The Earth

Here on our farm, my husband and I have chosen wood as our sole source of heat. Our house is kept warm and cozy by the wood stove in the living room. In an average heating season the stove consumes three cords of mixed hardwoods, all from our land.

Fortunately, we have about 30 acres of forest, so there’s never a shortage of firewood. Now, you don’t need to own 30 acres of woods to be self-sufficient in firewood. In most regions of the United States a woodlot of three acres is adequate. If available land is limited, firewood can be grown along roads, streams, edges of fields, stone fences, property lines or surrounding the house, as a windbreak or privacy screen. A small woodlot that is well planned and properly maintained is far more productive (per acre) than a large one that is neglected.

The mental attitude with which you approach the woodlot will determine how much firewood you can get from it. Many wood burners unconsciously see themselves as “hunters and gatherers” rather than producers of firewood. As a result, they cruise through the woods, chainsaw in hand, hunting only for their most-favored species (say, oak) and gathering everything they can find of burnable size in those species.

To get into the mindset of being a producer of firewood, I think it’s helpful to conceive of the forest as an “energy orchard”. Generally speaking, the principles and practices of managing a fruit orchard apply to the woodlot, whether you’re planting a new one or improving an existing stand of trees. Your goal is to produce a continuous supply of trees that is self-sustaining far into the future. To do this, you need to assure that the amount of new growth each year is at least equal to the amount harvested as fuel. This means, first and foremost, that you need to know about – and care about – the ecology of the forest. The ideal “energy orchard” consists of a wide variety of trees of all sizes and ages. It contains seedlings of many species just beginning to grow, as well as mature trees ready for cutting. There should be an even distribution of trees in varying stages of growth, so that the harvest can be continuous year in and year out.

In addition to having a variety of trees of differing ages, the plot should include a mixed planting of species with different rates of growth (see chart #l). This will provide a measure of insurance against an attack of insects and diseases that could wipe out an entire forest if planted to a single species. The spacing between trees should be sufficient to give access to sunlight, but not so spread out that space is under-utilized, or that “wolf” trees – with widespread, dense foliage – prevent other trees from developing.

Careful planning and decision-making are especially crucial in woodlot management. In starting a new woodlot or improving an existing one a key decision is the selection of trees to be planted. You want diversity, so choosing is more complicated. Be sure to plant at least five or six different species, even if one or two kinds predominate. Some things you’ll want to take into consideration are the burn characteristics of the different woods, fast vs. slow growing species, and species which are tolerant of crowding.

Burn Characteristics. In general deciduous trees are classed as “hardwood” while conifers are “softwood”. But some so-called hardwoods are softer and lighter than some softwood. Wood burners favor the denser hardwoods, which burn slow and hot, and produce lots of long-lasting red coals. In our area locust and red oak are highly prized for this. We keep a separate pile of “overnighters” (large diameter), which are put in the stove at bedtime. The next morning we need only to add more logs to the coals – no need to use kindling.

But firewood in all sizes and density has its special uses. Pine, poplar and dogwood are great for heating the house fast after the stove has been left untended too long. I find that it’s a good practice to burn slow and fast-burning wood together. Some of the densest wood burns well only when supported by the flames of the softer woods. (See Chart #2). For a quantitative measure of the different woods, it is good to compare their output of heat in BTU’s. As Chart #3 shows, hardwoods produce almost equal amounts of heat on a weight basis, but vary more widely in BTU/cord, which is measured by volume (one cord is 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, 8 feet long). Obviously, beech and red oak weigh more than the others and thus have the highest BTU’s per cord.

Fast vs. Slow Growing. You’ll want to plant both fast and slow growing trees, not only for diversity’s sake, but in order to maximize the value of total firewood harvest. In general the faster growing trees have more air space between the cells, are lighter in weight and will have a shorter burn-time. The slower growing species are denser and heavier, so they burn more slowly and produce better coals. There are exceptions to the rule, however. Note that in Chart #1, Rock Elm is a fast grower with a very high heat value. But the BTU/cord measure can be misleading, if the goal is to produce the most firewood (in BTU’s) from a given area. As Chart #3 indicates, the fast growing Hybrid Poplar has a much lower value in BTU/cord, but because it produces three to five times as many cords each year as the others, its BTU/acre per year figure is the highest by far.

Planting. Choose the location of the woodlot carefully. If you have the room, plant in blocks or wide strips, to encourage a slightly crowded condition. As the trees reach upward for the light, they produce more usable wood, faster. A good way to start is to plant 1200 trees per acre and periodically thin out the trees to increase the growth. The thinning can be used for firewood. Leave some trees to grow to maturity in 10 to 20 years.

