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Fruits We'll Never Taste, Languages We'll Never Hear: The Need for Needless Complexity

Imagine cupping an Ansault pear in your palm, polishing its golden-green belly on your shirtsleeve. Imagine raising it to your lips and biting, the crisp snap as a wafer of buttery flesh falls on your tongue. Imagine the juice shooting out—you bend at the waist and scoot your feet back to prevent the drops from falling on your sneakers. . . .

Imagine it all you can, for it's all you can do. You'll never eat an Ansault pear. They are extinct, and have been for decades: dead as dodo birds. How could this happen to a pear variety which agriculturist U. P. Hetrick described, in a 1921 report called "The Pears of New York," as "better than any other pear," with a "rich sweet flavor, and distinct but delicate perfume"? The dismaying truth is that you can apply that question to thousands of fruits and vegetables. In the last few decades we've lost varieties of almost every crop species. Where American farmers once chose from among 7,000 apple varieties, they now choose from 1,000. Beans, beets, millet, peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, and rice all have suffered a large reduction in varieties. In fact, over 90 percent of crops that were grown in 1900 are gone.

Of course, next to "Save the Whales," a bumper sticker reading "Save the White Wonder Cucumbers" sounds a bit silly. And as long as we haven't lost pears altogether, the loss of a particular variety, no matter how good, isn't cataclysmic. We have a lot of other worries. How many years of sunlight do we have left? Of clean air? Water? But when we lose a variety of pear or cucumber, even one we're not likely to taste, or, in an analogous situation, when we lose a language, even one we're not likely to hear, we're losing a lot more than we think. We're losing millions of bits of genetic information that could help us solve our big questions, like who we are and what we're doing here on earth.

Farming has always been subject to the manipulations of human desires, but up until the last several decades these manipulations increased crop diversity. Long before Mendel came along, our farmer ancestors were practicing a kind of backyard Darwinism. Early Peruvian farmers, for example, noticed mutations among the colors of their cotton fibers, and by breeding the cotton selectively, they were able to grow different colors to weave vibrant cloth. When farmers moved, they took their seeds with them, and various growing conditions increased crop diversity even further as the varieties reacted to new environments or evolved new defenses for pests or blights. And in this way farmers farmed for about 10,000 years. Even at the beginning of this century, small farms were varied; each grew many crops and sometimes several varieties of a particular crop. If a blight attacked one species of a farmer's corn, it was likely that the farmer, or another farmer nearby, would also have grown a variety of corn that turned out to be resistant.

But as the century wore on, agribusiness was born. Now, giant agricultural agencies develop fruits and vegetables specifically for giant farms, which concentrate on a single variety of a single crop sanctioned for high-yield growth. These new crops aren't self-reliant—many hybrids can't even produce offspring, putting an end to the age-old tradition of gathering seeds from the current harvest for next year's crop. They are dependent upon intensive fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. They are grown only if they can withstand mechanical harvesting and the rigors of shipping to distant markets, and these packing considerations shape our diet in startling ways, as anyone who's followed the quest for the square tomato can tell you. Some biotech companies have taken the human manipulations of crops to a profitable—if seemingly unnatural—extreme. Biotech giant Monsanto, maker (and dumper) of hazardous chemicals like PCB, filed for a patent in 1997 for a seed whose germination depends not on being exposed to a rise in temperature or an inch of rainfall, but being exposed to a certain chemical.

So now, according to the International Food Information Council, we have scientists crossing two potatoes to make a new hybrid which will be higher in starch and need less oil for frying, resulting in lower-fat fries. But genetic engineers don't stop with crossing two kinds of potatoes. Genes from a potato could be crossed with a carrot, or a banana, or a daschund, if genetic engineers thought such a crossing would improve the potato's shelf-life. Recently, genetic engineers have crossed the strawberry with a gene from the flounder to make a strawberry resistant to cold. In this way, millions of years of nature's "decisions"—which crops should fail, which thrive, which qualities parents should pass to their offspring—are reversed almost overnight. The Union of Concerned Scientists is—well—concerned. Poet W. S. Merwin likens our position in history now to the start of the nuclear age—we are rushing to embrace technology that will change us in unalterable, unforeseeable ways.

