“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





03 November 2014


DRINKSTER has just spent two days with the great Professor David Mabberley. The Botanic Gardens of South Australia invited Mabberley to present  'Economic Botany Today - A study of practical ecological biochemistry for humans,' an  intensive series of lectures on the "biological basis of human society ... teaching a far deeper understanding of plants, how they have shaped our past and how they can impact our future." 

It was mind-blowing. And very, very scary.

Topics included Plant-animal interactions; The first roots; A balanced diet - starch, mainly grasses; A balanced diet - protein, mainly legumes; Temperate fruits, and finally, Tropical fruits. Curator Tony Kanellos took us on a tour of the Museum of Economic Botany, which is amongst the last few of its type on Earth. Once, every capital city in the British Empire had one. While this remarkable Adelaide institution is singularly impressive and always educational to those of us who visit regularly, it is especially confronting to those visiting for the first time, regardless of their walk of life. Or their age. Kids love it.

Back at school ... the class included a bright lot of environmental scientists, horticulturers, plant physiologists, other expert plant nerds and people with very big gardens to manage. Foremost apple and pear expert, and therefore cider nut, Greg Cramond attended, but, tellingly, other than the DRINKSTER, there was not a soul from the wine industry. Which was a pity, because Mabberly loved making humourous references to the myriad plants which humans use for intoxication. Not to mention the amounts of poisonous spray the industrial wine biz uses to protect its increasingly vulnerable Vitis vinifera.

Mabberley took us on a breathless tour through the major food groups, continuously referencing the manner in which we  have homogenised and homologated food plants to the point of extreme monoculture, where vital foodstuffs become scarily vulnerable to disease. This is made very much worse with the many plants whose source stocks no longer exist, like citrus, meaning there is no chance of beginning again when our conveniently sanitised and easily-farmed modern forms suddenly succumb to infection, be it old or new. 

As is the case with all the world's citrus. All western supermarket citrus - oranges, lemons, limes, mandarins, grapefuit etc - comes from a single source plant in China which no longer exists. And now, starting in China, we have the formidable Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, which Mabberly believes to be the result of a gene jumping from an unknown source into an insect-transmitted bacterium. This fast killer is now rife in every citrus-growing country except Australia. It has reached New Guinea, so it will be in Australia when the winds are right. There is no cure. So enjoy your vodka and orange: there's a good chance there will be no more citrus anywhere very soon. Our Riverland included.

I couldn't help thinking of phylloxera, a deadly old vine disease we have slowed just a little, and whatever new ones might suddenly occur to send all grape vines chasing the poor old oranges and lemons down the gurgler.

If you ever get a chance to listen to Professor Mabberley, take it. In the meantime, his essential book, Mabberley's Plant-Book remains my constant bible to the world of over 24,000 plants and their uses. This is available in the Digger's Seed Store behind the Museum of Economic Botany. The other must-read is Where our food comes from - retracing Nikolay Vavilov's quest to end famine (Gary Paul Nabhan, Island Press, 2009).

Our merry, but well-sobered throng: we all left a whole lot wiser, wondering what we can do to fix the mess we've made.  Luckily, I was wearing my 1987 vintage Vavilov badge in the session where Mabberley got round to him. Good boy, little Whitey.

this photo by Philip White ... all others courtesy of Botanic Gardens of South Australia

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