Land that is too steep or rocky to be farmed can be excellent for firewood production. When locating the woodlot keep in mind the need for access at harvest time and avoid low, wet areas. As a bonus, a woodlot will provide excellent erosion control in the area planted and can increase the aesthetic appeal of the land.

Weeding. The competition for available nutrients, moisture and sunlight is as fierce in the woodlot as in the garden. So, in order to give every advantage to the trees you intend to harvest, remove defective, deformed and undesirable trees. Although diversity is important, it may become necessary to keep at a minimum or even eliminate certain species. Sassafras and Ailanthus are the most unwanted trees in our woods. They are extremely prolific, grow fast, and crowd out everything else. We root Ailanthus out on sight, but it’s a never-ending battle, since they sprout from runners.

Hedgerows and Coppices. The handsdown winner when it comes to BTU production per acre/year is the combination of methods invented and developed in Europe over centuries of practice. When a mature tree is felled, its massive roots do not die. Many hardwood species will produce sprouts from the trunk (see Chart #4). Since there is such an extensive existing root system, the growth rate is several times faster than a planted tree.

Managing sprouts is called coppicing. A coppice is literally, a sprout forest. If left to nature, a cutover area would soon become a thicket of brush, rather than useable firewood. In coppicing, no more than two sprouts are allowed to grow, forcing all of the energy of the roots into them.

In order to promote quick growth, the stumps – or stools as they are called – must receive lots of sunshine. This observation led Europeans to plant in hedgerows rather than in a block. Hedgerows are always less than 50 feet wide, to permit ample sunshine to reach the innermost trees. They are often planted as windbreaks between open fields and located along roads, banks of streams, stone fences, property lines, and surrounding a house as a privacy screen or windbreak.

The stools must be carefully prepared to foster strouting by making a smooth cut, on a slant, across the entire stump. The stump should be cut one-foot off the ground with no jagged surface, thus discouraging the stump from collecting water and rotting. Harvest should only be in late fall or winter to promote rapid regrowth. If done in spring, as the sap is rising, the tree will bleed heavily and lose much of its energy.

In the woodlot it is advisable to wait until the tree is almost fully mature before cutting. While in the hedgerow it is best to harvest the firewood before the trunk reaches five inches DBH (Diameter, Breast High). Beyond this size, trees start to produce seeds, and divert their energy from sucker growth to seed production.

Being able to grow your own firewood is challenging and rewarding, but most of all there is a sense of security knowing that you have control over your own fuel supply.

Chart #1:
Heat Equivalent (BTU/Cord)
Growth Rate Species Very High High Medium Low
Slow Apple X
Slow Beech X
Slow Birch X
Slow Hemlock X
Slow Hickory X
Slow Hornbeam X
Slow Oak X
Slow Walnut, Black X
Medium Ash, White, Black X
Medium Basswood X
Medium Butternut X
Medium Dogwood X
Medium Cherry, Black X
Medium Fir, Balsam X
Medium Locust X
Medium Maple
Medium Sugar, Red X
Medium Spruce, Red X
Fast Ash, Green X
Fast Elm, Rock X
Fast Maple, Silver X
Fast Pine X
Fast Poplar X
Fast Sycamore X
Fast Tuliptree X
Fast Willow X

Chart #2:
Apple Very dense hardwood considered among the best as firewood. Excellent coaling qualities for cooking and long-lasting fires.
Ash White ash is an excellent firewood with higher BTU value per cord than black or green ash. Grows well on poor soil. Black ash also does well on wet soil.
Beech Very slow grower and difficult to split. Very susceptible to disease.
Birch Excellent wood, high in BTUs. Some birch can be used in hedgerows because it has a tendency to sucker. Gray birch is suitable for wet soil.
Cherry, Wild Black Suckers freely and grows quickly, excellent for coppices. Burns with colorful flames.
Conifers Not good heat producer. Best used for fast fires or when mixed with other wood. Excellent for kindling. Watch out for flying sparks when used in open fire.
Dogwood Good firewood, high in BTU’s. Excellent in hedgerows and regenerates easily when a stump is left. Low growing tree.
Elm Rock elm is high in BTU’s and a slow burner. Does best in a mixed fire. Easy to transplant and quick to be established.
Hornbeam Very slow grower. Hard, tough, heavy wood, has dulled many saws and axes. Great as a heat producer.
Locust Black locust makes excellent firewood, more BTU’s than oak. Excellent hedgerows and coppices.
Maple Sugar maple is the best heat producer. Red maple grows well on poor soil and in damp places. Silver maple sends up suckers, is good in hedgerows, works fine for coppicing, but is susceptible to decay.
Oak Excellent firewood, great in BTU’s. Hardy, strong-wooded, long-lived and relatively free of serious insect and fungus troubles.
Popular, Hybrid Among the fastest growing wood for firewood. Regenerates very well from stumps. Grows over a wide area from 20 degrees below zero to northern Georgia. Can burn green when hot fire is maintained. Good tree to grow for reforestation of old fields, cutover areas, strip mines and worn out soil. Long-lived, grows five to eight feet per year. Harvest firewood four to five years from planting.
Sycamore Grows well in most of the country. Rapid grower. Sprouts from roots. Moderate BTU’s, but good quality wood.
Tuliptree One of the tallest of native trees. Fast growing, resprouts well. Grows well in most of the country except northern most regions. Fair quality wood with low BTU’s.

