘vernalisation’, where wheat varieties normally sown in winter could be made to behave like those sown in spring. In reality the procedure had been familiar to farmers since the early 1800s, but Lysenko made grossly exaggerated claims about its efficiency. He also claimed that by changing the conditions a plant was experiencing, you didn’t just change its behaviour; you were creating a new species of plant, one which would pass on its new characteristics to its offspring. In this way, grain that could only grow in warm climates could be made to grow in cold climates too, and the Soviet food supply could be guaranteed.
All this was rubbish of course. It was little more than a rehash of Lamarckism, the idea that an organism can pass on characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime to its offspring, which had been destroyed by Darwinism. But in Soviet Russia, it was heralded as a new ‘Soviet genetics’, and Lysenko became the most influential scientists in the USSR. Until the 1930s Russia had been a world leader in the advancement of genetics. Now Lysenko dismissed mainstream genetics as ‘harmful nonsense.’ Stalin began working on a five-year plan to enforce the collectivisation of all farms, applying Lysenko’s principles. Lysenko began praising his master in speeches as ‘The Great Gardener.’
Vavilov shook his head in disbelief, asking, “Is this some kind of religion?” If religion and science are related in the ways they seek to understand and explain the world, this was a cult masked as science. With no scientific proof, it was all about faith. It appealed to Stalin’s sense that the Soviet machine could improve everything, even breeding undesirable traits out of people. By 1940 Lysenko had successfully eradicated any mention of the great 19th century geneticists from school textbooks.
When the collectivisation experiment inevitably failed, cognitive dissonance ruled the day. The problem couldn’t possibly be Comrade Lysenko’s crackpot theories – someone must have sabotaged the great experiment. Between 1934 and 1940, eighteen of Vavilov’s colleagues were arrested, and almost every serious agricultural publishing outlet was closed. Vavilov’s remaining colleagues, worried for their safety, began to disown him. His research was cut and he was barred from travelling.
Finally, in 1940 Vavilov himself was arrested and charged with being an anti-Soviet spy who had sabotaged crop production. After days of 13-hour interrogations, he cracked and confessed to trumped-up charges of wasting state funds, deliberately creating a shortage of seeds and disrupting the rotation of crops. He was even accused of ‘damaging the landing grounds in the Leningrad military region by sowing the airport with weeds.’
Vavilov was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to twenty years imprisonment. He died in a hard labour camp in 1943.
By that time Leningrad had been under siege for two years by the Nazis. Stalin had rescued the art from the Hermitage ‘for the future enjoyment of all people,’ but he ignored Vavilov’s seed collection at the Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops. Vavilov’s remaining colleagues preserved large parts of the seed collection by hiding it in the cellars, keeping it intact, refusing to eat the seeds even though nine of them starved to death by the time the siege was lifted in 1944. Their incredible bravery was for nothing: after the war the collection fell into Lysenko’s hands, who allowed it to be ruined by the cross-breeding and outbreeding of different strains.
Through the middle of the twentieth century, advances in our understanding of plant genetics allowed food production to soar around the world. When followers of Thomas Malthus predicted that a rising population would result in global starvation by the 1970s, this didn’t happen because the yields from fields and orchards rose faster than the population did. In the USSR, until Lysenko’s demise in 1954, agriculture went backwards. By the time of his death the Soviet Union was fifty years behind the rest of the world in agricultural practice – surely a factor in its eventual demise.
In 1929, when Nikolai Vavilov made it into Alma-Ata after losing two of his horses, the residents tried to help him by supplying more. As it happened, Vavilov declined their offer because a colleague was on the way with motorised transport. But for Aimak Dzangaliev, a fifteen year-old boy charged with looking after Vavilov’s fresh horses, the brief encounter with Vavilov would change his life – and perhaps the future of the apple.
