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"Is the Radish Unconstitutional?" from Better Homes and Gardens

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Better Homes and Gardens
Is the Radish Unconstitutional?
by Ellis Parker Butler

I get these Amendments to the Constitution of the United States all mixed up in my mind, and I never know whether the Nineteenth is the one that created bootleggers or the one that gave my wife a chance to say, "Well, Ellis, who ought I to vote for this time?" or which is the Eighteenth, and when it comes to those with low numbers -- such as the Sixth or the Tenth -- I am all mixed up and never know which is which. But I do know a radish when I see one. Except when it is too much like a turnip.

As a matter of fact I don't worry much about the numeral names of the Amendments to the Constitution. I couldn't tell you, off hand, which was the Eighth Commandment of the Ten Commandments, or which was the Ninth, but I know the general contents of the whole ten of them rather well and, to the best of my ability, I try to avoid breaking any of them, and I feel the same way about the Amendments to the Constitution. A man who is going to break one of the Ten Commandments ought to be interested in knowing which he is going to break, or he might break the wrong one by mistake, but if a man decides to keep a commandment he doesn't care what its middle name is. In the same way a bootlegger ought to make mighty sure which Amendment to the Constitution he wants to break or he might go to a lot of trouble and get all fixed up to bring in a cargo of rum and then discover that the Amendment he had picked out was the one allowing his mother-in-law the right to vote for the man who is going to be defeated for the job of coroner. That man would be a mighty sick bootlegger, to say nothing of what his mother-in-law would do to him when he tried to keep her from voting.

I have eaten all sorts of radishes. I have eaten some in California that were white and about as long as a tallow candle but bigger around the waist, and they were crisp as celery hearts and juicy as oranges. I have eaten some in Iowa that were turnip shape and sweet as well-cured filberts. I have grown some here in Flushing that were like red bullets with white tails, and when you bit into them they exploded and blew the top of your head off, at the same time pouring three quarts of liquid red pepper down your throat and peeling the skin off your tongue, tonsils and epiglottis.

Probably the kind I grew were radishes that had reverted to their original and native state. Under my well-known "plant and pull" system of radish culture -- plant them in the spring and leave them alone until I pull them in the fall -- radishes probably revert to their savage state, becoming vicious and stunted, just as they were when they roamed around over the prairies before white men came to Oklahoma. The radish as grown by me on State Street, Flushing, was doubtless identical with the natural radish of the wide open spaces, before man grasped it firmly by its tail and began to educate it.

I will say, here and now, that anyone who ever bit into one of the original radishes that Nature first produced could have thought of nothing but improving the radish. I'll bet that when man pulled the first radish and saw its delicious coloring he thought he had discovered a new and more dainty apple; then he bit into it and thought he had bit into a wad of double-concentrated essence of Satan's realm. By the time he had stood for an hour with his mouth wide open, breathing air in and out like a panting dog, he had decided to do something to the radish, if only for revenge. He decided to amend the radish. By the time of the ancient Egyptians -- I'm talking real history now -- the radish had become a prized member of society. Originally the wild radish it had become the docile domestic radish. Originally the Raphanus Raphanistrum (or Radish-that-can-give-the-viper-cards-and-spades-and-sting-it-to-death) it had become Raphanus sativus (or Radish-that-coos-like-a-dove). These translations of the Latin names are my own but they are not guaranteed unless kept in a cool dry place.

Well, there it is! I was reading the other day that a group of people somewhere in the United States were jumping on a man because he had been breeding improved gladiolus. He was taking gladiolus and cross-fertilizing them and experimenting with them in one way or another and growing -- or trying to grow -- bigger and better gladiolus. These other people were crying out against him because he was monkeying with nature as nature was originally. To put it plainly, they said he was trying to improve the Creator's work, and that that was sinful.

All I can say about those people is that they never bit into a natural Raphanus Raphanistrum. Except that I might also say that they have probably bit into mighty few other things edible that are today as when they grew wild. Corn, oats, wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, apples, radishes, beets, cabbage, lettuce -- there is hardly a food grown today that would know its own ancestor. If we chucked away all the improved strains of vegetables, cereals and meat animals and went back to the original native varieties today I believe nine-tenths of the world's population would be dead of starvation in twelve months.