Chart #3:
Species Heat Value BTU/lb Heat Value BTU/cord* Growth Rate** Cord/Acre per Year BTU per Acre/Year Years to Harvest
Ash 8500 25,800,000 Medium 0.75 19,400,000 8-10
Beech 8600 28,900,000 Slow 0.50 14,450,000 10-15
Red Maple 8200 22,300,000 Medium 0.75 16,700,000 8-10
Red Oak 8300 27,200,000 Slow 0.50 13,700,000 10-15
Hybrid Poplar 8600 18,500,000 Fast 2.50 46,200,000 4-5

Chart #4:
Ash, Green Hickory Sycamore
Birch Locust Tuliptree
Cherry, Wild Black Maple, Silver Willow
Dogwood Oak
Elm Poplar


Frank Browning’s lifelong fascination with apples began on his parents’ orchard in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. In Apples he charmingly demonstrates why this mysterious fruit continues to tempt and delight us.

Throughout Western memory, the apple has been the fruit of trouble, immortality, and temptation: Paris and the Trojan War; Nordic Loki and the apples of eternal life; and, of course, that infamous couple in the Garden. Browning leads us on a beguiling tour through the primal myths of the world’s most popular fruit and then explains that the first apples appeared in Kazakhstan on the slopes of the Heavenly Mountains. He visits the apple germ-plasm repository in Geneva, New York, and describes the powerful effects of genetic engineering on the apples of the future. In Wenatchee, Washington, world capital of apple growing, he meets Mr. Granny Smith and learns about the apple’s niche in the global marketplace, before setting off to sample Calvados from the pot stiffs of Normandy and cider from Somerset.

For the more practically inclined, Browning includes a selective listing of apple varieties, basic instructions for planting a backyard orchard, and a selection of beloved apple recipes from around the world.

Frank Browning, whose previous books include The Culture of Desire and A Queer Geography, grows apples and ferments cider in Wallingford, Kentucky. He also reports for National Public Radio from New York City.

“Apples represent one of the oldest and closest links between nature and culture. Frank Browning blends colorful stories, extensive travel, useful information, and a history of culture into this savory winesap of a book.” –Roger Shattuck, Author of Forbidden Knowledge

“What Cezanne did in paints, Frank Browning does in words, making you see, touch, feel, taste an apple for the very first time, like Eve on the verge of discovery, risking paradise for just one bite.” –Betty Fussell, Author of The Story of Corn


Prologue 3
ONE Perseverance, Pests, and Perversity 13
TWO In Search of the Primeval Apple Forest 36
THREE The Pursuit of Paradise 63
FOUR Genetic Promiscuity, Biotech, and Suicide 89
FIVE Reds and Grannies and Seek-No-Further 121
SIX Cider: Lifeblood of the Heathen Apple 149
SEVEN Pomona’s Prospect 185
APPENDIX I Twenty (or so) Prize Apples 213
APPENDIX II Back-Yard Orchards 221
APPENDIX III A Few Good Recipes from Around the World 225
References 237

The following is an excerpt from the book Apples by Frank Browning.
Published by North Point Press; 0-86547-537-7; $24.00; Sept. 98
Copyright © 1998 Frank Browning

Late one August evening in 1992, when I was living in San Francisco, I found myself scrolling through the electronic card catalogue of the University of California. The university was closed, but a laptop computer and a telephone line kept its vast cataloguing system perennially open. Obsession, insomnia, and the byzantine tracking system of the UC library had converged that summer, leading me into one of the most arcane, and yet obvious, branches of apple lore: the search for the apple’s true birthplace.

I knew already that a modest disagreement had lingered for more than a century over the origins of the apple. Only a few Christian fundamentalists continued to insist that the apple came from “the Holy Lands.” Waverley Root, the estimable food historian and author of Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, declared that the first apples grew near the Baltic Sea, but he declined to elaborate on the “etymological evidence” he relied upon for his conclusion. Referring to fossils and carbonized remains of apples in prehistoric Swiss and Celtic settlements, he dismissed the conventional notion that the Romans introduced apples to northern Europe. Oddly, he seemed thoroughly unaware that geneticists have identified more than a dozen distinct species of apple, whose homes range from British Columbia to Sichuan Province, and that these prehistoric remains may bear no relation to the sweet table apples of the Romans.