A problem with miracles is that sometimes they don't last. A miracle yield hybrid's defenses are often based on a single gene, an easy thing for continuously evolving pests to overcome. And meanwhile, back at the ranch, there is no more ranch—the small farms that grew the original parent varieties that crossed to make the super vegetable have failed. The parents are extinct. Unless genetic raw material resistant to the pest can be found in some other variety, the hybrid will be lost as well.

The first crop to be nearly wiped out due to lack of genetic diversity is the humble spud, which the Europeans brought home with them after "discovering" the New World. King Louis XVI of France saw the potato's potential for feeding the poor and was determined to spread the crop. He knew that publicly endorsing the potato, however, would earn it the commoner's enmity. So Louis grew a bumper crop and had the field guarded all day, but he removed the guards at night so the locals could raid the field. Potatoes were soon growing throughout France and beyond. In Ireland, the potato became the staple crop—by the 1840s a third of the Irish were dependent on it for nourishment. But since all the potatoes grown in Europe were the descendants of that original handful of potatoes brought over from the Andes, the crop had a narrow gene pool. When Phytophtora infestans struck in 1845, the potato lacked the resistance to combat it. The Freeman's Journal reported on Sept. 11 of that year that a "cholera" had rotted the fields; one farmer announced that he "had been digging potatoes—the finest he had ever seen" on Monday, but when he returned Tuesday he found "the tubers all blasted, and unfit for the use of man or beast." A five-year famine followed that slashed the population of Ireland by 20 percent, killing between one to two million people and forcing one to two million others to emigrate to the U.S. The potato was saved only when resistance to the blight was found in more diversified varieties of the potato still growing in the Andes and Mexico. Had it not been, it's unlikely the potato would be around today as a major crop.

While the potato famine might seem like dusty history, the U.S. corn blight proves we're not doing much to stop history from repeating itself. In Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, environmentalists Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney describe the 1970s hybrid corn plants as "sitting ducks." As a result of a cost-cutting measure, each of the several hundred varieties of hybrid corn seed had the same type of cytoplasm. That made the entire crop susceptible to any disease that could come along and exploit that uniformity—and, of course, one did. Even today we have several dangerously unstable crops including—gulp—coffee and chocolate. The dangers of genetic uniformity are currently being cited in an altogether new arena—the Genome Project. Now that scientists have engineered vegetable hybrids, what's stopping scientists from creating human hybrids? Could cloning so narrow our gene pool that a single epidemic could destroy us like the potato blight nearly destroyed the potato?

Imagine hiking high into the Sierra Nevadas and coming across the Northern Pomos. Imagine being able to converse with them in their language. Imagine clicking your tongue against the back of your teeth to say "sunset," aspirating in your throat to say "waterfall." Imagine learning the idiomatic expression for "hungover" and using it to great effect, comparing it with others you know—how the Japanese expression for "hungover" translates as "suffer the two-day dizzies," how Italians say "I'm out of tune," how the Czechs say "there's a monkey swinging in my head," how Arabs don't have any word at all for "hungover." Imagine trading recipes with an elderly Northern Pomo, then walking with his wife through a stand of ponderosa pine, their trunks so thin, because of the high atmosphere, that you could fit your hand around them. You tell her you need to stop talking, for you've developed a sore throat. She questions you about it, then bends down to a small plant and yanks it out of the ground. This yerba del manza will soothe your throat, she tells you, and she gives hints on how to recognize the plant again should your soreness return. Imagine going to bed that night, your throat calmed, your mind blossoming with Northern Pomo words that will fill the cartoon bubbles of your dreams. . . .

Imagine it all you want, but Northern Pomo, spoken for millennia in Northern California, has perished like the Ansault pear; its last speaker, a woman in her eighties, died a few years ago.

