My back pasture was graced for a short time by a blue roan mare called Maeve. She was rescued from still another field by her present owners, the largely forgotten result of an ill-funded pony breeding operation whose proprietor’s interest evaporated when it became apparent that pony breeding did not lead to instant fortune. Since a pony’s daily requirements make it less easily marketable in a pinch than, say, a bottle of ketchup, Maeve was left to fend for herself until someone recognized her worth. Fortunately this occurred before she wound up as canned dog food.
Maeve is a Connemara pony. All four of her grandparents came off the boat from that intractable part of Galway that gave her breed its name. Four generations back in her pedigree you can detect a whiff of Thoroughbred and Arab blood introduced in the 1940s to broaden a narrow gene pool and introduce extra quality to the breed. Irishmen who still farmed with ponies didn’t care for the results, by and large: Hotter blooded offspring didn’t always settle well to the plow, and couldn’t shrug off stiff Atlantic gales like their hardy par-ents. On the other hand, there was an eager market in the United States for ponies that were unusual, large and could jump, so in sales terms it was a net gain. Irish breeders, like good horse traders the world over, kept what they considered to be their best ponies and sold the rest to the Americans.
Maeve is more consistent with the “old fashioned” members of her family. In her you see the big, angular frame, broad hips, rock-hard feet and legs, and wide forehead that epitomize the breed. Her eyes exude good humored intelligence. When she trots she demon-strates a length of rein and an airy, open stride that covers ground like a powerful horse rather than a pony. She’s the sort of mare that begs you to ride her across open country at full gallop, safely leaping banks and ditches nearly the same size as herself while you sing paeans of terror and exhilaration.
It was exactly these attributes that originally popularized the breed among the concerned parents of horse-mad children bent on high speed self-destruction. As the first ponies on U.S. soil proved themselves to be far more than “step-ups” between small ponies and large Thoroughbreds, they also found a ready market among fox-hunting mothers whose limited time and financial resources demanded something resembling an equine ATV.
But Maeve’s progenitors also had faults. They were-as Maeve is-narrower in the chest and straighter in the shoulder than one would like, a legacy of cart-pulling ancestors. They tended toward sloping croups and cow hocks. The expressive head was frequently on the plain side. The big stride was round and springy rather than smooth and daisy-cutting in character. And their height, once they were removed from the stunted nutrition and harsh lifestyle of Connemara’s barren hills, resided in a nether region that is considered too large to be a true pony and too small to be quite a horse.
So Maeve, like her family before her, is as utilitarian as the family station wagon. But she is not a showboat. She lacks the refinement required to go into the ring at venues named Devon, Harrisburg and The Garden, where exquisite, nervy crossbred ponies carry children around carefully laid-out jump courses in safely enclosed spaces. These ponies are light-years from hardy native ancestors whose rug-ged constitutions and cheerful tough-mindedness were carved from the bitter fringes of Europe’s mountains, moors and bogs. But needs change, and so does fashion. How many of us now have grandparents on farms? How many of us know the freedom of open country that is not bounded by National Forest trails or ski lifts? The market turned away from the kind of ponies designed for haring around the countryside playing cowboys and Indians or peering into bird’s nests. As riding grew suburbanized, and showrings took the place of cross country rambles through creeks and woods, it gravitated toward ani-mals which could collect tri-colored ribbons and large trophies.
A whole segment of the horse show population might thus say that ponies like Maeve have been rendered obsolete in roles other than casual backyard companions to the unambitious. But when I look at the forces of nature that carved her genetic makeup into its present configuration, I am not convinced.
On the surface, nature is the ultimate laissez faire parent. In nature, anything animal, vegetable, or mineral can mate with any-thing else it damn well pleases. But there is a caveat: Whether the offspring of the matings live or die, subsist or thrive, is entirely dependent on their ability to exist within the parameters of very specific environmental criteria governed by climate, available food, water sources and so on. In a natural system, huge numbers of subspecies evolve over time from original parent groups to meet the challenge of life in very localized and tremendously varied pockets of the earth. Those that don’t meet the specs are culled before they reach breeding age. “Culled.” Now, that’s an interesting word. We humans use it when we sell a less-than-ideal pony as “pet quality” to “a good home.” Boot camp nature is less kind. It culls by starvation, disease, or predation.
Those that achieve adulthood get to mate and pass on the genetic poker chips that gave them the characteristics required to thrive in their system. Eventually, sheep evolve and become resistant to foot rot in boggy areas. Thick-coated, flinty-footed ponies come to thrive in cold, wet mountain regions. Grains capable of growing in watery tropics appear.
Larger plants and animals tend to spring from fertile interior areas with stable, milder climates. Shrubbier, tougher beings inherit the tortured landscapes variously steeper, stonier, wetter and more bat-tered by every imaginable climatic indignity. The net effect is that gene pools, while locally homogeneous, become enormously diverse worldwide, guaranteeing protection from global annihilation. It’s an elegant arrangement of checks and balances by which the blights and diseases most apt to wipe out one population will be tolerated by another.
