Race and Apples 3: Health, Fruit-Growing and Poison

Apples aren’t as healthy as they used to be.

Race has a role in that. A big role, actually.

Poor Joseph. Now he’s a hydroelectric dam.

Chief Joseph Dam

Spanning the Columbia right next to the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Okanogan‘s Indigenous gardens and the Industrial Granny Smith orchards of Brewster.

The consequences of racializing apples are reduced nutrient values and flavour, poisoned environments, racialized labour practices, a loss of innovation and community, and high-cost food. To understand how we got there, a little history helps. For starters, there’s my post, all about car wax, apples, and pesticides.

Spraying Poisons on Food, to Feed the People

If that sounds strange, that’s because it is.

Another part of this history is highlighted in my post, with its view of abandoned orchards at the old Chelan village site on Wapato Lake, now a series of residential building lots for the White paradise of Lake Chelan.

Wapato Lake, the southern reach of traditional Smalqmix territory. Once, a major winter village. Only a fool would overwinter on a big lake (over the hill, behind us.)

Some deeper history will also be helpful. In the Indigenous cultures of the Columbia Plateau, where most of North America’s apples are grown today, all food is medicine, some more than others. That’s not to say that there aren’t other medicines, but it is to say that this lomatium is:

A Little Bloom of Vitamin C from a Rock
Blind Creek, Smalqmix Illahie

You’re going to need the spurt of vitamins from this desert parsley to get you hunting for food in the spring after a winter on reduced rations. That’s medicine. It’s not much different with European traditions. Apples and pears, for instance, were originally considered to be medicines, and their juice, distilled into Calvados or Williams…

Williams Christbirne (Bartlett Pear) Eau de Vie

…or fermented into cider or perry (or, grapes into wine) were considered to be the energy of life itself, l’eau de vie, which you would drink to keep yourself at work in your vineyard or pasture orchard. You literally drank the sun, in the same way you top up the tank in your SUV today. In the vineyards along the Rhine, you actually lived down by the water, carried the manure from your cow in a wooden contraption strapped to your back high up out of the river fog into the sun, where you manured your vines, then carried God, the sun, in the form of grapes, back down and let him ferment through the long, grey winter.

Vineyards were tumbled-down affairs in those days, cascading down the hills among all your other crops. This is between Rüdesheim and Assmannshausen on the Rhine.

Literally, you fed God your shitty life and he turned it into grace and inspiration. It was the same along the Rhône.

The Highest Vineyards in Europe, Vispertermine
That’s the Bietschhorn (3934 m.) in back. Its glaciers cool the intense southern sun. Italy is just a few minutes away.

Industrialization and marketing ruined the spirit of it in the 1890s, when wine and water were both marketted as health tonics to people choking to death in the coal-poisoned air of Europe’s industrial cities. Holidays were spent along the rivers of Germany and Poland, the Russians trained to Montreux, Baden Baden and Wiesbaden, water was bottled from artesian springs.

Cure by Water During a Promenade in the Drink Hall in Baden Baden Back in the Day

In the vineyards of the Rhine and the Rhône, the peasant eau de vie, wine, was bought up, trucked to cities and sold as the spirit of the pure, clean countryside, brought in to renew the city, much in the way an aristocrat would formerly have cleaned up a dodgy bloodline by marrying from a lower class. Meanwhile, pears were grown as stomach tonics, and apples, well, let’s go to 1845, when Cascadia was being settled from the USA:

As Downing wrote of the apple:

“It is exceedingly wholesome, and, medicinally, is considered cooling, and laxative, and useful in all inflammatory diseases.”

The only problem was that trees were preyed on by codling moths and subject to fungal diseases, which reduced yields and profit.

Codling Moth’s Three Life Stages

Newly conquered lands to the west were welcomed for their ability to produce apples in hot, dry climates without codling moths or scab diseases. By the 1890s, this protection was long eroded, and codling moths were everywhere. The solution was to spray the trees with nicotine sulfate and arsenic of lead, both of which were quite effective. In Cascadia’s Okanagan Valley, one farmer who started farming apples in the 1930s, a decade before the replacement of these toxins with nerve agents left over from British military stockpiles in World War II, told me how it was done:

  • My orchard had a mixing tank, connected to a piping system.
  • We put our chemicals in the tank and then hooked up hoses and spray nozzles to faucets throughout the orchard. (Gravity provided the pressure.)
  • We then sprayed the trees by hand.
  • We got soaked from head to foot.
  • We got so poisoned by nicotine that we were all shaking. (He demonstrated. It was a lot of shaking.)