Today we have the impression that there's a rough 1:1 correlation between countries and languages; each nation is monolingual. But this has never been the case. In the sixteenth century, for instance, five major languages were spoken in the English King's domain. Our country was especially language rich because each Native American tribe clung fiercely to its tongue as a signifier of cultural difference; Edward G. Gray in New World Babel estimates that, when European contact occurred, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 distinct tongues in the Americas, nearly half of which are now extinct. A graphic way to understand this is to peruse the maps in The Atlas of World Languages edited by C. Moseley and R. E. Asher. The maps showing pockets of language before the colonizers arrived in America are many-colored, many-patterned quilts; each subsequent map is increasingly bleached, increasingly pattern-free.

Languages don't die because they are in any way inferior or deficient, as has been sometimes supposed in the past. They die because of pressures on minority communities to speak the majority language. Sometimes this pressure is economic, as seen, for example, with the Waimiri-Atroari of Brazil, a tribe of 500 people in the Brazilian Amazon, whose tongue is listed in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages. The Waimiri-Atroari are mostly monolingual, but they have experienced increasing contact with the Portuguese-speaking majority. The tribe is growing in bilingual members because learning Portuguese widens the Waimiri-Atroari's potential market from 500 members to 160 million. As the proportion of bilingual members of the tribe rises, members of the tribe might begin using Portuguese when speaking to each other; it follows that the motivation for children to learn their native tongue will erode. The language's death will surely follow.

Sometimes the pressure for a minority community to speak the majority language is not economic but political, as has been the case with Native American languages in the U.S. since European settlement began. Early U.S. settlers had a romantic notion of language difference as a cause of personality difference. Since some Native American languages were found to lack abstract concepts like salvation, Lord, and redemption, the settlers presumed the speakers of these languages to be unable to grasp these higher concepts. It seemed to follow that Native Americans' salvation could only be achieved by "liberating" them from their restrictive native tongues. "In the present state of affairs," Albert Gallatin wrote of Native Americans in Archaeologia Americana in 1836, "no greater demand need be made on their intellectual faculties, than to teach them the English language; but this so thoroughly, that they may forget their own." In his report on Indian affairs, Reverend Jedediah Morse recommended the suppression of any texts in Native American tongues. There were supporters of America's original languages—Thomas Jefferson, for one, compiled vocabulary lists of Native American words throughout his lifetime. But even today we haven't a national policy of language preservation. In fact, between 1981 and 1990, fifteen states enacted "Official English" laws to guarantee English as the language of the U.S. government. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his 1839 Democracy in America, "the majority lays down the law about language as about all else."

Languages are termed "moribund" if they are spoken only by a small group of older people and not being learned by children. These languages stand in contrast to "safe" languages, as defined by criteria set out in Robins and Uhlenbeck's Endangered Languages. A safe language has, at a minimum, "a community of 100,000 speakers" and the "official support of a nation-state." These numbers don't necessarily represent a swelling, robust population—Gaelic, for example, is among the safe languages—but 80 percent of the languages spoken in North America fail to meet even those standards. In Australia, 90 percent of the languages are moribund. As I write this, sixty-seven languages in Africa are being spoken for what may be the last time. The more fortunate of them are being documented by linguists, who spend much of their professional lives rushing to record a language before it dies. When it does, they find themselves in the rather lonely position of linguist Bill Shipley, the last human being on earth who can speak Maidu.