Within horticulture, biologists and naturalists have pursued their own debate about the apple’s origins: either southwest Asia, in the Caucasus Mountains, or south-central Asia, on the slopes of the enormous range that separates China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Both areas were crossed by the great Silk Route that brought the charms of the Orient to the early cultures of the Mediterranean.

I also knew that the world-renowned Russian geneticist Nicholai Vavilov had visited both the Caucasus and Kazakhstan and favored the latter as the site of the modern edible apple’s origin. But it was hard to find much of Vavilov’s work in English, which was why I was spending my evenings wandering about the library’s electronic nervous system. There seem to be certain unwritten, mysterious laws about electronic library catalogues. Never once did my tapped-out inquiry deliver quite the same menu of references as it had previously.

This time I asked for any title, subject, or author with the name “Vavilov” in it. The first fifteen or twenty listings were in Russian, followed by a few journal articles in English published during the 1920s (most of these concerned grains). Then came item 32. It stood apart from the rest: The Vavilov Affair.

What sort of “affair” could this starched-collar geneticist have been involved in? A few lines into the synopsis came another flag: “Foreword by Andrei Sakharov.” What possible interest could the famous dissident and human rights activist have in a long-dead scientist?

For the next week I set everything else aside, roaming deeper into the library. I searched through old newspaper clippings and requested musty journals long since dispatched to the library’s storage archives twenty miles away. Vavilov, it turned out, had traveled by mule train across southern Asia and, upon arriving in Alma-Ata, pronounced the Kazakh capital the origin of the earth’s edible apples. The reason for Andrei Sakharov’s interest was that Vavilov, who had identified the birth sites of more plants than anyone in history, died a grisly death in a Soviet prison, the victim of the Soviet Union’s worst scientific scandal.

A few days later I learned that a small team of American agricultural researchers had opened new contacts with a group of Kazakh scientists who had quietly carried on Vavilov’s work. In fact, the Americans told me, there was a remarkable octogenarian, a Kazakh native who had devoted his life to studying the vast apple forests of Kazakhstan. The man’s name was Djangaliev, and his team was even now on a field expedition into the forests. Perhaps, they said, I should contact him, though the only number they had was his institute’s fax number in Alma-Ata.

Two weeks later, I was on an Aeroflot jumbo jet flying from Moscow to Alma-Ata. Eighty-year-old men don’t live forever, I reasoned, and apples, even wild apples, ripen only once a year. The best time to visit a wild apple forest was when the fruit was ripening on the tree.

Time is often confusing to first-time flyers in the old Soviet Union. My flight was scheduled to leave Moscow at 2 p.m. and arrive in Alma-Ata at 5:30, which it almost did, except that after three hours in the air, it was obvious we were still at maximum altitude and nowhere near the mountain range at the eastern end of Kazakhstan. No one had told me that Aeroflot listed all departures and arrivals in Moscow time-even for a two-thousand-mile flight to a city whose local time was three time zones later. At 8:30 the fat, loose-jointed jumbo jet rolled to a stop behind an attractive one-story building slightly smaller than the terminal in Lexington, Kentucky.

Dusk was losing its last light as I walked down into the plane’s cargo bay and picked up my bag from the wooden luggage racks (I’d been advised that prudent Aeroflot passengers never check their bags). Inside the Intourist lounge a small greeting party awaited my arrival. A man with graying hair and expectant eyes stepped forward.

“Mr. Browning,” he said, emphasizing the g, rather the way some New Yorkers say “Longuyland.” He thrust his thick, sturdy hands out to grasp mine. Quickly his interpreter, a blond fortyish woman with matching everything–eyeliner, purse, shoes, nails–stepped up.

“I am Gallina Alexandrovna and this is Dr. Aimak Djangaliev. We would like to welcome you to Alma-Ata.” Beside her stood Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Ecology, the chief of the National Forest Service, another assistant, and of course the driver.

I was the first Western Journalist Djangaliev had ever met.

Aimak Djangaliev was four years old when the Russian Revolution swept through the northern plains of Kazakhstan. His father, a prosperous sheepherder who could neither read nor write, had owned a large two-story house and commanded the respect of his seminomadic community until it was collectivized by the Bolsheviks. Through the eighty years Dr. Djangaliev had lived when I met him in 1992, he had survived the promises and torments of revolution, the purges and tortures of the Stalinist terror, the desperation and heroics of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany, the steady, soul-numbing encroachment of the Brezhnev bureaucracy, and the final collapse of the horrible and wondrous edifice that had been the Soviet Union. Except during the war years and his time at the university, he had devoted himself to his “great passion,” the study and preservation of the world’s original apple forests on the slopes of Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan, or Heavenly Mountains. It was in these forests, thick groves of trees that meander on for hundreds of miles, that Djangaliev escaped Stalin’s agents and eventually won renown for his work. Before I arrived in Alma-Ata, my American contacts had subtly warned me to be prepared for a difficult but remarkable man whose tough ego had been the source of his salvation.

