n May 24, 1996, the day before Bard College's one hundred thirty-sixth commencement, Bard trustee
George Ball Jr. '73, who is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the giant
seed producer W. Atlee Burpee & Co., and poet Robert Kelly, who is Asher B. Edelman Professor
of English at Bard and was a teacher of Ball's during the latter's undergraduate days at the
College, conversed on topics ranging from the place of plant life in a young person's
education to the gustatory delights of French sorrel soup, with myriad stops in between.
The conversation took place at a home in Tivoli, New York, not far from the Bard campus
Ball was born in the suburbs of Chicago in 1951 and grew up there and in northern Arizona. As a youth in 1963 he began harvesting petunia seed for his family's business, Ball Seed. He continued to work for the company--in Illinois and Costa Rica--during summers throughout high school and college. After studying at Bard and at De Paul University he joined Ball Seed in 1971 as assistant grower. His rise through the ranks of the company and its affiliates included two years producing seed in Costa Rica and culminated in his appointment as president of Pan American Seed, a research and seed production company, in 1984. Under his direction, Pan American Seed expanded into the European and Japanese cut flower markets and introduced a wide range of home garden varieties worldwide. In 1991 Ball entered the consumer market, acquiring the Burpee company. Ball has literary as well as horticultural interests. At Bard he studied Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses and Dubliners in a course taught by Kelly. He has translated several short stories by the Costa Rican writer Carlos Salazar Herrera and poems by the German writer Else Lasker-Schuler. His essay on the work of the American poet Christine Zawadiwsky was published in the magazine Two Hands in 1980. Ball is a past president of the American Horticultural Society and a current member of the boards of directors of the National Gardening Association; Seminis, Inc.; and Misr Hytech. He was elected to the Board of Trustees of Bard College in 1995.
Kelly was born in New York City in 1935 and graduated from City College of New York. He is the author of forty-seven books of poetry, the most recent of which is Red Actions: Selected Poems 1960-1993 (Black Sparrow Press, 1995), and ten books of fiction. His poetry appears in several anthologies. He has had editorial affiliations with numerous journals and magazines and is the recipient of many honors and awards, including an honorary doctor of letters degree from SUNY Oneonta in 1994 and the Award for Distinction from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1986. Before joining the Bard faculty in 1961 he held teaching positions at Wagner College, SUNY Buffalo, and Tufts University and was poet in residence at Yale University's Calhoun College, Kansas University, California Institute of Technology, Dickinson College, the University of Southern California, and California Institute of the Arts. He and his wife live near Bard and often spend summers on an island off Cape Cod. His interests include the relationships between plant migration and human migration and between plant life and human history.
The conversation begins following some desultory talk about the host's brood of animals, which includes dogs, cats, rabbits, and goats.
Kelly: Why don't we eat horses? The Chinese called the Christians--the Indo-European people whom the Chinese knew in northern and western China--"the ones who don't eat the horse."
Ball: Was it because of the value that we place on horses, the status accorded them, unlike the ox and the mule and such?
Kelly: The horse must be our totem animal, and you don't eat your totem. Evidently the Chinese felt that we Indo-Europeans were horse worshippers.
Ball: How did the cow become the totem animal of the Vedic areas? Maybe a sort of differentiation occurred between horse and cow. And there's the special quality of milk and butter, a quality not available from the mare.
Kelly: I asked you a question about eating horses to get us started and because it seems so strange that we don't know anything about why we do what we do. We don't know anything about the world. We don't really know why Jews don't eat pork or why Christians don't eat horses, yet these matters are part of our deep structural history and, in some ways, deep parts of our personal identity.
Ball: Possibly the animal and the plant are just really so alien to us; there's still so much that we don't know. I was speaking with one of our seed physiologists, who had just come back from a conference. He told me that one of the experts in the field had said in a talk that far more is known about the human brain than about the seed. What we know is purely descriptive, after it happens. We know the effect of germination, but the germination process itself is still relatively unknown. It's one of the last mysteries.
Kelly: Here's the seed, which remains in what we would perceive as a dormant state for weeks, months, years perhaps, maybe even centuries at a time, and then something happens. Is it that phase you're talking about as being unknown--whatever it is that triggers the germination?
