Since it’s apple season, I thought it’d be fun to offer some interesting facts about apples and Kazakhstan. For instance, did you know botanists believe apples first evolved in Kazakhstan in the Tien Shan mountains? Today, huge forests of apple trees stretch on for miles there. The trees, over the course of millennia, have cross pollinated like crazy, in turn bringing forth thousands of varieties. Apples range in color from yellow to green to russet to red. In size they vary from as small as acorns to as large as baseballs. They vary in taste too, from inedibly bitter to grocery-store sweet.
Inspired by the Search for a Cure
In my novel, Harvesting the Sky, a special apple plays a key role. Horticulture professor Andre Damazy discovers a rare medicinal apple that can boost the immune system within a day. His personal goal is to bring back the apples to heal his mother who suffered a stroke. His larger goal is to grow more trees so he can bring its medicinal properties to the elderly and ill. But a threatening stranger stalks and vandalizes Andre’s work, hell bent on stopping him from succeeding. Why he does this is the overarching question of the story.
Years ago, I grew fascinated by the simple apple’s complex start in Kazakhstan. Here are some interesting facts I discovered.
1. Botanists estimate apples in Kazakhstan have been evolving for 4.5 million years.
2. The Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov catalogued Kazakhstan’s apple forests officially in 1929. Those writings appear in his book, The Five Continents.
3. Scientists believe the genus and species of Malus sieversii is the oldest species of apple.
4. Unusual flavors of Kazakh apples include hazelnut, honey, berry, and licorice.
5. The oldest apple trees in the Kazakh forests are 350-years-old.
6. Development during the Soviet Era destroyed 70-80% of the forests surrounding the city of Almaty.
7. The capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, means “place of apples.”
Because the forests of Kazakhstan are so rich with cross-pollination, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a white apple with medicinal healing power could emerge. So even though people refer to my apple as “magical,” I actually think of it as “speculative.” Regardless, what that new addition to botanical science launches is a whole basket of trouble for Andre. While nurturing his delicate saplings with care, he must passionately battle dark forces to bring his special apples to the world.
Just a quick note to let you know my new novel Harvesting the Sky has a cover! Here it is above. I’m very excited. The talented Jessica Dionne, who created The Forgetting Flower, also designed this one. It’s ominous and threatening and mysterious and I love it.
Here’s the jacket copy:
Botanist Andre Damazy lands on the opportunity of a lifetime when he discovers a rare medicinal apple in Kazakhstan and brings back tree cuttings to his hidden greenhouse in Paris. Growing the cuttings into trees is personal for Andre since the apples can heal people with serious illnesses, like his sweet mother who’s suffered a stroke.
But a mysterious stranger constantly thwarts Andre’s work, sending harassing calls and menacing effigies, stalking Andre, and vandalizing his trees. Andre doesn’t understand why anyone would do this, but he wonders if it’s related to a project from his past that went all wrong and resulted in a deadly mistake. So with the help of his new friend Renia (The Forgetting Flower) and her street smarts, he works to outmaneuver his enemy while uncovering a larger, more dangerous plot that threatens the foundation of all that Andre holds dear, including the woman he secretly loves.
Harvesting the Sky is the second book in the Botanique Noire series that combines vivid literary prose and a thriller plot, while enticing readers with the wonder and magic of plants.
During these last few weeks, I shared two posts about the origins of and botany in my novel about a unique apple, Harvesting the Sky. The first article covered how I merged issues of an emotional past with plants and the second, my inability to eat apples and subsequent fascination with them. This week I’m posting the final segment of this series with an excerpt from the book’s first chapter. It takes place in Kazakhstan while the rest of the novel, as in The Forgetting Flower, takes place in Paris.
I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!
Harvesting the Sky, Chapter 1 Excerpt
For months, Andre had imagined what the apple would look like and now as he crested the mountain ridge, he was about to find out. He doubted it would be truly white, the “pearl” Nes had described. He guessed yellow with hints of cream. That would be more realistic. Then again, what was realistic about a white apple that healed people in a matter of hours? He dragged his aching body through the rain, his heart beating with an excited tic as he followed Samal, the team guide. She seemed unaffected by her tall bulging backpack and heavy wool coat, ambling up the slope like a dragonfly zooming over grass.
In Kazakh, she said, “This way, soon, I think.”
Andre’s pack, heavy with equipment, pressed on his shoulder blades, bonier from walking thirty miles into the forest for three days. His stomach grumbled. He was ready for whatever ramen soup they had left and a good night’s sleep.
At the ridge’s top, Samal paused and pointed at a foggy light illuminating a cloudy opening, her black eyes alert. “Tengri!”
In the distance, the top of a tree, much broader than described, stood.
“Is that the tree? Are you sure?”
“Yes, very sure.” Her favorite tin cup for cooking and eating and washing bumped against her black braid.
