A biography that will send you to market with a sense of history

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A Gardener Touched With Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank, by Peter Dreyer. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 293 pp. $29.95. Unfortunately, this book will likely be stuck on the ``Natural Sciences'' shelf in the scholarly bookstores. It will sit among other well-written, thoroughly researched, interesting, and fair books. It will tell its occasional reader more than he or she might want to know about plant breeding. It will not be read by serious scientists, because Luther Burbank was forsaken by other horticulturists as far too popular. And it will not be read by general readers, who expect to find biographies in the literature section.

Where it should be shelved is in the American History section of serious bookstores, because its author is at his best when he portrays Burbank as a man of his age, a true hero of the 20th century and a victim of it as well. It is not farfetched to say that the phenomenon of Luther Burbank would not have happened at a different time in this country's history. The man was so totally a product of his era that he will intrigue historians and biographers alike.

For his was the age of American enthusiasm. Burbank came to California during the gold rush, and his life was distinctly influenced by the reigning movements of his day -- from the health fads of the late 1800s to the peculiarly American dreams of limitless potential. His work later touched on major historical events such as the Scopes ``monkey'' trial and such varied developments as the field of eugenics and the tremendous growth of California's agribusiness.

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Burbank enjoyed the parades and publicity that went along with the success of his plant experiments. As a charismatic folk hero, a symbol of his age like Ford or Edison, he reached masses of people through his improvements to their lives. He also encountered the pitfalls of celebrity. With widespread interest in his accomplishments, the quackery, manipulation, and circuslike marketing chaos were inevitable. According to Dreyer, Burbank was ``shrewd but not interested'' in the various business ventures o pen to him and was an easy mark for hype. His business ventures were pathetic, and scientific purists were angered by his unorthodox methods. Public adulation was confusing and fickle as well. Even his religious beliefs were held up to scrutiny.

Taken advantage of both personally and in business, Burbank emerges, nevertheless, as a wealthy, successful, and satisfied man. Despite the disillusionment of his public and the scorn of other scientists, he was happy in his life's work and in the recognition it gave him. He loved his plants and he loved children. He remained a sensitive artist and a practical, persistent idealist. In this book he is presented as a compelled but contented man, sincere in his love and his vision for the world.

Reading of Burbank's success with such now-common foods as plums, prunes, rhubarb, and garlic will send one to the produce market shadowed by a sense of history. It may even propel an indoor reader out to the back forty. And it will certainly afford new stature to the baked Idaho potato on one's dinner plate. For Luther Burbank, even as an eccentric character in his own biography, has an eerie effect. His artistic sensitivity is inspiring and his humanity touching and sentimental:

``Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, waterlilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education.''

Evidently, Burbank was a generous man. He wanted people to enjoy nature and to benefit from it. He wanted to feed hungry people. Peter Dreyer's biography of this historical wonder is well organized and well written with commendable appendixes, notes, and index, although its title smacks of the hype to which Burbank fell victim. I hope someone is smart enough to display this book away from the seed catalogs.

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