Ball: No, usually what triggers the germination is fairly well known--temperature and humidity, for instance--but again, that's strictly contextual. It's what germination is that is not known. We don't really know how it occurs, especially at the start. You wet it and warm it and nick the shell, depending on how thick the shell is, like a nut's. But what then goes on is not really known.
Kelly: Seed is so available, in its infinite numbers, for inspection. You can do anything you like with it, you can put it in any solvent . . .
Ball: I think the growth process is the process that we struggle with, and plants are really the front line of growth. In our lives we're surrounded so often with plants. It reminds me of that saying, that we're estranged from that with which we're most familiar. I've always thought about that in association with plants. When I was a child, plant life was completely green, simply a green mass.
Kelly: The generalization with which the child looks at this other thing--were you fascinated by it?
Ball: I was fascinated by it. My grandmother planted bulbs. I was endlessly fascinated by the bugs that crawled into the flowers of the tulips. That was my first entry point into this undifferentiated mass of green stuff. It is the flower, the luminous coloration, that fascinates somebody so simple as a child, and yet we regard it also as the highest point of horticulture.
Kelly: It's the real end point of the plant's existence--to produce that flower that you delight in looking at and that sits on the table for three days.
Ball: And which is very facelike. Some flowers are very facelike, there's almost a human-like focal point. There is something like an eye to a flower. If you take the eyes out of a human being you can't identify the human being. I think it's the same thing with a flower. So that was my entry point into my field. But you really need knowledge in order to become comfortable with the growth process, to make sense of the mass of green, which is the analogue to having the growth process occur within us as well.
Kelly: I think that anytime you learn anything about plants, your relationship with the world--not just the world of plants, but the world of people and of birth itself--becomes more focused and meaningful. Even the names of plants are helpful to know, as it is important to know the relationship between the history of the plant that you see growing, your history, and the history of the town around you.
Ball: Right, you have to open up to the plant world.
Kelly: The last time you were in Annandale--it seems like a few weeks ago, but it was actually probably a year or two ago--you said something that fascinated me and I wanted to ask you about it, try to call you on it, because it's so unlikely that I find myself believing you. Someone had brought up the subject of hybrid plants, and you pointed out that there is now a kind of sentimental, puritanical dislike of or contempt for hybrids; a sort of notion that you have to go back to the primal stock, that hybrids are somehow wrong and false, like spreading Crisco on white bread.
Ball: That's true. There are folks with scientifically uninformed views, who would take that notion and apply it to our industry. It's a good example of sophistry. The people who are advancing this back-to-the-original-natural-sources idea are saying that hybrids deplete the gene pool. In fact, hybrids don't deplete the gene pool at all. If anything, they actually contribute to the development of the gene pool because through the process of creating a hybrid you must create new inbred lines, so you're actually increasing the diversity available to nature. You can't really create genes; they're there. That's God's gift to us, genes. We can't increase the gene pool or reduce the gene pool through hybridization. The only thing that decreases the gene pool is habitat destruction in which there's no habitat for the plant or animal carrying the gene to live, so the very last plant or animal dies and its line, its lineage, dies out. Sounds Biblical! Then the genes die. But that's through habitat destruction and not as a result of the choice of a hybrid versus another type of plant, an older plant. The genes are always going to be in these plants, whether in the hybrids or in the old plants, because many hybrids are combinations of older plants, or combinations of older plants that then give rise to newer plants.
Kelly: So do you see that quest for primal plants or the earliest forms of plants as essentially sentimental and puritanical?
Ball: No, I don't. There's a wide spectrum of people, with many responses. Many people, like myself, feel that old varieties are intrinsically valuable--I'm actually an advocate of many older varieties, depending on their quality. But what I was describing was a defensiveness that I had built up to people unilaterally attacking my flowers and vegetables in their modern technological form. It's like the computer, which is sometimes attacked by people who say it is going to do damage because we're going to stop reading newspapers. Well, that's not true. If anything, more knowledge is generated by the availability of knowledge, and that's the way it is with hybrids. A new yellow impatiens excites people about all impatiens.
Kelly: It sounds like a fountain pen compared to cuneiform writing--it's just easier. How can it all be bad?
Ball: Exactly. In many ways, economic plants particularly are somewhat tool-like. They're not tools in terms of being completely subject to our ability to devise them and use them as instruments, but there's an interaction that goes on that's very much like that.
