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3 september 2018

Growing up in the American midwest and northeast, I associated palm trees with the steamy tropics. I saw the first palm trees of my life – palm trees growing outdoors, that is – not long after I stepped off the plane on my first trip overseas. It was cold, rainy, and blowing a gale, and along the route from the airport to the seaside neighborhood where I'd be staying, palm tree after palm tree swayed, or rather bent nearly horizontal, in the breeze. I had jet lag and had just met my new in-laws, and I was somewhat delirious, and the palm trees aggravated my disorientation. I had landed in Dublin, Ireland.

Much of Fred Gray's book Palm is about the now-global reach of a plant family that has a narrow native range. Chusan palms from temperate China grow now in the north of England. (Irish palms are usually Cordyline australis, native to New Zealand.) Palm trees feature in every great botanical garden in the global north, usually motivating collectors to build impressive glass houses to display their prizes (which then threaten to grow through the roofs).

Till I read Palm, I had no idea of the pervasiveness of palm products in 21st-century life. I didn't even know what an oil-palm fruit looked like. Every day I was washing myself and my stuff with palm products, and eating them by the bucketful in all kinds of processed foods. I sort of knew about palm oil, one of those dreaded tropical fats, and I had sort of agreed with myself not to think about it too much. But I've come away from Palm clued into one of the great success – or, perhaps, disaster? – stories of modern agriculture.

Gray traces the steady rise of palm products to world dominance. Palm oil displaced both tallow and petroleum, speciously much for the better (it's vegan and renewable). But the tradeoff in using so much palm oil is the deforestation of great swathes of rainforest. It's hard to read about any great world resource without ambivalence at best. All of them involve capitalist exploitation of labor, and dubious environmental practices. Perhaps palm plantations are one of the least-worst options of globalized commerce.

Gray discusses the palm as symbol for the beach life with no cares. Artificial and greenhoused palms bring that lifestyle to the oddest, coldest places. "The palm tree charade is that we are really somewhere else, somewhere preferable" (186), says Gray. Veterans of Roman campaigns in Egypt, resettled in Provençe, used an emblem of a crocodile under a palm tree to remind themselves of, well, palmier days: an emblem still prominent in the city of Nîmes. Palms became the emblem of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, and came to symbolize both earthly and spiritual triumph.

To "bear the palm" became shorthand for winning at anything. When the palm appears in Western poetry, it is often as a near-dead metaphor for being the best in show. Irish poet Samuel Ferguson, for instance, uses a palm reference in a blazon of the charms of the beautiful "Coolun":

My love she is, and my colleen óg
And she dwells in Bal'nagar;
And she bears the palm of beauty bright
From the fairest that in Erin are.
Literal palms in Western poetry are rarer. They often come redolent of Orientalism. A Muslim ship's captain in John Greenleaf Whittier's "Palm-Tree" sees the palm as
a gift divine,
Wherein all uses of man combine,—
House, and raiment, and food, and wine!
In such formulations, praise for non-Western ingenuity is always balanced against the implicitly greater ability of the West to exploit natural resources: yes, they can make dozens of things from palms, but we don't have to. Ironically, we now make thousands of things out of those same palms.

Gray, Fred. Palm. London: Reaktion, 2018.