Thursday, January 29, 2009

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato

Posted by Theodore Varno on 01/29 at 01:51 PM

On an uncharacteristically warm January afternoon, Sharon Kingsland spoke at the Academy of Natural Sciences on the subject of phytotrons.

The phytotron – a monument to total control, where botanists and horticulturalists can regulate with extreme precision every condition their plants encounter: temperature, lighting, humidity, soil quality, exposure to pathogens or synthetic hormones or herbivorous insects.  Professor Kingsland’s paper focused particularly on the Earhart Laboratory at Caltech in Pasadena, the Ur-Phytotron that, after its opening in 1949, spawned imitators throughout the world.  At the center of Professor Kingsland’s story was Frits Went, the Earhart’s first director, a botanist with an ecological bent who saw in his phytotron the possibility of charting, with a new intensified rigor, the relationship between plants and their environments.  Went, Professor Kingsland suggested, was developing a new way, in a time of new technological possibilities, to negotiate the field / laboratory divide that ecologists had been contending with since the late nineteenth century.  In Landscapes and Labscapes (2002), Robert Kohler described a hybrid scientific culture that developed among ecologists during the first half of the twentieth century, a program of research that found a way to adapt the strict methods of the lab to the needs and contingencies of the field.  According to Professor Kingsland, Frits Went, with his vast climate-controlled greenhouse, was pioneering another dimension of that divide, bringing the field ecologists’ questions and naturalist sensibilities into the laboratory and yielding practical, useful results.

As Professor Kingsland moved through a sequence of slides of the Earhart Laboratory, black-and-white snapshots of the facility and the researchers inside probably taken during the 1950s, I was struck by what a strange space it really is, and what a contradictory program it seemed to foster.  There were prohibitions on what workers could bring into the building.  Cigarettes had to be run through an autoclave.  DDT was used to destroy life-forms on visitors’ shoes.  All around, the Earhart was pervaded by a sense of order, sterility, the elimination of place, this place in particular: and yet in the midst of this daily regime devoted to decontextualization, to reducing all variables to the organism and its immediate stimuli, Frits Went was attempting to breathe new life into the naturalist tradition, into an understanding of how plants fit into their surroundings.

There were other agents at work in the facility, though, besides Went and his botanical colleagues.  And these, perhaps, were attracted too by the zero environment that the phytotron was cultivating.  The technical specifications of the Earhart were made possible in part by Henry Eversole, an orchid grower who had been tinkering for the past decade with air-conditioning his greenhouse.  What a space like the phytotron offered him was a greater control over the plants which he desired, a more sophisticated means of manipulation.  Went built the laboratory with funding from Harry Earhart, a wealthy oilman who thought the phytotron would contribute to an agricultural research program designed to increase world food production.  Researchers employed by industry, biotechnicians looking to change plant varieties, found the phytotron to be a valuable tool, so much so that the Campbell Soup Company built a new wing for the Earhart.  What this cleansed space seems to have been doing was turning every individual plant surviving within its walls into the same type of organism, an experimental organism, so that a tomato plant could function as the same object to all those observing it, regardless of whether it was plucked from a line that had been growing wild in Mesoamerica or if it had been specially bioengineered to give a strong flavor to soup in cans in an industrial laboratory in Camden, New Jersey.  As the direct linkage between the plant and its climate became their object of concern, Went and his botanists were losing sight of the broader ecological context from which their specimens had been removed, and becoming less cognizant of their own special place in an emergent bio-industrial system.

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