In the middle part of the 19th century, the Austrian monk Gre-gor Johann Mendel explained this phenomenon for the first time with epoch-making experiments on the heredity of peas. We all learned about this in the eighth grade or thereabouts, but it made no sense then. What did peas have to say about anything?
Plenty, it turns out. Mendel finally isolated and categorized the precise manner in which the offspring of plants (and by extension, any other organic being) inherit measurable dominant characteristics from their parents. Besides revolutionizing human thought about the nature and workings of heredity (and by extension agriculture), Mendel’s formulas supported Darwin’s incendiary thinking on evolution and natural selection. Here were actual proofs of the variability of genetic combinations nature uses to create populations that are both globally diverse and locally concentrated.
Of course, many centuries before Mendel and Darwin began shocking the civilized world, our earliest forbears had already started looking at nature and saying, in effect, “It’s nice-but do you have one in blue?” As soon as they realized that riding horses and eating grainheads made sense, our ancestors began interbreeding those horses already naturally predisposed to galloping across miles of taiga on little sustenance, and saving seed from grains that already produced heavier crops than the previously understood norm.
By riding horses, carrying seed, and driving livestock over expanses of territory vastly beyond their native ranges, ancient peo-ples unwittingly became as effective at cross-pollination as the honey-bees that accompanied them. When entering populations interbred with native stock, some of the offspring would undoubtedly have been weeds and weaklings. But often, the initial meeting of two strongly dominant though otherwise diverse gene pools would result in offspring that were bigger, stronger, better suited to many tasks, and even healthier than the parent stock. Which is what we now know as hybrid vigor.
Its power-even when poorly understood-would have awed people whose fates were inextricably linked with the survival of live-stock and the growth of grains. Hybrid vigor from chance matings would have produced feed grains and vegetables of notable productivity, and livestock far better suited to a variety of purposes than any that had gone before. There would be rugged little Celtic ponies with the grace, bearing and coloration of Spanish Barbs. There would be fragrant Mediterranean roses blooming as repeatedly as their lightly scented but long-lived cousins of the Silk Road.
Given human lust for newer, bigger, more productive and prettier versions of all things animal and vegetable, it seems extraordinary that the key given us by Mendel’s studies should have arrived only 150 years ago. It’s even more amazing that his findings were largely ignored for 50 years after their introduction. But once we grasped the ramifications of improving endlessly on nature’s bounty to the benefit of all human life, there was no looking back. We have only to savor the beautiful, evenly spaced rows of Silver Queen corn, almost Platonic in its perfection, to know how far we have come on that pathway. Not only do super-hybrids taste and look better, they are heavier producers, more evenly pollinated, more uniform in size and quality, and more pest resistant than their paltry, little open-pollinated ancestors.
And there is my wonderful old broodmare to consider as well-as far a cry from Maeve as anyone could imagine. When I chose her 20 years ago, I thought her one of the loveliest ponies I had ever seen; almost too beautiful to be a Connemara. She owed more of her physical appearance to a Thoroughbred great-grandfather than to any of the moorland ponies that surrounded him, and I have always loved the elegance of Thoroughbreds. Yet my mare was also extraordinarily hardy, filled with native wisdom and never required shoes or vet care beyond the routine, and she was a wonderfully fertile producer. She seemed such a perfect improvement on her rootstock that, in com-mon with those whose bent was to raise beautiful ponies for the showring, I wondered why we needed the old sort of parent varieties any longer. We could so easily have the best of both worlds.
In the microcosm of my pony-breeding operation, it wasn’t long before I discovered the answer. Despite her other sterling qualities, my mare proved so temperamental that she was extremely difficult to train, and next to impossible to compete with. Pressure blew her mind. I retired her, searched out the best example of an archetypal Connemara stallion I could find to be her mate, and spent the rest of her productive years trying to “de-hybridize” her through offspring that, while not as beautiful as herself, were eminently more pleasant to ride and handle. They looked and acted, in fact, the way Connemaras are supposed to look and act. Like Maeve.
Rose breeders recently faced a similar dilemma. The whole industry was thrown into crisis when, in an ongoing search for ever sweeter and showier blooms, it was discovered that available stocks of over-hybridized parent plants had become so genetically inbred that few remained with enough diversity to pass on essential attributes like longevity and hardiness. To re-introduce genetic vitality, hybridizers had to return to an old and long out-of-favor single-petalled species rose. While plain by modern standards, it was rugged, cheerful, smelled good, and it epitomized a peculiar beauty the more trenchant for its survival through longer ages than most of us have family trees.
Two factors are at work here. The first is that hybrids, by inherit-ance a mixed bag, don’t breed true. Second-generation offspring of a hybridized population predictably “throw back” to the characteristics of any of four grandparents, some of which may pop up with very undesirable recessive (or hidden) characteristics that are not expressed until they meet with a similar pairing from the nether regions of a partner’s hereditary stew. You will not grow another generation of perfect Silver Queen from seed saved out of this year’s crop. More often you’ll get a muddy mishmash of plants, some of which may be sterile and some which may be too weak to set fruit. Your beautiful mare, bred to the wrong stallion, might produce nothing but throw-backs to a weedy ancestor with a bad temper, diminished athleticism, or weak feet.
