Pomegranate Roads by Dr. Gregory M. Levin
A Soviet Botanist's Exile from EdenEven if you live in an area where pomegranates do not grow this book will still touch you. It is an intimate accounting by an extraordinary man. Dr. Gregory M. Levin survived the siege of Leningrad as a child, enduring great hardship and loss. During those dark times, he boiled pine needles to treat his mother for scurvy and scrabbled in the parks and yards for edible mushrooms, berries and roots. He was determined to acquire an education despite discrimination because he was Jewish. His patience and grit were finally rewarded and he was assigned as a botanist to a remote Soviet agricultural post at Garrigala, in what is now Turkmenistan. There he would meet his wife and they spent the next 40 years researching the plants of the area, despite harsh conditions, political suspicions and few resources.
Through the years, he spent countless hours searching for many plants in central Asia, but the pomegranate became his consuming passion. With meager resources and restricted travel he managed to put together a collection of 1,117 different varieties of pomegranates. Each one was meticulously documented and everything from fruit color, frost hardiness, number of fruits each season, to drought tolerance was dutifully researched, compared and recorded. Field trips to locate new plants consisted of third-world public transportation, horseback or foot travel. Few hotels were available, so it wasn't unusual to spend the night outdoors or in the humble dwellings of the local population.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, funds dried up for the operation of the station. Existing on practically nothing, the station clung to life for nearly a decade, but the situation was grim. Journalist Barbara Baer of Floreant Press heard an interview with Dr. Levin on the radio and he made such a passionate plea to listeners that she felt moved to visit this forgotten outpost at the edge of civilization. Wading through oceans of red tape and uncertain political climates, she finally found herself in Turkmenistan, but was only allowed as far as the capital, Ashgabat. The Eden at Garrigala was forbidden and Dr. Levin had immigrated to Israel.
Despair faded to a bittersweet ache as Dr. Makmud Isar, the current station director arrived. He rode a bus all night to meet her and brought two paper bags filled with pomegranates from the gardens she would never see. The pomegranate orchards are now long-gone, turned under by the omnipotent government that deemed the land better for growing cotton. With the help of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, Barbara finally located Dr. Levin in Israel and the result is this wonderful account of dedication, fervor, hardship and perseverance. Many of his pomegranate varieties were saved by dedicated scientists and now grace research stations and home gardens around the world.
Anyone who is passionate about a plant or their gardens can relate, and even though the book is about this singular man's research regarding pomegranates, all gardeners will understand his fervor. The book is in his words and a few gardeners will be unfamiliar with some of the technical terms. However, the story shines through, glistening like the ruby red arils in the bowl beside me as I write this review. It is an honor to have it in my library.
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