But you have to be respectful of the gene pool, and in my work I'm advocating the use of hybrids because it reduces habitat destruction in the third world, in developing countries. If they use hybrids, they need less of their valuable land and far fewer chemical inputs because hybrids in and of themselves are stronger and yield a greater harvest. Like the plants around us here, many of them are contemporary plants. They've developed because they're vigorous. They've been chosen because they're resistant to diseases, they're healthy. Similarly with economic plants, and in these third world countries if some fellow has to use ten acres to produce the crop for the village, he'll clear ten acres. If he can produce the same yield from two or three acres, that is far preferable because there's less habitat destruction. In the third world, the devastation of the environment--if you think it's bad in this country, it's just beginning in these other countries, and there are far more fragile ecosystems in some of these tropical countries than there are here. That's my little speech.
Kelly: India is a great example, isn't it, of that kind of fragility?
Ball: Oh yes. In many cases there's the matter of regulation, Robert. Chemical fertilizers themselves and pesticides themselves are not intrinsically evil; it's their abuse that causes problems. Many developing countries have no regulations. Some do. But farmers should be helped.
Kelly: What do you feel about the American government's attitudes toward regulation of these agents?
Ball: Well, thankfully the American government is so fragmented that there's plenty of room for everybody to move, and that's important since we're a huge country with many climates and pests. There are people who advocate the judicious use of chemicals and pesticides and there are people who advocate organic methods. There's room for both. I serve all the different constituencies. I'm like a politician, in the sense that I have to take care of everybody in my customer base, which runs the gamut from organic gardeners, the very purest organic gardeners, all the way to people who use pesticides and fertilizers regularly. We advocate the use of proper care.
Kelly: What's your relationship to the Burpees?
Ball: I purchased the Burpee Company five years ago. My grandfather was a commercial greenhouse analogue to Mr. Burpee's farmer-and-gardener application. My grandfather was of German background. He grew flowers for the Germans in Chicago and Cincinnati. He grew pot plants and cut flowers, the matthiola, the heavily centered "column stock." That was his biggest crop. The column stocks have a particularly interesting coloration that occurs in the middle of the flower, and if you can get them to grow stronger or lighter, that can make a more attractive variation.
Kelly: Is it white, the flower itself?
Ball: The flower is actually a light lavender to a blue to a white; there's also a pink version. The most common and the most popular in my grandpa's day tended to be the blues.
You know, the Germans love flowers. We were talking at lunch about the Germans, their profound ancestry worship and the incredible, almost strange attention they pay to their cemeteries. My grandpa was of that generation, whereas Mr. Burpee was a French Huguenot whose ancestors had emigrated from France to Canada and then down to Pennsylvania.
Kelly: So you're not related genetically?
Ball: No. Spiritually, but not genetically.
Kelly: What was your family's company?
Ball: My grandfather started what was called the Ball Seed Company, which sold seed. He started as a grower and a breeder of sweet peas and such, and then his wife, my grandmother, said, "Jacob, you're doing so well with your breeding, but you're giving away the seeds to your neighbors. Why don't you think about doing this as a business, rather than spending all your time in the greenhouse growing the plants?" In other words, she had an eye for specializing in seed. I think Grandma also might have been a bit more interested in the children's future.
So he became a breeder, selling his special strains of stock and aster--German favorites. That gave rise to his selling his special strains. It was the evolution of a business. As he became more research-oriented, he began to sell to people outside just his region. His work became popular with greenhouse growers. By the time he passed away, it was a worldwide company. Then my father and uncles took it over. My father went even further into vegetable research and flower research in terms of the actual genetic breeding and some of the advanced things that are done.
Kelly: I was thinking about the child you were, looking at the bulbs that your grandmother planted and the bugs and such that crawled in and out of the flowers and bulbs. Not many children in my experience are very interested in flowers or green things in general. Let me ask you two questions. Take an audience of smart--that is, problem-solving smart--intelligent, somewhat cultured people, like Bard students, most of them able to handle intellectual, cognitive material and musical or literary demands. How could you get them interested in flowers, trees, grass, leaves, shrubs? And would there be any benefit in that--what could they learn from that?