Alma-Ata (pronounced Alma A-TAH) sits between two rushing glacial streams, the Greater and the Lesser Almatinka Rivers, that have their headwaters high in the snow-packed peaks to the southeast and disappear into a haze in the vast, and center of the country. The name Alma-Ata, which means “father of apples,” was invented by the Russians after the revolution (and changed to Almaty in 1994, three years after Kazakh independence). It had been a trading center on the Silk Route at least since the time of Alexander the Great. Imperial Russia staked out a military post there midway through the nineteenth century and gradually imported Cossack forces to hold it in the name of the czar. In those days the deep ravines and undulating slopes were blanketed by forests of apples and apricots. Green, red, yellow, rusty orange–large and sweet, small and bitter–apples ruled the land, and their forests set the acidity of the soil, made peace with specific herbs and flowers, attracted the birds and bears and antelope that would spread their seeds far and wide. That is how it appeared to Djangaliev when he was a boarding-school student there in the 1920s.

By 1992, however, when he was showing me his gardens and forests, Djangaliev could barely contain his rage and disgust at what three generations of Russian planners and bureaucrats had done to his precious fruit forest. He and his wife, Tatiana, a specialist in wild apricots, took me out to an orchard where forty years earlier he had transplanted one particularly promising strain of wild apple trees. From the smooth, tight appearance of the bark, the vigor of new growth, the size of the crop on them, these trees looked to be no more than a third their actual age. He said he had never pruned them, irrigated them, or fertilized them. The nearly ripe fruit varied in size, but much of it was as fine-skinned and colorful as New England McIntosh.

Djangaliev could see that I was struck by their appearance, and he had a good deal to tell me about these trees, but first he tugged me and his translator over to a clear space where we could see more clearly into the mountains. He began pointing with powerful gestures up to them. He was a tall man, as many Kazakhs are, and his shoulders were still sturdy and broad. The bones in his wrists were wide. His fist seemed fierce.

“If you look at the mountain over there, you’ll see some dachas, some small buildings. This is one of the ways of destroying wild forests.”

He was upset and wanted me, the American Journalist, to know it.

“So people remove fertile land and build houses there. Well, if we treat our nature like that we’ll have nothing in future, will we? The representatives of bureaucratic classes, some rich people, built their dachas in the mountains.”

Now he was railing.

“They never give it a thought who produced this fragrant air and who is responsible for the beauty and fertile land. So they begin destroying it.”

These were the weekend and summer cabins of the elite of Alma-Ata. Each one had a quarter or a half acre of land, tied to the highways by crude gravel drives. Already we could see hundreds of dachas; at the current construction rate there would soon be thousands. Once Western developers set to work on the pristine ski slopes just above the dacha zone, it could come to resemble Vail or Steamboat Springs.

Djangaliev is not a sentimental preservationist. He is proud of the modern industrial world the Kazakhs have built and of the productivity of modem Kazakh agriculture. He takes particular pride in the fact that, all through World War II, Kazakhstan turned itself into the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, that Kazakh grain nourished him and the troops with whom he fought on the western front. And, though he had a torturous life with the Communist Party, he retains a grain of the Marxian faith in progress and the force of history. His angst over the steady destruction of the apple forests derives from his conviction that, without such natural preserves, science and progress will be stymied.

As we stood there in the late August afternoon, he led me over to one of the wild apple trees he transplanted in 1949. The apples on this tree are medium-sized and without blemish. “This one I call Krasota [or Beauty],” he said, nodding his head to me, his gray eyes opening wide. That is also the name of his mother and his granddaughter, his interpreter, Gallina, explained.

This apple, Beauty, which he has studied for four decades, he hopes might become vital breeding stock in the future of Kazakh horticulture. It seems resistant to many of the standard apple diseases, offers good commercial potential, and requires no irrigation to reach moderate size. Its botanical name is Malus niedvetskyana number 49. A few rows away is another variety, Malus sieversii number 1001. This one is a large, dusky-green apple, and it grows from the tips of long willowlike limbs attached to short, stocky trunks. It may also possess special breeding qualities, he believes.

