Yesterday, I learned about how easy it is to take massive cultural change for granted.
Last night, at Down House, I saw Dr. Bob Randall, our resident Houston food garden authority, speak. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s written the Bible for food gardens in Houston, a book with no equal or substitute. You don’t need any book to grow your own food here, besides this one.
It really is that good.
Without it, you’re basically clueless as to what will and will not grow in the local soil. With it, you know as much as many nurseries do. It’s worth at least a year of experience, by itself – no mean feat, for a book you pick up off the shelf.
I had helped to set up his speaking engagement, so we spoke beforehand about gardening in Houston. I said that I felt confident that the nurseries in Houston knew what to stock; after talking to him, I realized that this wasn’t due to any magic knowledge, but often came from perusing his book.
When Dr. Randall came here from California, in the 80’s, that knowledge had not yet arrived, since his book had not been written; much of that knowledge came from him, and the people who sent in tips after his first edition was published, so it could all be collected in one place. Then, there was no such place.
The result was not good.
Most nurseries were just buying whatever came in national catalogs, and throwing it again the wall. Nurseries like plants that are cheap, that they can pump out in large volumes, and that work in all conditions, even if that means they suffer a little bit in each one. That meant it would be common to buy an apple tree, say, that had zero chance of producing fruit here, and basically nurse it along until it died.
Plants aren’t like people; we can basically survive in a range of temperatures and conditions, but plants, without the right regionally specific conditions, will wither and die. That happened all the time, back when there was no reliable source people could trust to tell them what to grow here, and experiment to verify the answers.
I learned a little bit about the publishing culture here, too.
When Dr. Randall started, publishing houses wouldn’t take his book. They said they couldn’t cover their costs with it. They wanted him to water it down by making its scale as wide as ‘Texas’ (read, a whole grab-bag of unrelated weather and soil conditions, meaning most of the value of the actually useful Houston-specific information would get trimmed out and disapppear). That was their deal. We have more valuable books we can publish. So take it, or leave it.
He said no, and self-published.
It was only by self-publishing that he was able to both revise it as often as it needed to be revised (very often, what with the yearly tips people sent in), and make it specific to Houston. In other words, to translate this into a local garden, if he hadn’t self-published, about 70% of the value of the book would have disappeared. ‘The world’ wasn’t helping much, to make this hugely significant contribution to gardening in Houston; he had to go most of the way himself to make it happen.
So it’s easy to look out across the Houston gardening landscape now, take a mental snapshot, and think that Dr. Randall has created a book that has a secure place within it. It’s not as easy to see his part in creating that culture in the first place; you have to go beneath the surface to see that this culture exists in its current form, thanks to his contributions.
We take culture for granted all the time and think, things have always been this way. If not for the effort of a few exceptional people, however, they might not be.