Ball: That's a very interesting question. I think it's perhaps too late, if you are talking about that little gate to nature that my grandmother provided me and that I'm sure was provided you. It's the benign influence of the family; the family's regard, the grandmother's regard. My grandmother lived next door to me. That's a big difference.
Much of education is mimetic, I think. A good teacher can teach, can instill, anything. I learned so much from you that didn't really have to do with poetry; it was just that you were such a good teacher. I think that's the way it is with parents, and with great leaders. It was that way with my grandmother: her attention, her regard for flowers, I imitated. I discovered, lo and behold, that this was incredible, fascinating. There was a reason she regarded nature and there was a reason I should, too. I think that when you're seven or eight years old, you're still as undifferentiated as the trees you're seeing in an undifferentiated manner. I don't know about child psychology, but I would think that the kind of interest you're talking about is very difficult to engender in an eighteen-year-old. People talk about language learning being like that. They say that if you learn a second language as a child, you have the timbre and pitch and rhythms as long as you live. If you learn it in college, it's a lot more difficult to achieve that facility. Some can do it, but only those who work extremely hard at it. I think that visual appreciation of color and aural appreciation of tone may be similar, and what enables me to be perhaps somewhat more sensitive than the next average person is the love of and regard for flowers that I learned from my mother and grandmother. I can see so much that perhaps other people might not be able to see. I feel blessed in that sense. To do that with college students, at a time when they're ascending to adulthood--they're on a trajectory such that to stop and smell the flowers, so to speak, is difficult. It becomes an "event" if it is not already part of someone's routine. How to create it late, in a sense, is a good question. I wish I had more time to think about it.
Kelly: You can map every individual in terms of the flowers and trees he knows, he recognizes, and my botanical map of reality would be unlike anybody else's. Everyone's botanical map of reality is very individual.
Ball: You use language the way a gardener works with his plants--flowers here, seed heads there, leaves and stems everywhere. You work with color and light. Your words are often like colors.
Kelly: Sometimes I know the name of what I'm looking at and other times I'm looking at meanings. The grotesque, mysterious word weed is one of the most puzzling words, metaphysically, in the language, because we characterize as a "weed" a certain kind of thing which is in every other respect identical to a flower. Of course, weeds do not have a social-cultural-economic-whatever utility.
Ball: They're not considered desirable. Weeds are invasive, uncontrollable plants.
Kelly: So we have a special word for that, as if we had a word for a bad kind of a cow or a bad kind of a cat. We don't have words like that. The word weed is fascinating to me.
Ball: Wild animals are considered the weed equivalent of . . .
Kelly: Green varmints,green vermin.
Ball: Taboo plants. A lot of weeds are so called because they take off in all directions, they have qualities of sinfulness. You know this is a garden. There are certain things you just simply can't have in your yard if you want to have these other objects, and that's the border between desirable and undesirable. God and the Devil.
Kelly: And right at that border stands the human mind, choosing and deciding, sometimes quite unobtrusively. I had some lily of the valley growing beside my house. Some lovely little weeds were growing up and I went out and grabbed them and yanked them out. And only after I'd yanked all but one out, I thought, What have I done? Here are these little tiny white flowers with shabby little green leaves that this plant has worked with all its strength, its ancient lineage of energy, of genetic reality, to produce, for whatever reason. Who am I to pull that out? And there I was, looking at it in my hand. In what way was this better or worse than the lily of the valley? I felt so stricken by my own complicity.
Ball: You have to say, Well, I can have either Convallaria majalis,the lily of the valley, the magical muguet of France, or this proletarian, unnamed mass that just might choke your lily, given enough time. I wish I could have them both, but if you have to choose--this is morality--if you have to choose, what do you do?
Kelly: At that point (in my yard) I wanted not to choose, and I began to remember an old fantasy of mine that I want to share with you. One of my weirdest fantasies is that there could someday be created, somewhere on earth--it could be in Bangalore, it could be in Switzerland, anywhere--a plot of earth a hundred meters one way and a hundred meters the other, a square, tended by a bunch of monks whose sole purpose in life is to sit on the outskirts and watch that hundred-meter square for the rest of recorded history, to see what happens. My fantasy is, What would happen if we stripped it of everything except itself and just left it alone? Someone would be there every day, watching, for the next one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years. One day he might see a rat; another day, three crows and a starling, just on this one piece of land. What does the land do by itself?