I think anyone with common sense and a little knowledge can see this quite plainly. Take wheat as an example. The wheat varieties of 1825 could not be made to grow one-tenth of a crop anywhere in all the vast wheat region of North America. Not only would the wheat of 1825 not produce even a "failure crop" stand of stalks, but the grain at the top end of the stalks would be small and sparse. The wheats of 1825 have been cross-fertilized and improved into the wheat of now. Wheat has been amended; there have not been any mere nineteen amendments to the -- wheat of the uncultivated plains of pre-historic days -- the latest improvement in winter wheat is probably the Two Millionth Amendment to Wheat.

I would hardly know where to go to find the unamended chickens of my boyhood. Probably they have been amended out of existence. When I was a boy I grew unamended chickens one solid year and at the end of the year I sold the whole remaining ancestry and progeny and got enough money to buy me one pair of carpet slippers. Chickens have been so much unproved that a man can now almost get a pair of hip boots for an egg.

The original potato was a hard little nubbin about the size of a walnut. The original orange was small and bitter. The original peach was the withered outer hull of the almond. The original apple was so hard that a man had to have steel plow-shares riveted on his front teeth before he could scrape enough off the apple to gag him with its bitterness. In all the myriads of beautiful flowers in the hundreds of thousands of gardens there is hardly one bloom that has not been amended to be more beautiful, to withstand severer climates or to battle against insect pests to greater advantage.

One of the things that was made when the general making was going on was man, and if there was any one desire that was put into man deep and lastingly it was the desire to start right in amending things. I would almost dare to say that the moment Adam and Eve were outside of the garden Adam called a meeting over a scrawny little gourd vine and said, "I move to amend the gourd vine by making it a squash vine." And probably Eve said, "I second the motion." Or, even more probably, what she said was, "I move to amend the amendment, Adam, because -- if we're going to change the gourd vine anyway, why don't we have a pumpkin vine, too?" The history of civilization is the history of irrigation -- the history of deserts. Man originally wandered here and there, sometimes grazing his tamed sheep, sometimes hunting and fishing and living off the country. These were "nomads" and "barbarians." The very word "civilization" implies civil life -- getting together in communities. When men grazed cattle or hunted and fished it was to their advantage to spread out over vast territories to get better grazing and to find better hunting. But some of the men and women got crowded into the desert places -- places like the desert on either bank of the Nile, or like Mesopotamia, the desert "between the rivers." It was in the desert, probably, that civilization began.

Now, you can't cultivate a desert without water, and you can't have water in a desert without irrigation, and you can't keep up irrigation flumes and ditches without staying right there where they are. And that is how communities began to be. When people remain in groups in one place there must be rules of life established, if only rules telling when and how the irrigation water may be used. And so come laws and civilization. All great arts have originated in deserts where the need of irrigation has held people in one locality.

But the minute you take a potato from the mountains and plant it in irrigated land something begins to happen to the potato. I was not present when the first little nubbin of a potato was first planted in the first irrigated desert garden, but I have seen seed corn rot when the rams were too long continued. Water may do one of two things -- it may increase a plant greatly in size or it may rot it. The first settlers in the desert may have been half-wits or morons but I doubt it; if they were they would not have studied irrigation, discovering that water made things grow. And if they were not halfwits they saw immediately that some potatoes did better in their irrigated fields than others did. It may have been that they saw that the small potatoes did not rot and that the big ones did rot. It is certain that they began almost at once selecting choice varieties, cross-fertilizing and improving. These things are as old as civilization: artificial selection and cross-fertilization to improve qualities.

The first thought of a man -- every man who is worth his salt and every woman who is worth her pepper -- is to amend something. If a woman can't think of anything else to amend she will amend her skirts until they are up to her knees and then amend them down to the ground again. If a man can't think of anything else to amend he will amend his whiskers --one year he will have a crop like a jungle and the next year he will amend every hair off his face. The only thing man has not done with his whiskers is to grow a new and improved brand -- say a large blue whisker with pink spots. You can't cross-fertilize whiskers. If we could there would certainly be some terrible whiskers floating in the breezes.

