Thursday, April 30, 2009

Peanut Wizard: George Washington Carver and Science & Invention in America by Cheryl Harness

Noted biographer Cheryl Harness's The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science and Invention in America (Cheryl Harness Histories) (National Geographic, 2008) tells the incredible life story of a little black boy, born a slave, whose love for nature and thirst for education took him from his first school in Neosha, Missouri, to a professorship at the University of Iowa and on to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute.

George Carver was a baby when his mother Mary, slave to Moses and Susan Carver, was abducted to Arkansas during the Bushwhacker/Jayhawk Wars following the Civil War. Mr. Carver located baby George and his brother Jim after his mother died, and trading a good horse for their return, he became a foster father to the two orphan boys. Sickly after the whooping cough, at first George helped Susan at home with her washing, weaving, and gardening, eventually becoming the "plant doctor" for neighbors all around. When he was twelve, George was allowed to leave for a town eight miles away to go to the colored school there, and from that point he began his wandering in search of education. A stint on a sodbusting homestead in Kansas was followed at last by a chance to attend Simpson College in Iowa and then on to Iowa State University, where he drew attention for his mastery of botany and his paintings, which were exhibited in Chicago at the 1893 Colombian Exposition.

But it was his relocation to Tuskegee Institute where Carver found his lifelong vision.

Forty-five years later, old George would still remember his first impression of the sunny South. There was "not much evidence of scientific farming anywhere." As far as he could see, "everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle and the people."

Professor Carver threw himself into his work in Alabama, devising and then teaching what is now called organic farming, rotating crops and nourishing the land by composting vegetation into the exhausted soil, planting legumes, including the peanut he made so famous, to enrich the land further. Always more of an idea man than meticulous scientist, Carver created hundreds of products from what he was able to coax out of the earth in Tuskegee's agricultural station's fields--dyes and oil from peanuts, plastic from soybeans, flour from sweet potatoes. Carver's agricultural bulletins helped replace the South's boll weevil-blasted cotton with other marketable crops, and his "power alcohol" became the first bio-fuel. But it was as a visionary advocate for scientific farming and biochemical development of products that Carver became most famous. A gifted speaker and salesman for his ideas. always attired in his shabby suit with his ever-present flower in lapel, he testified before Congress and was a friend of Franklin Roosevelt and his secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, whom he had known as boy in Ames, Iowa.

In a chatty, casual narrative style, Cheryl Harness weaves George Washington Carver's amazing life story in and out of the events and personages of his times--from that other idea man, Thomas Edison, to Adolf Hitler. A clever feature of this biography is a progressively scrolling timeline at the bottom of each page to let the reader know what was going on in Carver's world at each stage of his life--the capture of Geronimo, the sinking of the Lusitania, the writing of Winnie the Pooh, the landing of Lucky Lindy, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and the Fermi team's first nuclear chain reaction at the Manhattan Project--a device which provides a window for young readers into the history of Carver's time. Back matter includes a "G. W. Carver Chronology," a timeline, "Science and Invention March On," and a full index. Cheryl Harness' fine pencil and ink drawings illustrate the text prolifically. The author sums up Carver's lasting contributions to American life thus:

More than anything, George was a teacher. He taught by example how an individual could live with dignity in an unfair world and how all individuals could practice good Earth-keeping. He was "green" before today's eco-champions were born. He showed folks how to recycle and build up their land naturally instead of using it to death, then standing helpless when soil washed or blew away. He showed how nature and mankind could co-exist in harmony....

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