Dzangaliev was amazed that an eminent scientist from Leningrad would come all the way to Alma-Aty to look at its apples. Seeing them through Vavilov’s eyes inspired Dzangaliev to study them himself. After going to study with Vavilov in Leningrad, he returned to Alma-Aty to continue the work Vavilov had started. He spent the next sixty years with his wife, Tatiana Salova, cataloguing and researching Kazakhstan’s fauna. They discovered that of 6000 species, at least 157 were either direct precursors or close wild relatives of domesticated crops. They found that 90 per cent of all cultivated fruits in the world’s temperate zones had wild relatives or ancestors historically found in Kazakhstan’s forests, in their eyes confirming Vavilov’s by now forgotten theory that this was the birthplace of the apple. They catalogued more than 56 native forms of apples, 26 of which looked like purely wild ecotypes, with another 30 being natural or semi-domesticated hybrids.
There was just one problem for Dzangaliev: his beloved forests were disappearing. Since 1960 between 70 and 80 per cent of Alma-Aty’s wild forests have been lost to luxury apartments and hotels, holiday chalets and summer cabins.
When the Soviet Empire collapsed, Dzangaliev, now in his eighties, contacted plant scientists in the United States and begged them to come and help save his apples. Phillip Forsline, a horticulturalist at the Plant Genetic Resources Unit in Geneva, New York, led a number of expeditions in the 1990s and was amazed by what he saw.
Apples don’t grow in apple tree forests. They grow here and there, wherever the seeds fall. That’s why an orchard looks so stunning: it’s something you don’t see in nature, the product of human co-dependence with nature to produce something neither can on their own. Unless, that is, you’re in the Tien Shan mountains. Dzangaliev welcomed Forsline with a firm handshake and an astonishing passion and energy for a man in his eighties. (He credited his health and longevity to a constant diet of wild apples, eating at least one every day.) He led Forsline into Tien Shan’s apple trees forests, and showed him dense clusters of trees that were 300 years old, fifty feet tall with trunks as wide as oaks, still producing healthy crops of apples. The variety of those apples was astonishing: dun russet and shiny smooth, marble-sized and melon-sized, reds, greens, pinks, purples, yellows and gold. Some of the wild varieties had grown as big as domesticated apples in the west. From the samples they took, Forsline and his team estimated that the apples in the rest of the world together contained no more than 20 per cent of the genetic diversity on show in the Kazakh forests. Somewhere in that gene pool may lie resistance to blight, scab, or pests which can be bred into our favourite apple varieties, or even possibilities for the apple that we haven’t yet thought to explore. At a time when ever-fewer commercial varieties are cultivated widely, becoming less resistant to disease thanks to their intensively monocultural breeding, the birthplace of the apple may well contain its future.
In the early twenty-first century, a series of researchers used molecular genetic markers capable of distinguishing between species to establish that what Vavilov had deduced from observation was correct: the domesticated apples cultivated across the Western world had so much in common genetically with the wild apples of the Tien Shan mountains that they were without doubt descended from there.
But why here? How can one spot produce so much genetic diversity? Barrie Juniper, a plant scientist from the University of Oxford and the first person to confirm Vavilov’s hypothesis on the origins of the apple, has a pretty good idea. Around ten million years ago, earthquakes and shifting tectonic plates began to create the mountain ranges of Inner and Central Asia. At this time, an early form of the apple became trapped on the rising land. The Tien Shan never glaciated during the Ice Ages, and was fed by a constant supply of water from the snow pack above. Glaciers on one side and emerging deserts on the other cut the region off from Europe and the rest of Asia, but in this lost, fertile valley, plants and animals interacted and cross-bred. As well as apples, the Tien Shan region is also remarkable for its diversity and concentration of walnuts, peaches and a whole array of fruit and nut varieties.
I never got to make the journey to Kazakhstan mysslf, but I consoled myself by reading the many accounts written by scientists who have been. Every one of them is filled with awe and wonder at these forests, even in their diminished state. It’s hardly surprising – in fact probably inevitable – that when he first saw the apple forests, Phillip Forsline declared that they had found ‘the real Garden of Eden located in the Kazakh mountains.’