He searched his mind for the Kazakh words to say the tree didn’t quite fit the description but failed to piece them together, glancing back through the dense crowns for Vlad. The translator was plodding along sixty feet below, too far for earshot, and Nes, well, he was bringing up the rear to make sure Vlad didn’t wander the wrong way again.
“Alright,” he said, trying to lighten his voice. “Let’s find out.”
Soon, the forest trickled away to a field of artemisia and herbs, rolling gently downward to an expansive field. About a quarter-mile off, the Tengri tree stood exactly where the old villager had said it would be, on a small hill between a cherry thicket and crooked stream. Good God, it was there. Out in the open. For anyone to study. They’d struggled through wind and snow and searing sun to find it. Paid bribes at highway checkpoints, even smoked dirty crumpled cigarettes and eaten sheep’s head soup out of courtesy for information. Now, he’d be part of the team that brought it to the Western world.
“Holy…” He dropped his head in relief. What a gift. He whispered his thanks: “Raqmet.”
As they wound their way into the field, he studied the tree. It grew sturdily with a wide trunk and sweeping crown, branches evenly spaced so it gained all of the light and air it required. No bare patches in the bark. No canker or cracking. Somehow it had survived decades of lightning and wind and late frosts without the protection of other trees. His dad would have clapped his hands and said, “Ah, what a lucky stick!”
Still, the leaves had turned a reddish-orange color. Late-season color, about-to-drop color. And where were the apples? He scanned the branches. None. A lump of worry solidified in his gut. The tree was going dormant. If it was going dormant, that meant it had dropped its fruit. If it had dropped its fruit, they’d have no apples to bring home and the project was screwed.
As he neared the hill, its size grew, looming 30 feet in the air. The slopes sharply surged up, covered in tangled dense shrubs. They reminded Andre of the chaparrals near his family home in California. As a child, he would roam the countryside beyond Suntime Orchards, coming across brambles where he’d peer into dark silent holes. He always expected a vicious little animal to jump out and snap his hand. “Great. A hill of rocks and thorns,” he said, wiped his forehead with a sleeve. At least the rain was letting up. They picked their way through boulders to the stream. Samal ploughed into the water. Andre paused. It was a foot deep, about eight feet wide. Fast-moving. He stepped in the freeze and it soaked his boots as he hobbled across, the creek’s bottom a scattering of slippery stones. He leaned forward, worried about keeping his pack dry…
I’m happy to share some exciting news about Harvesting the Sky and 2021!
Last week, I wrote about the origins of my apple novel, Harvesting the Sky. I covered my resistance to putting plants in my fiction, how I developed a main character who was a composite of plant people I knew, and why I decided to set the story in Paris. The next step I needed to decide was the novel’s botany, what plant my main character, Andre, would be discovering.
A Fascination With a Fruit I Can’t Eat
As an adult, I’ve never been able to eat apples. While I know they’re good for me and certain cultivars like ‘Honeycrisp’ and ‘Red Delicious’ are tasty as heck, I have trouble digesting them. I get an instant stomach ache. My abdomen feels like it’s been tied in a knot. I’ve tried to overcome this by eating apples with cheese, eating apples after a protein-based dinner, etc. but I always end up in sharp pain.
It may be that apples have too much raw fiber for my body, I’m not sure. Regardless, because of this, I’ve always been fascinated with people who can grab an apple and happily munch away. The idea that this portable, hardy fruit keeps a long time on a counter until you’re ready for it seems so pure and beautiful. The facts of how healthy they are is amazing. And Biblically speaking, apples play a huge role in the creation story. All this tumbled around my mind. I started thinking about what if I could not only eat apples easily, but what if they could give me an exagerrated boost to my immune system?
The History of Apples
The history of apples is long and interesting as well. Grown mostly for cider in the 19th Century, most varieties of apples weren’t sweet. They weren’t appealing to eat until breeders started grafting and growing cultivars specifically for culinary pleasure. That’s when they exploded in popularity. Michael Pollan wrote a great chapter on this in his book, The Botany of Desire.
What’s even more interesting is the earliest apples grew in Kazakhstan. I won’t go into too many details, but scientists genetically mapped out various cultivars and traced the earliest trees to the Alatau Mountains in Kazakhstan. In fact, the only forest of apple trees in the world grows there. A professor named Aimak Dzangaliev mapped and recorded many of the trees. And unfortunately, development has destroyed much of the forest. Still, there are a few groups working to protect this amazing area of the world.
Because there are hundreds of varieties of apples in this Kazakh forest, I started thinking about plant mutations. Plants naturally cross-pollinate to form new plants all the time. And in the Kazakh forests, it’s happened in spades. So, because I was thinking about how I can’t eat apples and how apples are incredibly healthy for you, I began wondering what would happen if a naturally mutated tree occurred that could seriously boost the immune system. Someone, maybe a plant explorer, would discover it, and afterward Western botanists would discover it too. The plant I wanted Andre to discover was a medicinal apple.
