Copyright © 1998 Frank Browning
"If you look at the mountain over there, you'll see some dachas, some small buildings. This is one of the ways of destroying wild forests."
He was upset and wanted me, the American Journalist, to know it.
"So people remove fertile land and build houses there. Well, if we treat our nature like that we'll have nothing in future, will we? The representatives of bureaucratic classes, some rich people, built their dachas in the mountains."
Now he was railing.
"They never give it a thought who produced this fragrant air and who is responsible for the beauty and fertile land. So they begin destroying it."
These were the weekend and summer cabins of the elite of Alma-Ata. Each one had a quarter or a half acre of land, tied to the highways by crude gravel drives. Already we could see hundreds of dachas; at the current construction rate there would soon be thousands. Once Western developers set to work on the pristine ski slopes just above the dacha zone, it could come to resemble Vail or Steamboat Springs.
Djangaliev is not a sentimental preservationist. He is proud of the modern industrial world the Kazakhs have built and of the productivity of modem Kazakh agriculture. He takes particular pride in the fact that, all through World War II, Kazakhstan turned itself into the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, that Kazakh grain nourished him and the troops with whom he fought on the western front. And, though he had a torturous life with the Communist Party, he retains a grain of the Marxian faith in progress and the force of history. His angst over the steady destruction of the apple forests derives from his conviction that, without such natural preserves, science and progress will be stymied.
As we stood there in the late August afternoon, he led me over to one of the wild apple trees he transplanted in 1949. The apples on this tree are medium-sized and without blemish. "This one I call Krasota [or Beauty]," he said, nodding his head to me, his gray eyes opening wide. That is also the name of his mother and his granddaughter, his interpreter, Gallina, explained.
This apple, Beauty, which he has studied for four decades, he hopes might become vital breeding stock in the future of Kazakh horticulture. It seems resistant to many of the standard apple diseases, offers good commercial potential, and requires no irrigation to reach moderate size. Its botanical name is Malus niedvetskyana number 49. A few rows away is another variety, Malus sieversii number 1001. This one is a large, dusky-green apple, and it grows from the tips of long willowlike limbs attached to short, stocky trunks. It may also possess special breeding qualities, he believes.
Djangaliev's counterparts in the United States and Europe are not so confident that these particular varieties will change the shape of contemporary fruit growing, nor do they consider Malus niedvetskyana a species distinct from Malus sieversii, the basic Kazakh apple. But they agree that these lower slopes of the Tian Shan and another vast, almost untouched region to the northeast of Alma-Ata called the Dzungarian Alps constitute the center of origin for the ancestors of nearly all the apples we eat today. For horticultural scientists, that is vital information. Because the apple, or Malus, has survived so long on these slopes, and because until recently it has been undisturbed by man, it has retained rich genetic diversity. The modern apples we find at fruit stands and supermarkets represent but a tiny slice of all the possible apples that have existed in the world. They are the descendants of thousands of years of selection for color, size, shape, and growth habits. But they are also the chance descendants of the fruit and seedlings carried by travelers of the Silk Route and wild birds and animals that ate the fruit and scattered the seed as it passed through their digestive tracts. The apples that reached Persia, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and eventually central and northern Europe contain less than 15 to 20 percent of the genetic material found in these ancient Asian forests. Locked away in the genetic codes of that other 80 percent are the still unexplored possibilities of what an apple might become: Apples resistant to rots and blights and insects. Apples untouched by deep killing freezes. Apples of tantalizing yet unknown taste. Apples possessed of deep, rich skin tannins and tingling fresh fragrances that could be the basis of new untasted wines and ciders.
Even an afternoon's walk through those sun-dappled, grovelike forests reveals a variety of wild fruit that the European or American wanderer has never imagined. It is almost like a journey back into an unkempt primordial garden.
Djangaliev wanted me to see, touch, smell these forests as quickly as possible, to absorb viscerally the intense "appleness" of this place called "father of apples." The next day he arranged for one of his expeditionary teams to pick me up for its trek into the mountains.
Copyright © 1998 Frank Browning
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