Djangaliev’s counterparts in the United States and Europe are not so confident that these particular varieties will change the shape of contemporary fruit growing, nor do they consider Malus niedvetskyana a species distinct from Malus sieversii, the basic Kazakh apple. But they agree that these lower slopes of the Tian Shan and another vast, almost untouched region to the northeast of Alma-Ata called the Dzungarian Alps constitute the center of origin for the ancestors of nearly all the apples we eat today. For horticultural scientists, that is vital information. Because the apple, or Malus, has survived so long on these slopes, and because until recently it has been undisturbed by man, it has retained rich genetic diversity. The modern apples we find at fruit stands and supermarkets represent but a tiny slice of all the possible apples that have existed in the world. They are the descendants of thousands of years of selection for color, size, shape, and growth habits. But they are also the chance descendants of the fruit and seedlings carried by travelers of the Silk Route and wild birds and animals that ate the fruit and scattered the seed as it passed through their digestive tracts. The apples that reached Persia, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and eventually central and northern Europe contain less than 15 to 20 percent of the genetic material found in these ancient Asian forests. Locked away in the genetic codes of that other 80 percent are the still unexplored possibilities of what an apple might become: Apples resistant to rots and blights and insects. Apples untouched by deep killing freezes. Apples of tantalizing yet unknown taste. Apples possessed of deep, rich skin tannins and tingling fresh fragrances that could be the basis of new untasted wines and ciders.

Even an afternoon’s walk through those sun-dappled, grovelike forests reveals a variety of wild fruit that the European or American wanderer has never imagined. It is almost like a journey back into an unkempt primordial garden.

Djangaliev wanted me to see, touch, smell these forests as quickly as possible, to absorb viscerally the intense “appleness” of this place called “father of apples.” The next day he arranged for one of his expeditionary teams to pick me up for its trek into the mountains.

Copyright © 1998 Frank Browning

A Man In Full

‘The book isn’t anti-Atlanta, and it’s not pro-Atlanta, just as Bonfire of the Vanities wasn’t anti-New York or pro-New York. . . .What I’ve always been swept up in is the great journey of journalism, of discovery, what I call the objectivity of egotism. It’s always been more important to me to discover something new in what I’m writing about and put it into brilliant prose than to make any political point on earth.’ —

Tom Wolfe – Interviewed in The New York Times, November 11, 1998

The highly anticipated novel from the bestselling author of The Bonfires of the Vanities and Ambush at Fort Bragg, Tom Wolfe, the prime chronicler of America at its most outrageous and alive. The master is back with a pitch-perfect, coast-to-coast portrait of our wild and woolly, no-holds-barred, multifarious country on the cusp of the millennium. Bold, caustic, and hilarious, sparing no one as it winningly dissects our insatiable greed, vanity, and hunger for bearings, this book speaks volumes about the way people live now.

Read an excerpt from “A Man In Full”

Prologue: Cap’m Charlie
Charlie Croker, astride his favorite Tennessee walking horse, pulled his shoulders back to make sure he was erect in the saddle and took a deep breath . . . Ahhhh, that was the ticket . . . He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was. Everybody; not just his seven guests but also his six black retainers and his young wife, who was on a horse behind him near the teams of La Mancha mules that pulled the buckboard and the kennel wagon. For good measure, he flexed and fanned out the biggest muscles of his back, the latissimi dorsi, in a Charlie Croker version of a peacock or a turkey preening. His wife, Serena, was only twenty-eight, whereas he had just turned sixty and was bald on top and had only a swath of curly gray hair on the sides and in back. He seldom passed up an opportunity to remind her of what a sturdy cord no, what a veritable cable kept him connected to the rude animal vitality of his youth.

By now they were already a good mile away from the Big House and deep into the plantation’s seemingly endless fields of broom sedge. This late in February, this far south in Georgia, the sun was strong enough by 8 a.m. to make the ground mist lift like wisps of smoke and create a heavenly green glow in the pine forests and light up the sedge with a tawny gold. Charlie took another deep breath . . . Ahhhhhh . . . the husky aroma of the grass . . . the resinous air of the pines . . . the heavy, fleshy odor of all his animals, the horses, the mules, the dogs . . . Somehow nothing reminded him so instantly of how far he had come in his sixty years on this earth as the smell of the animals. Turpmtine Plantation! Twenty-nine thousand acres of prime southwest Georgia forest, fields, and swamp! And all of it, every square inch of it, every beast that moved on it, all fifty-nine horses, all twenty-two mules, all forty dogs, all thirty-six buildings that stood upon it, plus a mile-long asphalt landing strip, complete with jet-fuel pumps and a hangar all of it was his, Cap’m Charlie Croker’s, to do with as he chose, which was: to shoot quail.

His spirits thus buoyed, he turned to his shooting partner, a stout brick-faced man named Inman Armholster, who was abreast of him on another of his walking horses, and said:

“Inman, I’m gonna—”

But Inman, with a typical Inman Armholster bluster, cut him off and insisted on resuming a pretty boring disquisition concerning the upcoming mayoral race in Atlanta: “Listen, Charlie, I know Jordan’s got charm and party manners and he talks white and all that, but that doesn’t” dud’n”mean he’s any friend of . . .”

