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This story, called Where the Wild Things Are, written by Corby Kummer, was published in Gourmet, a Conde Nast publication.

Where the Wild Things Are

Gourmet (a Conde Nast publication)

By Corby Kummer

“Now we’re coming into South America,” Alan Carle tells a visitor as he and his wife, Susan, lead the way through the 30-acre botanical garden they’ve created on the northeastern coast of Australia. Aside from a path of stubbly grass, the place looks more like a jungle than a garden. Tangled vines wrap around palm trees whose high canopy filters the tropic sun. Strange tree barks warn you to keep your distance: Some are covered with sharp-pointed pyramids, others radiate three-inch-long black needles. The leaves are even stranger: jagged philodendron so huge they seem hallucinogenic; fat, heart-shaped leaves in deep green marching up a tree trunk as if they had been tacked on one by one. Acanthus-shaped leaves slowly fan the humid air. A fast-flowing stream whooshes somewhere beyond.

2 Bot Ark Retreat media (1 of 15)The Carles stop at what looks like a procession of red-and-pink torches. The “flames” are actually pineapple-shaped blooms on green-and-purple stalks. “Here, try a costus flower,” says Alan, plucking a blossom from its pinecone-like sleeve. “They’re very refreshing. No one knew they were edible before I tried them.” Susan smiles and says, “Alan will eat anything. I’ve seen him turn red, swell up, and land in the emergency room.” This is hardly a reassuring invitation, but the flowers are watery and very lightly sweet—a cool sip on a hot, damp day.

They are just one of the hundreds of edible revelations at the Carles’ Botanical Ark, a kind of magic garden tucked into the rain forest of Queensland, a few miles from the Great Barrier Reef. The couple, both American expatriates, have spent the past 20 years gathering more than 3,000 species of plants from far-flung tropical regions in the course of an impassioned and admittedly eccentric quest to save the flora of the world’s rain forests from the ravages of political turmoil and industrial pollution. What was once weedy wasteland riven by the streams and creeks that crisscross this low-lying, wet territory is now so dense with foliage that the only way to traverse it is to walk along the narrow paths.

Statistics about the disappearance of the world’s rain forests and the accompanying loss of plant and animal species are familiar: An area the size of a football field is slashed and burned every seven seconds by rapacious loggers, miners, oilmen, and developers. In Australia alone, says Alan, dozens of varieties of fruit that were in commercial production just a few decades ago are no longer available. Secondary species have dropped out of cultivation—and even out of consciousness—and the forests themselves are vanishing even faster.

“The burning of rain forests is like the burning of libraries,” he says. “What if we lose something that might someday be important for disease resistance? What if a volcano in Hawaii comes along and destroys the last example of a certain species of tree?”

It was questions like these that set the Carles on their headstrong path. Knowing that everything comes down to commercial utility, they made the decision to target secondary species—close relatives of plants known to be valuable for food, medicine, textiles, and construction—and use them to re-create the world’s principal tropical zones in miniature so as to demonstrate the amazing range of tangible benefits a rain forest can provide if it’s simply left alone to grow.

In South America, for example, Alan explains as he nonchalantly chews a flower, the costus plant is valued for more than just its beauty (though the market for cut flowers accounts for its worldwide planting). The stems can be woven into mats, and juice from the stalks provides a drink that some Indian peoples use to cure earache. And, as Alan has discovered without any emergency-room detours, the flowers taste surprisingly good strewn over a salad. Stopping beside another tree, he reaches up into its long, shiny leaves and removes what looks like an oversize, thin-skinned lemon. Taking a penknife from his back pocket, he cuts the fruit open to reveal translucent white flesh and a big hollow seed like a giant lychee.

“Watch out, it’s sticky,” he says, offering a half. He means the skin, which exudes a gummy secretion that sticks to the hand and lips. The flesh comes out in big, jellylike sections that taste of caramel. This is another multipurpose plant: The leaves of the abiu can be made into an antiseptic paste, but the tree is prized for its fruit, and that’s why Carle wanted to plant it.

“These are delicious,” he says, sucking on the other half. “Suzi makes them into ice cream. But there’s only so many you can eat, and twenty years ago I needed enough seeds so that I could grow abiu in the garden. I went to the market in Iquitos, Peru, where the fruit is produced and sold. The market’s just up the banks from the river, and sometimes you had to wade through floodwater to get from one part to the other. It was a wild place then, with pigs running around and vultures circling. I was with a collecting friend, and we decided to buy a ­hundred-kilo bag and cut up the fruit and give it away. We told people they could eat as much as they wanted as long as they gave us the seeds. Two lines appeared out of nowhere, and two turned into twenty. The mob was pushing against us so hard we were frightened we’d hurt someone. Somebody offered us his hut, so we could pass the pieces through a window. That worked, even though people started throwing the skins back at us as a joke. We wound up with sticky hair from the latex, but we left with a hundred and fifty seeds.”