Plant lovers are always in search of that “special” plant. They crave the unknown plant, the rare plant few others have, the plant that only grows under certain conditions. It’s an addiction, this quest to attain the unusual. We plant geeks are fascinated by all the mutations, natural and bred. We want the blueberry that actually produces pink berries (Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’). We want the hydrangea with purple leaves (Hydrangea aspera ‘Plum Passion’). I could easily name a hundred even rarer examples. And so, it also occurred to me this medicinal apple would be extra valuable and extra interesting if it were an unusual color. And as far as I know, no one has discovered a truly white apple yet.
Where to Begin
So because I wanted Andre’s life to change because of a white, medicinal apple, I knew the story had to begin at the point when the apple came into his life. Of course, that had to be in Kazakhstan. Also, I decided that rather than sending him solely as a representative of his university, he’d have to have some monetary incentive in attaining it. And so, I decided he’d be beholden to a pharmaceutical company in Paris. Because I knew he’d need even more conflict than a corporation breathing down his neck, I created a mysterious villain. These ideas launched the first chapter and story arc. You can read the novel’s summary here.
Next week, I’ll post an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Harvesting the Sky.
Check out the exciting news about Harvesting the Sky and 2021!
Photo by Aaron Burden
When I look back on the origins of Harvesting the Sky, my novel about a unique apple, I can’t believe how long it took me to discover something that was an obvious fit. But at the time, I couldn’t see it.
For years, I resisted the idea of writing fiction about plants. By day, I worked as a gardener, designing and maintaining clients’ gardens and at night, I wrote gardening articles for fun. During graduate school at Goddard College, I’d written a thesis novel about an ethics professor with a dark twist. Though I liked the idea, the science fiction aspect felt daunting. I didn’t read sci-fi that much and I couldn’t resolve the issue of how preventing future events might affect the present. So, I bumbled around for months, feeling empty and like I didn’t have a fictional story to tell.
A Secret Conservatory of Dangerous Plants
Still, there was one scene in that novel that haunted me. It involved my character breaking into a conservatory to obtain a thorny plant he could drug himself with. It was a powerful moment in the story and one I loved. It was dark and creepy and cool. I had reveled in describing the alluring yet deadly plant that he was about to experiment with. I delighted in putting him in painful distress with it. There wasn’t a more compelling point in the book.
Mixing That Dangerous Allure With my Passion
Finally, I realized I could take the anguish from the sci-fi book professor and mold it into a new character more in line with my current life – a professor of horticulture. I imagined him as a young rugged guy who felt softly about plants but ardent about his cause. That he was physically strong and sharply intelligent yet vulnerable and cowardly when it came to his past deepened his soul for me even more.
So I tried reworking the thesis story with this new character. It clicked. Harvesting the Sky was born. Once I put difficult emotions into him, the story buzzed. I woke up artistically. My mind started rolling. I came up with a detailed profile. He was a composite of botanists and growers and sellers I’d known in the horticulture industry. It was easy to shape him because I knew him. I’d known him for years.
I named him Andre Damazy. The first name was a French name, the last name, Polish. He would be the one ethnicity I was, Polish, with the one ethnicity I wish I was (French). I knew what being Polish meant from my own background; I knew some of what being French meant after having lived and worked in Paris. And the last piece I knew he had to be?
Paris as the Adventure World
American. When I worked in Paris, I felt like a fish out of water yet also felt comfortable among the people. It was an incredibly influential time in my life to work in a French office. I grew and changed. I’d been mentally stuck in my job, getting physically heavier and more sluggish and more corporate. When I was in Paris, I realized how the French lived and wanted to live that way. Not as a sedentary slave to a company I didn’t believe in but as a moving, thinking, creative being who enjoyed life. So when I examined Andre, I didn’t see him as French and I didn’t see him as a Pole, I saw him as an ex-pat American with these cultural backgrounds. And, like me, he would experience a life change in Paris.
A Main Character, a Setting, and a Plot
Now that I had a main character and a setting, I needed a plot. Though I drew some on the thesis novel, much came from my own life. I was well familiar with plant explorers, both current ones and historic ones in the UK and Europe. In fact, one day, I read about a local plant explorer who, while in the mountains of China, had to split a package of ramen noodles among several people in his expedition because food rations were so low. I was impressed by how much they suffered to discover new plants. It seemed intense. I wanted my protagonist to be in the same intense place at some point in the book. But I still had a fundamental question: if he were a plant explorer, what plant would he be seeking?
That’s the topic I’ll address next week, and where the speculative aspect comes into Harvesting the Sky.
Update (Dec, 2020): To check out the exciting news on Harvesting the Sky‘s publication, click here.