Charlie continued to look at him, but he tuned out. Soon he was aware only of the deep, rumbling timbre of Inman’s voice, which had been smoke-cured the classic Southern way, by decades of Camel cigarettes, unfiltered. He was an odd-looking duck, Inman was. He was in his mid-fifties but still had a head of thick black hair, which began low on his forehead and was slicked back over his small round skull. Everything about Inman was round. He seemed to be made of a series of balls piled one atop the other. His buttery cheeks and jowls seemed to rest, without benefit of a neck, upon the two balls of fat that comprised his chest, which in turn rested upon a great swollen paunch. Even his arms and legs, which looked much too short, appeared to be made of spherical parts. The down-filled vest he wore over his hunting khakis only made him look that much rounder. Nevertheless, this ruddy pudge was chairman of Armaxco Chemical and about as influential a businessman as existed in Atlanta. He was this weekend’s prize pigeon, as Charlie thought of it, at Turpmtine. Charlie desperately wanted Armaxco to lease space in what so far was the worst mistake of his career as a real estate developer, a soaring monster he had megalomaniacally named Croker Concourse.

“—gon’ say Fleet’s too young, too brash, too quick to play the race card. Am I right?”

Suddenly Charlie realized Inman was asking him a question. But other than the fact that it concerned Andre Fleet, the black “activist,” Charlie didn’t have a clue what it was about.

So he went, “Ummmmmmmmmmmm.”

Inman apparently took this to be a negative comment, because he said, “Now, don’t give me any a that stuff from the smear campaign. I know there’s people going around calling him an out-and-out crook. But I’m telling you, if Fleet’s a crook, then he’s my kinda crook.”

Charlie was beginning to dislike this conversation, on every level. For a start, you didn’t go out on a beautiful Saturday morning like this on the next to last weekend of the quail season and talk politics, especially not Atlanta politics. Charlie liked to think he went out shooting quail at Turpmtine just the way the most famous master of Turpmtine, a Confederate Civil War hero named Austin Roberdeau Wheat, had done it a hundred years ago; and a hundred years ago nobody on a quail hunt at Turpmtine would have been out in the sedge talking about an Atlanta whose candidates for mayor were both black. But then Charlie was honest with himself. There was more. There was . . . Fleet. Charlie had had his own dealings with Andre Fleet, and not all that long ago, either, and he didn’t feel like being reminded of them now or, for that matter, later.

So this time it was Charlie who broke in:

“Inman, I’m gonna tell you something I may regret later on, but I’m gonna tell you anyway, ahead a time.”

After a couple of puzzled blinks Inman said, “All right . . . go ahead.”

“This morning,” said Charlie, “I’m only gonna shoot the bobs.” Morning came out close to moanin’, just as something had come out sump’m. When he was here at Turpmtine, he liked to shed Atlanta, even in his voice. He liked to feel earthy, Down Home, elemental; which is to say, he was no longer merely a real estate developer, he was . . . a man.

“Only gon’ shoot the bobs, hunh,” said Inman. “With that?”

He gestured toward Charlie’s .410-gauge shotgun, which was in a leather scabbard strapped to his saddle. The spread of buckshot a .410 fired was smaller than any other shotgun’s, and with quail the only way you could tell a bob from a hen was by a patch of white on the throat of a bird that wasn’t much more than eight inches long to start with.

“Yep,” said Charlie, grinning, “and remember, I told you ahead a time.”

“Yeah? I’ll tell you what,” said Inman. “I’ll betcha you can’t. I’ll betcha a hundred dollars.”

“What kinda odds you gon’ give me?”

“Odds? You’re the one who brought it up! You’re the one staking out the bragging rights! You know, there’s an old saying, Charlie: `When the tailgate drops, the bullshit stops.'”

“All right,” said Charlie, “a hundred dollars on the first covey, even Stephen.” He leaned over and extended his hand, and the two of them shook on the bet.

Immediately he regretted it. Money on the line. A certain deep worry came bubbling up into his brain. PlannersBanc! Croker Concourse! Debt! A mountain of it! But real estate developers like him learned to live with debt, didn’t they . . . It was a normal condition of your existence, wasn’t it . . . You just naturally grew gills for breathing it, didn’t you . . . So he took another deep breath to drive the spurt of panic back down again and flexed his big back muscles once more.

Charlie was proud of his entire physique, his massive neck, his broad shoulders, his prodigious forearms; but above all he was proud of his back. His employees here at Turpmtine called him Cap’m Charlie, after a Lake Seminole fishing-boat captain from a hundred years ago with the same name, Charlie Croker, a sort of Pecos Bill figure with curly blond hair who, according to local legend, had accomplished daring feats of strength. There was a song about him, which some of the old folks knew by heart. It went: “Charlie Croker was a man in full. He had a back like a Jersey bull. Didn’t like okra, didn’t like pears. He liked a gal that had no hairs. Charlie Croker! Charlie Croker! Charlie Croker!”