Plant collecting isn’t always that much fun. Alan once turned a corner in the streets of Guate-mala City, which was on military alert after a coup, and found the muzzle of a machine gun pressed against his neck, held by a teenage soldier. A pistol greeted him on his return to a Colombian hotel, pointed into his stomach by a narcotics inspector who wanted to know what the big rush was to get back to his room. Matters didn’t improve when the inspector found a floor littered with seeds covered in white fungicide. After ascertaining that the seeds were for food plants by tasting each one, the inspector told Carle he was wasting his talents—that he ought to be in the drug business.

And the difficulties the Carles encounter don’t end when they get home. Australian customs officials may not be armed, but the requirements of the quarantine inspection service are stringent and becoming more so. The couple have often seen seeds that they’ve lovingly gathered inadvertently destroyed by fumigators, and they’ve gone to pick up plants impounded at the quarantine service’s greenhouse only to find them dead. To eliminate such problems, the Carles have now built their own greenhouse, and they pay government inspectors to check their seeds and permit them to be planted in the garden.

A private botanical garden requiring frequent trips around the world sounds like the noblesse oblige of a rich 19th-century eccentric. But the Carles arrived in Australia penniless. And they created the Ark without the help of outside funding and with few able bodies other than their own.

The first thing they transplanted was themselves—Alan from upstate New York, Susan from Brooklyn—to a country where they knew no one. Alan, a handsome, robust man who is now 50, says he knew he belonged in Australia from the time when, as a young adolescent, he read an article on the South Pacific in National Geographic. But his parents didn’t yield to his repeated requests to move him and his three siblings anywhere within swimming distance of the Great Barrier Reef. So in 1970, at the age of 19, he bought a one-way ticket to Sydney. (The move was not to avoid the draft; Australia, unlike Britain and Canada, was sending troops to Vietnam.) He knew he loved water and thought he might study marine biology.

Once he’d enrolled at a university in Queensland and found part-time work, Alan wrote to Susan asking her to come visit. He had met the classically pretty girl in the Catskills four summers earlier, when he was 15. She was just ten and had been sent to a summer home there by the Norwegian Children’s Home, in Bay Ridge, where she was raised. The two kept in touch through letters, and after a year at Brooklyn College, Susan decided to take Alan up on his invitation. A young woman who had never lived outside a city soon found herself in a hut in the rain forest without electricity or running water, collecting wood every night for the cookstove. 

What was meant to be a six-month visit has now lasted 25 years. During months of work on a campaign to fight proposed oil drilling in the Barrier Reef and logging in virgin Queensland rain forest, Alan’s interests began shifting to dry land—if you can call a place that averages 100 inches of rain a year dry. In 1975, he abandoned his dream of building an underwater house and research station and began looking for a plot of cleared land. With Susan’s help, he found an ideal site: 30 acres of unused grazing terrain an hour north of the city of Cairns, surrounded by the protected Daintree National Park, a lush rain forest declared a World Heritage Site.

Their original idea was to build a full-service ark, in three five-year stages. First they would identify the most important plants not yet in the country and go get them. Then they’d do the same with native animals and birds. Finally, they’d plant and create new sources of alternative energy. Financial constraints soon scaled back their vision. “We’re still on the first five-year plan,” Alan says.

To pay for the land and the collecting expeditions, the two took a series of odd jobs—Alan as a builder and gardener, Susan as a waitress and teacher—alternating shifts to allow one to travel and the other to work in the garden and look after their two daughters (the eldest was born on their first collecting trip, which lasted 11 months). They also tried growing fruit on a commercial scale, but it proved too time-consuming. Flowers eventually provided a way to make the land pay for itself, and for a few years the Carles were the country’s largest grower of tropical varieties.

Today, they support the Ark primarily by hosting groups of visitors who come for a walk in the garden and a meal featuring herbs and fruits picked that morning. The house they’ve built in their spare time over the years is attractive and airy, with floors of warm red tulip oak and a wide deck overlooking a small lake and a tall saraca tree, called the butterfly tree for its ability to attract dozens of the colorful insects at a time.