But the fact remains -- to leave nonsense aside and be just plain silly for a while -- that, since the world began, man has been driven by something placed in him -- and not put there by the Devil, either -- to amend everything with which he comes in contact, and then amend the amendment. The human soul inevitably says: "Whereas, I see one blade of grass growing, Be it resolved that I make two blades of grass grow in its stead." It says: "Whereas, I see an apple like a wart, Be it resolved that I work with said apple until it is the fairest fruit on which a beneficent sun ever shone and one a day of them will keep the doctor away." It says: "Whereas, Life has little enough beauty, Be it resolved that I try to make it more beautiful, and Whereas, the gladiolus -- pronounced with a long o and the accent on the o -- is a beautiful flower, Be it resolved that I try to make it more beautiful."

The impulse that makes man want to amend the laws of his nation is the same impulse as that which makes him want to amend the radish. It is not merely that variety is the spice of life but also that what meets the needs of today does not meet the needs of tomorrow. The tavern of long ago may have been a lesser town hall; the saloon of yesterday was a dirty hole. Amendment! The radish of 3987 B. C. may have been a useful projectile to fire out of slingshots at a snag-toothed troglodyte, but when all the troglodytes snag-toothed and otherwise -- are dead and gone the radish offers possibilities as a crisp and juicy addition to the dinner table. Amend it!

From the earliest periods recorded in the rocks the amendment of species has been going on. The birds and the bees have been cross-fertilizing flowers since there first were birds and bees. My botany says that flowers like the gladiolus seem to be doomed -- the so-called "composite" flowers are inheriting the earth -- the thistle, the dandelion, the paint brush and the greater ones of the same great family. These are the "community" flowers; the dandelion is, for example, hundreds of tiny flowers on one stem, banded together to display twenty or thirty showy petals to attract the insects to the whole community, just as all Southern California might put one booster advertisement in a newspaper to advertise a hundred towns.

This "amendment" by the flowers themselves has been going on for ages. You can see the progress yourself, if you wish -- the single lily on a stem; the row of blossoms on a stem, as in the gladiolus; the cluster of blossoms on a stem as in all the carrot family and Sweet William (phlox), and then the community flower, as in the dandelion. Already there are billions of tunes more dandelions than lilies. Sometimes I think there are billions of tunes more dandelions right here in my yard than there are lilies in all America, North, South and Central.

I don't fret at all because some man amends a gladiolus to make it more beautiful. I don't worry because an amendment to the radish is passed to make it more edible I favor letting the amenders of flowers, fruits and vegetables go right on improving them, and I would vote to give them our thanks It will be time enough when these amenders begin amending the stewed prune into a steel-jacketed rifle bullet or amending the pumpkin into an eighteen-inch shell with the pumpkin seeds amended into shrapnel.

I am nothing but grateful to the man who amended the untamed radish of the ages into the crisp and juicy earth-fruit it is now. The man who put over the Nineteenth Amendment to the Sweet Corn has my thanks. I congratulate the citizens who amended the gladiolus. But I do wish some progressive statesman of the Vegetable Party would get all heated up and do something in the way of an amendment to the parsnip I will support with my full vote any man who can amend the parsnip so that it will taste like food.

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"The impulse that makes man want to amend the laws of his nation is the same impulse as that which makes him want to amend the radish. It is not merely that variety is the spice of life but also that what meets the needs of today does not meet the needs of tomorrow. The tavern of long ago may have been a lesser town hall; the saloon of yesterday was a dirty hole. Amendment! The radish of 3987 B. C. may have been a useful projectile to fire out of slingshots at a snag-toothed troglodyte, but when all the troglodytes -- snag-toothed and otherwise -- are dead and gone the radish offers possibilities as a crisp and juicy addition to the dinner table. Amend it!"


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