Whether or not there had actually existed such a figure, Charlie had never been able to find out. But he loved the idea, and he often said to himself what he was saying to himself at this moment: “Yes! I got a back like a Jersey bull!” In his day he had been a star on the Georgia Tech football team. Football had left him with a banged-up right knee, that had turned arthritic about three years ago. He didn’t associate that with age, however. It was an honorable wound of war. One of the beauties of a Tennessee walking horse was that its gait spared you from having to post, to pump up and down at the knees when the horse trotted. He wasn’t sure he could take posting on this chilly February morning.

The two shooters, Charlie and Inman, rode on in silence for a while, listening to the creaking of the wagons and the clip-clopping of the mules and the snorts of the horses of the outriders and waiting for some signal from Moseby.

You could hear the low voice of one of the buckboard drivers saying, “Buckboard One to base . . . Buckboard One to base . . .” There was a radio transmitter under the driver’s seat. “Base” was the overseer’s office, back near the Big House. Buckboard One . . . Charlie hoped Inman and Ellen and the Morrisseys and the Stannards got the drift of that and were reminded that he had sent out four shooting parties this morning, four sets of weekend guests, with four buckboards (Buckboards One, Two, Three, and Four), four kennel wagons, four dog trainers, four sets of outriders, four of everything . . . Turpmtine was that big and that lavishly run. There was a formula. To send out one shooting party, with one pair of shooters, half a day each week for the entire season, which ran only from Thanksgiving to the end of February, you had to have at least five hundred acres. Otherwise you would wipe out your quail coveys and have no birds to shoot the following year. To send out one party all day once a week, you had to have at least a thousand acres. Well, he had 29,000 acres. If he felt like it, he could send out four parties all day, every day, seven days a week, throughout the season. Quail! The aristocrat of American wild game! It was what the grouse and the pheasant were in England and Scotland and Europe only better! With the grouse and the pheasant you had your help literally beating the bushes and driving the birds toward you. With the quail you had to stay on the move. You had to have great dogs, great horses, and great shooters. Quail was king. Only the quail exploded upward into the sky and made your heart bang away so madly in your rib cage. And to think what he, Cap’m Charlie, had here! Second biggest plantation in the state of Georgia! He kept up 29,000 acres of fields, woods, and swamp, plus the Big House, the Jook House for the guests, the overseer’s house, the stables, the big barn, the breeding barn, the Snake House, the kennels, the gardening shed, the plantation store, the same one that had been there ever since the end of the Civil War, likewise the twenty-five cabins for the help he kept all this going, staffed, and operating, not to mention the landing field and a hangar big enough to accommodate a Gulfstream Five he kept all this going, staffed, and operating year round . . . for the sole purpose of hunting quail for thirteen weeks. And it wasn’t sufficient to be rich enough to do it. No, this was the South. You had to be man enough to deserve a quail plantation. You had to be able to deal with man and beast, in every form they came in, with your wits, your bare hands, and your gun.

He wished there was some way he could underline all this for Inman. Inman’s father had built up a pharmaceuticals company back at a time when that was not even a well-known industry, and Inman had turned it into a chemicals conglomerate, Armaxco. Right now he wouldn’t mind being in Inman’s shoes. Armaxco was so big, so diverse, so well established, it was cycleproof. Inman could probably go to sleep for twenty years and Armaxco would just keep chugging away, minting money. Not that Inman would want to miss a minute of it. He loved all those board meetings too much, loved being up on the dais at all those banquets too much, loved all those tributes to Inman Armholster the great philanthropist, all those junkets to the north of Italy, the south of France, and God knew where else on Armaxco’s Falcon 900, all those minions jumping every time he so much as crooked his little finger. With a corporate structure like Armaxco’s beneath him, Inman could sit on that throne of his as long as he wanted or until he downed the last mouthful of lamb shanks and mint jelly God allowed him whereas he, Charlie, was a one-man band. That was what a real estate developer was, a one-man band! You had to sell the world on . . . yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in . . . you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I! His mistake was that he had started believing it himself, hadn’t he . . . Why had he ever built a mixed-use development out in Cherokee County crowned with a forty-eight-story tower and named it after himself? Croker Concourse! No other Atlanta developer had ever dared display that much ego, whether he had it or not. And now the damned thing stood there, 60 percent empty and hemorrhaging money.

The deep worry was lit up like an inflammation. Couldn’t let that happen . . . not on a perfect morning for shooting quail at Turpmtine.

Copyright ©1998 Tom Wolfe