He didn’t mention the arsenic of lead, but the soils of all orchard lands remember it, as it bound with the alkali in the western soils and locked all nutrients away from tree access. It is terribly hard to get young trees to thrive in these industrial soils. The heavy metals tended to poison the trees when applied, too, yet were popular due to their long-term effectiveness. They also poisoned farmers, and apples, no less than nicotine did.

How it Was Done in Hood River c.1930

Good riddance. Now, some tough stuff. First, in popular 19th century North American understandings, work on the land improved the blood of a people and made poor people into industrious ones. Originally, this process was used to legitimize Indian Reserves: Native Americans and Indigenous Canadians would be transformed by work on the land. (Unfortunately, to them, this “land” was a zone devoid of the life they knew on Earth. They were transformed, all right, but from their understanding, not that of White culture.) Second, the White race was often considered superior to others, and the land of the West, cleared of its non-White residents, was considered to be clean and pure and suited for the creation of an industrious people out of the restless poor of the South, in the same way it produced (for a time at least) unblemished apples.

Delicious, from The Apples of New York, 1905

British orchardists were lured to British Columbia between 1895 and 1914 by promises of a healthy life as a landed gentleman in a pristine climate, away from Britain’s dirty cities. Each apple was like a bottle of San Pelegrino or Baden Baden water.

Third, Oregon, which is contained within today’s Cascadia and included Oregon, Idaho, Washington and British Columbia, was considered by some early devout settlers to be a land White for the Harvest, a place where God was present on Earth and was calling his people to a new Eden in preparation for the Second Coming. The “harvest” was souls. Fourth, consider John Tetlenitsa, who I introduced you to yesterday: might like to look at that article again. Here’s the bit about John:

1916. Nlaka’pamux Chief John Tetlenista was charged for peddling his apples in the mining and ranching city of Merritt without a business license. 40 bushels of apples were seized from him and he was charged $25 for their return. The (white) B.C. Tree Fruits Association had been lobbying the government for the “cleaning” (eradication) of Indigenous orchards, as they were “a source of disease.” John went out of business.

There was a context for this as well. In Old Oregon, settler norms allowed for marriage between White settlers and Indigenous or mixed race women, but not between Indigenous men and White women. Any woman in such a situation would, like John’s orchard, be considered unclean and spoiled for White men forever, a philosophy which the Nazi architect of genocide, Julius Streicher, put forward in 1935, when he argued in an anti-vaccination tirade that any sexual contact between a Jewish man and a German woman would change her blood so that she produced only mixed-race sub-humans forever after, even with a German partner. Ugly, horrible stuff. Cascadian farmers aren’t responsible for Streicher, of course, or the holocaust, but the connection with dirtiness, cleanliness and eradication of orchards (as documented yesterday), is troubling, nonetheless, especially when we consider that the same rhetoric of land “ruined” by Indigenous “neglect” was falsely laid on the shoulders of Cascadia’s Secwepemc people in the 1920s, when plagues of grasshoppers reduced grassland health. Secwepemc horses, grazing on the land, were blamed for wasting economically vital grass, even though to the Secwepemc the horses were their connection with traditional life on the land. The horses were their freedom, or what was left of it, and could live off the land even if they could no longer. Ironically, the fault was overgrazing by White ranchers. Again, the White solution was to clear the land of Indigenous presence and poison its insects, to increase production and profit, in a land-use model that required land to be harnessed to profit or left to go to waste. I remember how, in the 1960s and 1970s, Indigenous workers were often unwanted on Similkameen Valley farms sited on Paul Terbasket’s lost land (again,, because they were considered “dirty, lazy Indians,” who would work for a half day, then go off and get drunk and not come back, leaving the farmer in the lurch. The Indigenous workers didn’t see it that way. To the White orchard owners, however, the health of orchards, not of Indigenous people, was the issue, which is why (again, yesterday’s post), the remaining Lower Similkameen Indian Band orchards were forcibly cut down in 1963. In this racialized environment, two means of dealing with the Earth’s creatures were present. To the Smalqmex, the codling moths and the White farmers were both invaders, and were both being woven into the land; it was a Smalqmex responsibility to learn to live with them both and return the land to full productivity without excluding them, who the land had welcomed; to the Whites, the Smalqmex’s cultural practices were only a sign of endemic laziness and had to be cleaned up by force. That’s an enormous cultural gap. It shows up in current agricultural practices, in which forcibly harnessing the land to industrial production is still favoured. Have a look:

Vineyard at the Rise, Vernon

This landscaps of bulldozer-sculpted vineyard made out of a syilx grassland is barren of the rich, life-supporting mixture of plants it had 170 years ago, except for one wild rose, one serviceberry and one big sagebrush. The serviceberry is left for the birds. The only birds left are, in the main, robins feeding off nearby orchards and starlings feeding off the vineyard in behind. The grass-flower environment that would have supported other bird species and wasps in their work as natural pest control agents has been removed by industrial cleansing. It’s up to chemicals now. Wasps are even trapped on the edges of the vineyard, to prevent them from feeding on the crop. You can read about the consequences of that in my post:

Wasp Trap
Even the thistles that would have supported insects and birds are poisoned and cut down to satisfy demands from the ranching industry.

In this discussion, we do well to remember that the land and the people are still one, although divided by race: one group looking for a multi-species cleansing, and one looking for multi-species diversity. The cleansing group is ascendant.

Priest Valley, Vernon

This is a late-winter look over orchards and vineyards to abandoned vegetable fields, an airport, housing developments and, in back, The Commonage, land set aside for common use by Whites and the Syilx in 1871, but quickly blocked to Syilx access and finally privatized twenty years later. The Commonage, the valley bottom wetlands, and the orchard lands were all important plant gathering zones. Medicine was gathered here. It is no longer.

So, here we are. The system, which has replaced land and species health with its founding principle, the extraction of profit from the land, has bankrupted the syilx environment. It has emptied the account. Not one square metre of the valley before you is in Indigenous production, even though much of it is otherwise unused. There are only a few birds. The Earth has been cleaned. It is almost completely land now, an urban product, allowed to support human life only through industrial interventions. The force applied to the land’s people and the land itself is all that’s left. More than ever, the people are eating out of food banks. The poverty doesn’t come from the Earth. It comes from across the racial divide, from the land that was made out of it.

We will continue this discussion tomorrow, with the story of Black racism, cultural appropriation and environmental losses in the orchards and vegetable fields of Columbia Basin where every apple comes at great environmental and social costs.

  • 1. Mixed Beginnings and Some Hope
  • 2. The Death of Indigenous Fruit Growing
  • 3. Health, Fruit-Growing, and Poison (Today).
  • 4. The Survival of the Confederate South in Washington State’s Apple Industry (Tomorrow)
  • 5. The Survival of Indigenous families from British Columbia, escaping residential schools in Washington orchards
  • 6. Peaches, the Civil War, and the Survival of the South
  • 7. Racialized Work Forces, Mechanized Production, Marketing and Retail
  • 8. Portuguese, Mexican and Indian production
  • 9. Food costs, land prices, and privilege.
  • 10. Ways forward.

Understanding our food supply depends on understanding what is happening on these farms. I hope you’ll join in.

10 replies »

  1. Harold, I’m grateful for this series.

    It actually may be the ‘legal’ infrastructure, if not the farmers, of the USA a century ago that is at least somewhat responsible for the efficiency of the racist policies of Nazi Germany. In her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”, Isabel Wilkerson does document ‘information gathering’ trips to the USA made by members of Hitler’s circle in order to learn how racist policies might successfully be implemented in Germany.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. I didn’t know this. I have, however, read that Hitler developed his anti-semitic leanings while on leave (recovering from injuries) in Berlin in 1916. The source of his indoctrination was an American anti-Jewish pamphlet. So this would make sense. Bitterly, enough. Good point about the legal infrastructure. Thanks for that. What I’m trying to show overall is just how deep-rooted racism is, and just how much we can do by caring for the environment in rural areas, but it’s a journey to get there, one step at a time. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. Hard stuff, this.

      Liked by 2 people

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