Ball: That's a beautiful fantasy; nothing weird about it at all. It would be overrun with your beloved weeds and varmints in a matter of months.
Kelly: It's weird in that it denies use. Everything we want of the earth is to use it.
Ball: The fantasy would be difficult to enact--I mean to leave it completely empty of plants. It's a little bit 'Biospheric,' in a way. It's like a reverse Biosphere. It would be difficult to keep out various airborne seeds and fungi.
Kelly: I just want what happens. But we don't know. My argument is that we have all kinds of ideas about what would happen, from forest fires to airborne agents, but what would happen a hundred years after that, and a hundred years after that? I think we could do a wonderful thing starting a monastic order or an institution to observe that wonderful piece of land; to serve by observing.
Ball: The monks were really the first plant scientists. They looked at plants as an expression of God somewhat related to what is happening here, in your Zenlike empty garden. But they considered plants God's gifts, especially their usefulness. The monks would frequently introduce herbal remedies and medicines and drugs to a local region. They were often the conduit for plant explorers who would return things to monasteries. They were the original plant observers and plant scientists. Your fantasy is like turning that inside out, saying, OK, we've had an overabundance of things, we've had all these things that have been introduced, cross-introduced, and not introduced. Now let's take everything away.
Kelly: And see what it will do by itself.
Ball: Sort of Thomas Merton-like. Let's take it out and see what happens. Very interesting.
Kelly: Just observe. Yet according to some Heisenbergian principle, no doubt the observation itself is an influence of some kind, but subtle.
Ball: Very subtle.
Kelly: Earlier, at lunch, you talked about Protestant botanists.
Ball: Apparently many early botanists were Protestants, and they had this notion of plants as being God's "second book," after the Holy Bible--not otherbook, but God's second book, as if maybe there would be more books, too, which I always thought was really great.
When I was at Bard I remember thinking that animals, like the goats that a Mrs. Bostwick had, were more fascinating than our fellow students. At that age one is encountering the "other" that's more like oneself; that type of thing, the socialization process. I think if you can teach not gardening, but plants, there are so many ways that plants can be appreciated through their artistic form, their musical form. Plants are very musical forms. Flowers have musical colors. There are ways that you can get at them, through the more conventional arts, like music and painting, and I think it would be a valuable thing, to answer your earlier question.
Kelly: I wish we could figure out ways of making people more aware of them. Bard, like any other rural campus, has its share of interesting botanical reality around it; not only plants, but also strange old trees.
Ball: I'll never forget when I was walking around once in the early morning at Bard. I used to go on predawn walks. I was on the other side of the waterfall, going through a thicket--I don't even know if it's there anymore--and I encountered a sumac. Having gone to school in Arizona and grown up in a suburban environment, I had seen very few sumacs of such size and strength. I'd never seen one like this. It was a vigorous sumac, and it was beautiful; it was giving berries.
Kelly: That staghorn sumac, which used to be all over here, everywhere, is much gone. I had to cut back a lot of them that were growing right outside my house.
Ball: There's a weedlike concern, isn't there?
Kelly: Have you ever been to Montreux, in Switzerland?
Ball: I was there once, yes.
Kelly: That's a wonderful place for flowers because it has an almost tropical lushness.
Ball: And there is a place in Ireland, your ancestral home, that's supposed to be absolutely tropical, but I can't remember its name.
Kelly: Cork City, in the south, has actual palm trees growing in it.
Ball: That must be what I'm talking about.
Kelly: It's not that it's so warm, but that it's never so cold. Palm trees don't need great heat; they just need no cold. I hope that the weather gods are listening, because we would have a wonderful region if it never got colder than 35 degrees and never hotter than 75.
Ball: Right, this is northern Europe. This is our land of the receding glaciers, and our kind follow the glaciers, right? We were looking for the mists and looking for the coolness.
Kelly: We were following them nostalgically, trying to catch up with them.
Ball: And, I guess, following the animals that were feeding off the melting ice. I guess that was the food source, along with the plants from the river valleys. The cradle of civilization occurred in a really inhospitable area. I've often wondered why Europe attracted people, since it was not considered as good a place as the Fertile Crescent to grow, for example, the large-seeded grains. I've often wondered about Europe--how, exactly, the glacier figured in the process.
