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Original Essays | August 21, 2014

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Original Essays

Going to Bananaland

by Adam Leith Gollner
 
  1. The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession
    $7.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Gollner's passion for fruit is infectious, and his fascinating book is a testament to the fact that there is much more to the world of fruit than the bland varieties on our supermarket shelves." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    A fresh, juicy and highly satisfying treat." Kirkus Reviews


One of the most beloved characters in The Fruit Hunters is a scholar named Robert Palter. The author of 2002's The Duchess of Malfi's Apricots, and Other Literary Fruits, Palter attempted to catalogue every instance a fruit is mentioned in a book, poem, song, film, painting, or other work of art. The task proved impossible to complete, so he ended his 850-page anthology without any punctuation — as a sign of its open-endedness.

Even after his book was published, he still couldn't stop finding fruit episodes. In a subsequent essay called "My Big Fruit Book," he wrote: "Involuntarily, and even against my conscious intentions, I persist in scanning for fruit everything I encounter in the way of print and pictures." For months after I interviewed him, Palter would send me friendly, funny emails with fruit anecdotes.

Now that The Fruit Hunters is finished, I can understand his ardor.

I keep finding snippets of fruit lore that I also wish I could have included. Right after submitting the final draft, I learned about a slavery ring involving Florida citrus farmers. And did you know the inventor Tesla was afraid of peaches? How about this: 40 percent of men in a recent study conducted by Chicago's Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation were sexually aroused by the smell of pumpkin pie.

Perhaps the obsessive drive to keep accumulating research isn't exclusive to fruit writers. There is so much to know about any subject that you can never know it all; at a certain point you finally understand how little you will ever know. I'm nearly there. Writing my book about the global underworld of fruit fanatics became something of an impossible quest for omniscience, as well as immortality — fitting, given the qualities of Eden's two forbidden fruit trees (of knowledge and of life).

I recently came across an interesting description of the challenge faced by nonfiction writers when trying to deal with the insurmountable filing cabinets of wisdom they have gathered. "In the earlier chapters, the author, with his material still massed and appalling in his mind, has not got into his authentic stride," writes Henry Williamson in his introduction to The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton's seminal work of 17th-century naturalia. The same applies in The Fruit Hunters. Some of the early chapters recall the opening of Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana, with its shots of a plane landing over and over again: they are like a kind of tenacious, brightly colored rind that must be peeled before savoring the sweet interior. Much as Walton did, I put all my most appalling material at the start. Hopefully, as in Walton's case, "such enthusiasm is maintained despite the thousands of facts bombarding the consciousness!"

Nonwriters often wonder whether they'd still care about their subject after writing an entire book.

I'm still fascinated by fruits.

This may be due to their sheer aliveness. Biophilia, or the love of life, is how biologists sometimes describe the lure of nature. Fruit lovers could be considered biophiles. They certainly seem to feel a spiritually transformative connectedness with flora and other processes of growth.

The protagonist of Knut Hamsun's Nobel Prize-winning novel Pan is also awash in biophilia. He sees boulders as friends, listens to the singing of creeks, and weeps deliriously over flower blossoms. Pan sometimes reads like a manifesto of biophilia: "I am filled with a strange thankfulness; everything seems well disposed towards me, mingles with my being; I love it all."

Albert Hoffman, the recently deceased Swiss chemist who invented LSD, also felt a deep connection with nature. As a child, walking through the woods filled him "with an indescribable sensation of joy, oneness and blissful security." Later on, he had a profound biophiliac experience the first time he dropped acid: "I became aware of the wonder of creation, the magnificence of nature, and of the animal and plant kingdom." The Fruit Hunters is one long extended ode to the magnificence of the plant kingdom, so in that sense you could say it's like a psychedelic trip.

If you like Knut Hamsun and Albert Hoffman, you may also enjoy another of my major inspirations, J. K. Huysmans. His seminal 19th-century masterwork, Against Nature, is a strange, overly detailed list of the most decadent things around. It also seems to suggest that cutting oneself off from the natural world can have dire consequences. I first learned about that book from Richard Hell, the punk rocker-poet. In a recent interview, Hell is quoted as saying, "we live in a state now where media is our nature. It used to be that artists thought of nature as their environment. Now media is our environment." Magazines and newspapers, TV and the Internet, he says, are "the environment now, rather than woods and hills and oceans. And so that's what you make your art out of." Although I largely agree with Hell's observations on the media forest, I increasingly look to artists who manage to free their imaginations from the pop-culture landscape. The laws of the universe aren't as trippy when they're harnessed into sound bites.

Fruits have long played an important metaphorical role in religions. "All religions begin as a earth religions, worshipping the fruit-bearing lands," writes Camille Paglia. So even though fruits may seem mundane today, in the past, they were essential to survival. They were also a way of discussing esoteric concepts of rebirth, eternity, and the afterlife.

The Fruit Hunters examines how fruits are symbols that guide us across thresholds to a realm beyond duality, beyond opposites. I recently heard a Steve Martin joke that seems to tap into this mystical notion: "I'm going to Bananaland," he said, "a place where only two things are true: one, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green." Not to explain the joke or anything, but fruits have long been employed in such cosmic contexts — perhaps because they themselves are the coming together of male and female flowers, of sugars and acids, of dying flesh and unborn seeds.

After a fruit rots and decomposes, the seeds live on. The miracle of vegetative growth seemed to shed light into the mystery of our own lives.

I'll close with a quote in this vein from the final scene of Alejandro Jodorowsky's film Holy Mountain. "I promised you the great secret and I will not disappoint you," says the narrator. "This is the end of our adventure; nothing has an end. We came in search of the secret of immortality, to be like gods, and here we are, mortals, more human than ever. If we have not obtained immortality, at least we have obtained reality."

÷ ÷ ÷

Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Fruit Hunters. His writing appears in the New York Times, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Orion, the Globe and Mail, Maclean's, Good Magazine, V, and many others. The Canadian correspondent for Gourmet magazine, he has played in a number of bands and still makes music now and then. He lives in Montreal, mostly, and Los Angeles sometimes. Find out more at www.thefruithunters.com or www.adamgollner.com. spacer

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