When I was a little kid I loved the Young Explorer version of National Geographic. I loved the science shows like Kratt’s Creatures and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I loved learning about animals and plants and how they work. I would spend hours digging in the creek behind our house looking for salamanders, snails, and crawfish. Though I didn’t really know it at the time, I was conducting a scientific experiment when I took a toad out of the spring house and tried to raise him in a jar in my room by feeding him flowers.
I think lots of kids experience a fascination with the natural world- an absorption in the detail and mystery of life. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, science became dull. I struggled through high school biology and chemistry and then stayed as far from the hard sciences as I could in college. I stuck to history, English, sociology, things I felt that I could connect with more readily. I could get excited about a great book, but not about a new element in the periodic table.
Now that I work on a farm, I only wish I could have retained more of my childhood interest in the sciences. I wish I would have taken biology in college, even if I’d gotten terrible grades. I constantly feel as if I’m having to learn scientific principles backwards. When we encounter a disease in the pigs, I have to identify symptoms then possible origins then I have to research the science to try and understand how to prevent those illnesses in the future.
In the orchard, everything is connected. The bacterial and microbial life, the insects, animals, weather conditions, apple tree age and health… it all interacts in complex and beautiful ways. Understanding at least some of those relationships is crucial in order to make it to September with a decent crop of apples. Right now, for instance, I am thinking about Apple Scab. This disease produces blackened and rotting spots on the leaves and fruit of apple trees. If an orchard is highly infected, much of the fruit is inedible or falls to the ground before ripening.
Notice a little scab on these apples in a painting from 1824 by James Peale
We of course want to prevent that from happening. But it’s not as easy as knowing what to spray on the trees, we also have to know when. That means we have to know a little bit about the cellular activity and reproduction cycle of the disease. We have to understand how temperatures and moisture levels affect the initial release of fungal spores and what organic options we have to try and counteract that release. It’s all science.
I don’t know why it wasn’t more interesting to me in high school, I just know that if I had paid a little more attention, I might not feel so lost when I come across questions like: What is the probability of ascospore release this week…?