Kelly: Certainly there were hunters, presumably meat eaters.
Ball: We have a lot of vegetables to choose from, don't we? It's funny how plants were selected for eating. Often we'll say that something is really sweet, but with many of the plants that man has consumed it was the absence of bitterness that made for sweetness in our imagination. Like the iceberg lettuce that Burpee created--the Celts were really involved in a lot of its development. The heading-type lettuces were actually Celtic, raised by people from the river country of Europe. The Swiss and Austrians and Germans, in that area that the Celts inhabited for a long time, grew the round form of lettuce, but the Egyptians developed closed-leaf lettuce. The Romans took it from the Egyptians. The milkiness of the lettuce was associated with the milkiness of the heavens. It was considered a food of the gods, a gift of God, so it was buried with their dead.
Kelly: The round-headed lettuce?
Ball: The "romaine." Lettuce will either hug the stem, grow loose, or form a ball. The French and Swiss began selecting out the lettuces that hugged their stem a little bit more, the ones that hugged the stem and made kind of a semi-oval. Then you get a whole population of a thousand semi-ovals, some of which will be a little more ball-like. With Mendelian genetics, boom-boom-boom-boom, pretty soon you get a round ball. And then you grow all the balls and you look for the big ones, or you look for the small ones. That's how plant breeding is done. Until Mendel, plant breeding was often more a matter of taking out that which you didn't want than of leaving in what you did want. Mendel taught us how to predict.
Kelly: You mentioned sorrel before. That's a vegetable I wish were more popular in America--hint, hint.
Ball: Oh, the sorrel soup of the French. After a night of carousing, you go . . .
Ball: L'oseille,that's what the gangsters call it. That's "dough" in the old gangster movies. Bob le Flambeur in that famous French movie of the forties always talked about it--this green, these "bucks." What a great slang word for money, because it is really like money, it's so delicious, and it has that oxalic acid that gives you this little sort of buzz that's so wonderful for the hangover blues. A couple of eggs on top and a French wine, you know . . .heaven!
Kelly: My mother-in-law makes a wonderful sorrel soup, but she doesn't get the sorrel here. They have a place in France and they bring back sorrel seeds.
Ball: I'm bringing back sorrel seeds this summer from Vilmorin, the famous French breeders outside of Paris. The sorrel that we grow over here, the American sorrel, is not the same as the French sorrel; it's a sort of coarse thing that doesn't work. But the true French sorrel, there's nothing like it. I visit friends over there, near Chablis. In France, I think it has to do with the skill of their farmers, and the soil is almost perfect. It's not quite as rich as in Illinois, but it has this perfect balance of mineral and structural elements.
Kelly: Do you know the Jewish soup called schav? You can buy it in jars in the grocery store, in the supermarket, just as you buy borscht or matzohs. Go to the Jewish food section. Schav is a pale-green sorrel soup. It's made from sorrel. It's not the French sorrel soup, but it's still pretty good. Have it cold in the summertime, with a little sour cream or creme fraiche. It's very good.
Ball: I must write that down.
Kelly: And you could eat it and poach an egg in it and you'd be happy.
To return to a subject we touched on earlier, I find extraordinary the whole question of hybrids and the sentimental fondness for older plants because I find that sentiment in all of our attitudes about philosophy, religion, et cetera--that old-time religion, that fundamentalist religion. When people stop being religious fundamentalists they switch over to being food purists; it simply transposes itself from one domain to another.
Ball: There's a lot of that. I didn't want to get into that, but there's a lot of false morality involved.
Kelly: Instead of pounding the Bible, they pound the organic food manual.
Ball: I wish they would be as concerned about poor people not being able to read. For example, there's a lot of countercultural-type people getting involved in my business who are saying we must have pure this and pure that, and they attack a lot of the commercial companies for sins that the companies haven't committed. You think, if only that fervor, that energy, that passion--for us the cause was the Vietnam War--could just be directed toward what I think is the great sin of the contemporary world, which is that so many people are completely illiterate. It's not just a matter of being ignorant, it's a matter of not even having a chance to start. So many of these people are people of color, people from deprived neighborhoods. What are they going to do if they don't know how to read? How are they going to access knowledge? Who is going to talk with them?
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