You can, of course, cull the offspring of any population that exhibit less-than-ideal attributes, keeping and breeding from only the best of them. This is, in essence, what nature does. But when we select constantly for certain features that meet a human predilection for size, speed, taste, floriferousness, refinement, heavy production, or early maturity, we just as deliberately eliminate those genes which do not express the desired characteristics. Over time, many survival traits-notably those of hardiness, longevity, fertility, soundness, brains, and adaptability-are lost, discarded with the “less worthy” genes that, in combination, helped to express them. When the gene pool becomes too concentrated to contain the diversity required to inject more hybrid vigor, no further improvement is possible. The whole process begins to implode.
Refreshing a gene pool grown too narrow and weary thus requires periodically dipping back into the native rootstock, because nature does not select for floriferousness, or early maturity, or size. Nature selects for endurance, fecundity and adaptability. The problem is that this rootstock may no longer exist in our man-made populations. Oh, there will be something that approximates the original. But it won’t be the one we started with. In scientific parlance, the genes that created and upheld the old foundations have been “selected out,” a euphemism for “made extinct.” So while we have, indeed, suc-ceeded in breeding varieties of grain and livestock unparalleled in size, maturity and productivity, we have also succeeded in creating whole populations incapable of surviving without our help. We have hens that won’t sit on eggs, cows that can’t produce live calves without human intervention, flowers whose stalks are too weak to support them, heavy-breasted turkeys unable to breed naturally, and corn that can’t self-pollinate and is so inbred that a global supply could conceivably be wiped out with a rapidity-and an effect on world hunger- that is too stupifying to contemplate.
We can comfort ourselves by pointing to mountains of corn piled beside overfilled silos every fall, as if this were proof that no problem exists. We can derive security from the knowledge that fields now empty of dairy cattle are an indication of the superiority of smaller numbers of mega-milking Holsteins. But the Cassandras of seed-grain conservation banks, natural resources preservation associations and heritage livestock breed organizations are calling the right tune in their efforts to alert us to the backlash inherent in our efforts to design a better nature. It requires only a look at our tender roses or constitutionally unsound ponies to understand on a local level how immediately and profoundly each of us will be affected globally if the props supporting our increasingly precarious genetic miracles fail. At the root and foundation of ongoing life, nature was right all along: It is diversity, not concentration, that allows the survival of species; especially on a globe grown as easily accessible as our own.
When Maeve arrived on my farm, I saw instantly that it was her very qualities I had spent 15 years trying to recapture. Without any extraneous meddling, she represented the old sort of pony whose rootstock is still capable of reproducing the characteristics that allowed her forbears to survive along the edges of civilization under conditions that would certainly have killed animals of more refined constitutions.
It seems ironic that it took me so long to learn to appreciate these increasingly rare attributes because of their unique strengths rather than trying to make them more pleasing to an eye governed by fad and whim. I can’t even say with certainty whether my epiphany was a question of acquiring a taste for what is practical, enduring and delectable over the long haul, like learning to love dry red wine. Maybe it grew with my backyard concerns about tender roses, or the bizarre forms created in my garden by stray kernels of Silver Queen attempt-ing to reproduce. Maybe it was another step in the personal evolution that began in back-to-the-land hippie days when I “discovered” the nutty flavor of the dense, rich bread a farm-raised Canadian friend scorned as embarrassingly old fashioned.
Whatever the reason, the Maeves, the species roses, and the stubby, open-pollinated corn of my world have grown to represent more than a collection of genetic traits on which to draw in an emergency. Their worth transcends the pure necessity of garnering and preserving stocks of indigenous breeds and seed against an uncertain future. There is a hopefulness about their tradition of survival against tremendous odds. There is a reverence due their forbears, who fed and carried ours into the present. There is a need to nourish that legacy of hope and hardiness: just as the ancestors of those species nour-ished our own; just as we nourish a hope for peace and prosperity in the world. They aren’t, after all, so far removed from one another.
As for Maeve: She is now happily caring for her first foal, a roan filly like herself, at age 22. It’s a feat not unlike that of a woman giv-ing birth to her first child at about the age of 70. I fervently hope that the first will not be the last. I like to think that the world will be able to benefit somehow from Maeve’s particular beauty, and that her grandchildren will inspire their fortunate owners to jump on their backs and gallop full tilt across rolling country over very large fences, grinning from ear to ear.
*Caroline Nesbitt is an actress, author (“The Pony Breeder’s Companion,” Howell Book House, 1995) and essayist whose work has recently appeared in American Theatre, Teaching Theatre, Commonweal and Country Connections. This essay was a semi-finalist in the Creative Nonfiction best essay award competition.