The deck is a lovely place to sample breadfruit chips, pillowy deep-fried wedges sprinkled with sea salt, and then one of Susan’s superb Thai curries, with fresh turmeric, curry leaves, galangal, red pepper, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and any of the 200 or so kinds of ginger the couple grows. Susan places the ingredients, just as she dug or cut them, on a tray for visitors to examine. A salad follows, sprinkled with costus flowers, and then dessert—often guanabana (soursop) cheesecake with passion-fruit pulp.

But the real centerpiece is a selection of sliced fruit. The choice is seldom a problem: At any time of year there are at least 30 fruits available, and in the summer months, 70 or 80. Susan will combine new varieties of familiar fruits—blue Java bananas whose sweetness is balanced by a citrus tartness; yellow “lemon” papayas with flesh so pale it seems albino; yellow and pink-purple passion fruit in addition to those with the usual celadon shade—with fruits startlingly new to most visitors. Many people have eaten star fruit (carambola), for instance, and the lychee-like mangosteen, but few have tasted the grapefruitlike flesh of the Asian langsat, which looks like a small, light brown egg; or the nutty, oily dabai, or Borneo olive, which resembles a black date. And virtually no visitors have had extensive experience of the unctuous, avocado-like flesh of sapotes, from Central and South America. They range from the chocolate-pudding black to the extremely sweet, butternut-colored canistel, or yellow, with overtones of nutmeg. Garnish will be the Asian aqua cherry, or water cherry, which looks like a shiny bell on a Christmas tree and has an agreeably watery, light flavor.

After one of these meals, usually with 40 or so guests, the Carles fall into bed for their customary five or six hours of recovery time. They may be exhausted, but they can afford to pay only two workers rather than the dozens they could use. They have been fortunate to have the help of volunteer German horticulture students, who have been in residence for a few months at a time for decades. (“We tell them before they come,” Susan says, “that there are crocodiles, mosquitoes, and big snakes that can wrap around you and squeeze you to death. And that it rains like hell and we’re isolated. They still come. And they’re in heaven when they get here.”) But help from any government or institution, says Alan, was out of the question from the start. He gives plenty of reasons—that he wouldn’t even know where to look, for instance, though nearly all his peers in the international botanical garden society to which he belongs receive some sort of funding and could surely suggest avenues to pursue.

More importantly, he says, he wouldn’t want to betray the tribal elders, local plant enthusiasts, and botanists who have led him to secret places and given him secret plants. “We work with local people, and they give us what they think we should have,” he says. “They give these plants to us in good faith because they realize that the rain forest is being chopped down at a phenomenal rate.” The understanding is that no one should profit from the plants except the people living where they grow. Nor will the Carles ever endanger a plant’s survival in its native habitat. “Taking a couple of seeds out of their environment won’t do any damage,” Alan says. “It’s when you destroy the environment that you cause problems.”

To ensure survival of the plants should anything happen to the Ark, Alan routinely sends samples to “cooperators” in Ecuador, the Central African Republic, and Borneo whom he trusts to keep the plants safe and not let them fall into greedy hands. He also regularly ships seeds to correspondents all over the world whose motives he deems honorable.

This precautionary insurance is standard procedure at botanical gardens, according to John Kress, the head of botany at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Kress met Carle more than a decade ago on a collecting trip and has frequently exchanged plants with him. “I respect what Alan is trying to do,” Kress says. “I think the goal of saving secondary species of commercially exploited plants is admirable.” What troubles him is the lack of formal cataloging and ongoing scientific studies. “I’m concerned about the long-term viability of a place that’s dependent on the vision of a single person and his dream,” he adds. The question, he says, is whether the Carles can “groom” the garden “and turn it over to the next generation.”

Fortunately, the kind of help the Carles would welcome may be on the way. Last October, they traveled to Bologna to receive the prestigious Slow Food Award, the first in what will be an annual series that the Italian-based organization intends to be the Nobel of biodiversity. The awards received international publicity, and scores of individuals and groups have since been in touch offering proposals, some of them income-generating. New friends are also coming to the Ark through its Web site, botanicalark.com, and the couple are about to publish a lush book on the garden’s history that will surely win them new support.

For now, Alan and Susan Carle keep working and collecting and devising new schemes to maintain their independence. Sometimes this requires as much hope as ingenuity. But doubt is not among the obstacles they face. Alan describes the search for an exceedingly rare fruit that had long tantalized him and a collecting friend in Ecuador—and eluded them both. On the last afternoon of a recent trip to that country, he headed off into what he calls “a magical forest.” Within a couple of hours, he found what he’s sure was the only ripe example of the fruit in the entire forest. “It’s times like that,” he says, “when I know somebody’s on my side.”

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