In my girlhood I thought that languages were codes that corresponded; each word in English had its exact equivalent in every other language, and language study was the memorization of these codes. Later when I studied my first languages I learned that such codes do not exist; each language is a unique repository of the accumulated thoughts and experiences of a community. What do we learn about a culture by examining its language? The Inuit people live in the northernmost regions of the world, in small, roadless communities on the ice, and lack our modern electronic conveniences. They have no word for boredom. Poet Anne Carson writes of the Yamana of Argentina, a tribe extinct by the beginning of the twentieth century, who had fifteen names for clouds, fifty for different kinds of kin. Among the Yamana variations of the verb "to bite" was one that meant "to come surprisingly on a hard substance when eating something soft, e.g., a pearl in a mussel." The Zuni speak reverently of "penaµ taµshana," a "long talk prayer" so potent it can only be recited once every four years. The Delaware Indians have a term of affection, "wulamalessohalian," or "thou who makest me happy." The Papago of the Sonoran Desert say "S-banow" as the superlative of "one whose breath stinks like a coyote."

During this century, eighty-seven languages spoken in the Amazon basin have become extinct because their native speakers were scattered or killed. Some of these forest dwellers were both nonviolent (their languages lacked vocabulary words for war and bloodshed) and democratic (they included terms for collective decision making). When these languages died, they took with them not only the specialized knowledge that the tribes had gained from thousands of years of natural healing and conservation, but ways of living we might have done well to study. In the absence of these examples, as John Adams wrote, "we are left to grope in the dark and puzzle ourselves to explain a thousand things which would have appeared very simple if we had . . . the pure light of antiquity."

But even beyond this rather romantic notion of the need for language preservation, there are concrete and empirical losses to science when languages become extinct. There's a wealth of information that can be extracted from languages by the use of statistical techniques, and this information can be used not only by linguists, but by anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, and population biologists, among others. Hypotheses about human migration patterns can be tested by seeing whether words have been assimilated into a language from the languages of nearby populations. Hypotheses about neural structures and processes can be tested by analyzing the phonology and syntax of a language. Hypotheses about the hardware of our brains capable of generating sentences can be tested against the different sentences. What must all infant brains have in common that any child can acquire any language? The more data we have, the closer we can come to answering questions such as this. Furthermore, recent studies indicate that language learning causes cognitive and neural changes in an individual. At a recent conference at the Center for Theories of Language and Learning, Dr. Mark Pagel argued that when a child acquires a disposition to categorize objects through word-learning, some neural connections in the brain are strengthened, while others are weakened or eliminated. Previous learning affects a system's way of categorizing new stimuli, and so Pagel concluded that, although it may be true that all humans "think in the same way," one's native language influences one's perceptions. When we lose linguistic diversity we suffer a consequent loss in the range of ways of experiencing the world.

Yet we needn't constrain ourselves to discussions of hard science, for the issues involved in diversity are more far-reaching. If the language ability, as many theorists hold, is what separates us from animals, it is the central event of human evolution. Each language that dies takes with it everything it might have taught us about this unique aspect of our constitution. If language is a well-engineered biological instinct, as Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct, each language that dies takes from us another clue to the mystery of what keeps the spider spinning her web or the hen warming the eggs in her nest. The cognitive organization which shapes our language facilities also shapes other mental activities related to language, such as music and mathematics. Each language that dies not only weakens linguistics but all of these related fields—all fields, in fact, that seek to understand the human brain. Each language that dies takes from us a few crucial parts of nature's tale, so much of which (even how and when the universe was created) still eludes us. In fact, each language that dies weakens our most vital challenge—to engage the world in all its complexity and to find meaning there. This is the definition of both art and religion. To lessen the complexity of the world is to lessen our moral struggle.

I've written "personal essays" before, and this isn't one of them. I haven't told you very much about myself. I haven't told you if I'm a scientist (I'm not) or a linguist (I'm not). I'm a poet. So the argument could be made (perhaps some of you are making it right now) that I'm not qualified to write this essay. But I'm qualified to make metaphors, and that's what I've tried to do. I read books on crops and languages and I begin to hear them speaking to each other, and soon the desire is born in me to speak of them to you.

