If the title of his newest book doesn’t make it absolutely clear, James McWilliams has managed, this time around, to avoid controversy. “Writing about a topic that was more or less free of controversy was quite refreshing for me,” the environmental historian says when asked how his outspoken veganism informed The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut.

McWilliams unwittingly stepped into the highly polarizing debates surrounding what and how we eat when he published Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly in 2009. For those both to the left and the right in food politics, McWilliams has been hard to place. His nuanced insights have consistently made him a much-needed fresh and provocative voice within the staunch partisanship of food issues.  

The author, moved by the writings of Gilbert White and inspired by the 50-foot wild pecan tree that grows directly through his back deck, really wanted to explore how he interacted with nature on a personal level and the human interaction of taking something from wild to cultivated.

McWilliams takes us through a whirlwind tour in The Pecan of the nut’s history from the wild and into passive cultivation, improvements through grafting and ultimate industrialization, leading to a starring role in the Chinese middle-class’ diet. The pecan held a prestigious place in pre-American history; in late 17th-century Texas McWilliams writes that “the pecan was, in a sense, both legal tender and lingua franca.” After over 200 passive years, the pecan tree was drastically altered through grafting, and market forces coupled with modern agribusiness ushered pecans indelibly into our desserts and onto our dinner tables. Pecans are a ubiquitous commodity from California to China, which is rapidly leading to the virtual elimination of the wild variety. This places the future of the native tree in the hands of a fickle global marketplace and a precarious, chemical-based approach to insect and disease control McWilliams writes.

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McWilliams coverWhen we think about the idea of domestication we immediately conjure images of animals in their pens or on an idyllic range, but what we rarely conjure are neatly lined rows of kale, acres of hothouses bursting with tomatoes or neatly lined pecan tree orchards in arid west Texas and New Mexico. We are often struck by the idea of “natural” as intrinsically linked to anything plant-based or grown directly from the earth. Exploring this misdirected instinct is at the core of what McWilliams gets at in The Pecan. He’s intrigued by how consumers today look at food in grocery stores and “point to something like a pear or an apple or a peach and say, ‘Well, that’s all natural. I only eat all-natural food,’ but at the same time if you think of that as a domesticated product, it’s really not all that natural, at least in the way that we’re thinking about it.”

“Natural” means what we want it to mean, McWilliams says. That’s where things get intriguing. “The politics of defining ‘natural’ is fascinating,” he says. “I don’t know if I could tell you what natural is other than what we want it to be. What do we want it to be?”

The pecan tree offers a unique window into how a wild food source can become cultivated in a little over a generation. Pecan trees went from wild to domesticated in a matter of 30 years. They are an indicator of a larger trend: industrial agriculture that reduces biodiversity in the desire to give consumers what they want. McWilliams claims that 50 years from now there may be “very few pecan trees.” It’s a situation that isn’t limited to pecan trees. “What this tells me is that as we turn fields into factories, we have to also pay attention to preserving bio-diversity,” he says.

We need to think of agricultural reform on a continuum, he says. “We miss a lot of opportunities to make important compromises that could have a direct impact.  People have turf to defend,” he acknowledges. “A lot of potential reforms are missed in agriculture because we have taken such extreme ideological sides in the debate.”

While there are no clear-cut solutions to such intricate issues, McWilliams does offer some direction. “Frankly, my opinion is that the only way we’re ever going to, as a society, live in an ecologically healthy environment is if we have a lot of rules,” he says.

Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.