By Peggy Thomas
I love when I get to travel for research. When I’m writing a biography, I’ll visit the person’s home, walk the streets, and collect sounds and smells that I can weave into the narrative. I like to get the lay of the land -- How far did George W. Carver walk to school? What was Lincoln’s view from his White House window?
But Covid hit just as I was starting to research Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug, an agricultural scientist who saved millions of lives from starvation. I couldn’t get to Mexico where Norm worked for decades, or even Cresco, Iowa where he grew up. Just reading about him did not give me the same kind of connection.
Fortunately, Texas A & M and the University of Minnesota both have huge archives filled with Borlaug memorabilia, articles, and photos. The digitized images that I could access by computer showed me a time and place I could otherwise have never seen.
Dozens of speeches and taped interviews preserved Norm’s voice and mannerisms. From the comfort of my couch, I was transported to a wheat field in Mexico where Norm talked about plant breeding. Then I was whisked off to an auditorium in Oslo, Norway to hear Norm accept his Nobel Peace Prize. It was easy to see that he was the kind of guy that no matter what he was wearing, a tux or dust-covered khakis, he always spoke with the same enthusiasm.
But the material I found most helpful were Norm’s handwritten notebooks. For decades, Norman recorded the look, feel, and characteristics of every single wheat plant as he searched for a better crop for poor farmers. Each page documented his dedication and showed how much he valued his work.
They also revealed Norm’s private thoughts. They directed my eyes so I could see what he saw and understand his feelings. For example, the first time he visited rural India during a famine he simply wrote: Humanity – frightening.
And like me, when Norm rushed to get notes on paper, he didn’t worry about spelling. It was more important to get his ideas down.
I still wish I had gone to Mexico, but it turned out that the weeks I spent deciphering hasty handwriting far exceeded the value of any frequent flier miles I would have accumulated.
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