I've argued for empirical reasons we need diversity on our table and in our ears. But I think one of the most important reasons we need diversity isn't based on grubby need, isn't based on a what-can-nature-do-for-me mentality. I don't want the argument to rest solely on that because plenty of people will think they have all that they need. And in a way they're right. After all, we live in an era of hysterical data. It's exhausting. Let's have enough faith in our own self-interest, if in nothing else, to assume we will never lose the pear or the potato. Let's have enough faith in our own torpidity, if in nothing else, to assume we will never have a unilingual world. So okay, we lose a few varieties of Ethiopian sorghum—varieties once so beloved they were named "Why Bother with Wheat?" and "Milk in my Cheeks." Do we really need forty kinds? Isn't four enough? It's not like only having four friends, or even four varieties of dogs. A seed company streamlining its offerings isn't like a museum streamlining its Van Gogh collection. And if we lose a few obscure languages, maybe that's the price one pays for having fewer translators and English as a "universal business language," saving time, frustration, and money. Why should we be overly concerned if what's lost wasn't useful to us in the first place?

Of course, there's an old rejoinder but a good one—our responsibility to the future. In poem No. 1748, Emily Dickinson writes, "If nature will not tell the tale / Jehovah told to her / Can human nature not survive / without a listener?" But nature ceaselessly tries to tell her tale to the patient and attentive, and her tale is still unfolding. Each seemingly interchangeable variety of sorghum contains a distinct link of DNA that reveals part of nature's story. Similarly, each language is a biological phenomenon that reveals millions of bits of genetic information and contains within itself clues that help us understand how our brains are organized. What clues our progeny will need is beyond our power to know. We can't imagine what will be useful, necessary, what will provide a link, prove or disprove a hypothesis. Losing plants, losing languages: it's like losing pieces to a puzzle we'll have to put together in a thousand years, but by then puzzles may look entirely different. We might put them together in the dark, with our toes.

Yet beyond the idea of what will be useful to future generations, we, right here, right now, have a need for needless diversity. A world with fewer fruits and vegetables isn't only a world with an endangered food supply. It's also a world with less flavor, less aroma, less color. We suffer a diminution of choice. As Gregory McNamee writes in "Wendell Berry and the Politics of Agriculture," we're experiencing "an impoverishment of forms, a loss of the necessary complexity that informs an art rightly practiced."[1] And a world with fewer languages isn't only a world with more limited means of communication. It's also a world with fewer stories and folk tales, fewer hagiographies, fewer poems, myths, and recipes, fewer remedies, fewer memories. We possess the accumulated vision and wisdom of fewer cultures. We become like hybrid corn: less diverse, with less accumulated defenses, susceptible to dangers that our "parents" might have battled and overcome, dangers they could have helped us with, were they not in their graves.

What I want to say is this: for twenty-eight years I've been carrying on a love affair with words and the world and I've come to believe that the sheer magnitude of creation blesses us. The gross numbers, the uncountability of it; as if the world were a grand, grand room full of books and though we might read all we can we will never, ever outstrip its riches. A thought both unsettling and comforting. If we are stewards of the world, we are stewards of a charge beyond our comprehension; even now science can tell us less about the number of species we have on earth than about the number of stars in our galaxy. There is something important in the idea of this fecundity, this abundance, this escape hatch for our imaginations. I have read Robert Frost's poem "Design," and I have read Gordon Grice's essay on how the black widow spider kills her prey with ten times the amount of poison she needs, and I'm not one for making teleological arguments, but I can tell you that somehow, despite our savagery, we have been over-provided for, and I believe it is a sign of love.

Poet Wendell Berry urges us to care for "the unseeable animal," even if it means we never see it. So, I would argue, must we care for the untastable vegetable, the unhearable language, which add their link, as we add ours, to nature's still-unfolding tale. They deepen nature's mystery even as they provide clues to help us comprehend that mystery. They enrich us not only because they can serve us, not only because they are useful, but because theyare. Their existence contributes to the complexity of the world in which we are, a world we still strive—thankfully, nobly—to understand.


1. See Wendell Berry, ed. Paul Merchant (Lewiston, ID: Confluence Press, 1991), 90-102.

Author: Fennelly, Beth Ann, Fall 2000

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