Biographies > Luther Burbank - An American Saint


   by Peter Holleran


   “This garden universe vibrates complete,
   Some make it a sound so sweet....”
- The Moody Blues

   "I love humanity, which has been a constant delight to me during all my seventy-seven years of life; and I love flowers, trees, animals, and all the works of Nature as they pass before us in time and space. What a joy life is when you have made a close working partnership with Nature, helping her to produce for the benefit of mankind new forms, colors, and perfumes in flowers which were never known before; fruits in form, size, and flavor never before seen on this globe; and grains of enormously increased productiveness, whose fat kernels are filled with more and better nourishment, a veritable storehouse of perfect food - new food for all the world's untold millions for all time to come." - Luther Burbank


   Luther Burbank (1849-1926) was an American saint. So said the great Paramhansa Yogananda upon meeting him. The entire world knows of his great achievements. Besides the famous “Russett Burbank potato”, the most widely cultivated potato today, he created 800 new varieties of fruits and nuts (113 plums and prunes, 35 fruiting caci, 16 blackberries, 13 raspberries, 11 quinces, 11 plumcots, 10 cherries, 10 strawberries, 10 apples, 8 peaches, 6 chestnuts, 5 nectarines, 4 grapes, 4 pears, 3 walnuts, 2 figs, 1 almond; vegetables, ornamental flowers and other plants, among them the spineless cactus and the Shasta Daisy. His secret? In the words of friend David Starr Jordan:

   “Burbank often said to me that as he wandered amongst his plants and flowers and watched the gradual unfolding of Nature, his mind entered into cosmic communion with this inner, spiritual world, of which Nature is but a passing symbol. And in his cosmic consciousness, he said, God was within. He manifested Himself within him, around him. He was a conscious part of him. Infinitely beyond the power of demonstration, He was so real that self was lost in Him. The God of science is, therefore, all in all, he believed. If this were a mere passing experience, he said, a transient thrill of ecstasy, it would leave behind the suspicion that it might be only a piece of abnormal expression. But for fifty years and over he felt the abiding consciousness of this fellowship, intensified, as he believed, by the closeness of his life to Nature. And this uninterrupted fellowship revealed not only the God of science, but the law of the spiritual universe. As the result of over fifty years spent in the handling of plants, he had been amazed at the accuracy of natural law. He never found any calculation, based on the known laws of Nature, to err. Millions on millions of plants passed through his hands and he was struck by this precision. He had never been disappointed. He was convinced that the same Spiritual Enegry is controlling the spiritual universe. It is natural law in the spiritual world. Nothing is haphazard. There is no such thing as blind force. One sublime order pervades this unseen universe, with the almighty God within and behind all. It is not a God from the outside, as he explained it, drawn toward him by the appeal of his inner being, but rather the God rising within him, producing an overwhelming consciousness of the Infinite. In the conscious presence of this Power will be found the sources of the religious life. It cultivates, as nothing else can, the sentiment of awe and reverence, the love of goodness and beauty, all the tender pure passions of Nature.” (1)

   Born in Lancaster, Massachusetts, Burbank grew up on a farm and received only an elementary school education. The thirteenth of fifteen children, he enjoyed the plants in his mother's large garden. From childhood he had an intimate relationship with plants. He listened and talked to them. His father died when he was 21 years old, and Burbank used his inheritance to buy a 17-acre plot of land. There, he developed the Burbank potato. He sold the rights to the potato for $150 and used the money to travel to Santa Rosa, California, in 1875. There he purchased 4-acres and established a greenhouse, nursery, and experimental fields that he used to conduct crossbreeding experiments on plants, inspired by Charles Darwin's The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. (This site is now open to the public as a city park, Luther Burbank Home and Gardens.) Later he purchased an 18-acre plot in the nearby town of Sebastopol called Gold Ridge Farm. From 1904 through 1909 Burbank received several grants from the Carnegie Institution to support his ongoing research on hybridization. He was supported by the practical-minded Andrew Carnegie himself, over those of his advisers who objected that Burbank was not "scientific" in his methods. Burbank was criticized by scientists of his day because he did not keep the kind of careful records that are the norm in scientific research and because he was mainly interested in getting results rather than in basic research. What can one say? Burbank was a gentle soul, born under the sign of Pisces, at home in the ocean of life.

   While the world is in awe of his accomplishments, few are aware of his inner life. He only became outspoken of his religious beliefs near the end of his life, after his friend Henry T. Ford openly stated his belief in reincarnation. Luther, however, due to his great affinity with the works of Charles Darwin, proclaimed himself an ‘infidel’ for stating openly his views on any form of religion that was not in line with the truth of science.

   His work in developing new plant varieties was seen as helping to prove evolution, and he was called to serve in the famous Scopes trial. Scopes' defense said before the trial that Burbank would testify; however, he had merely agreed to serve on their advisory committee. Burbank thought the trial was a joke but believed it would reduce the number of bigots. Judge Raulston appeared disappointed when he found out Burbank would not appear in person. Of William Jennings Bryan he remarked,

   "Bryan - a great friend of mine, by the way - had a Neanderthal type of head. And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis." (2)

   Burbank married, but had no children of his own, yet did adopt a daughter who he adored. He died in 1926 after suffering a heart attack and intestinal complications, his last words being, “I don’t feel good.”

   From early childhood, Burbank was deeply inspired by nature. Baird T. Spalding, author of the fantastical series, Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, whose tales were largely imaginary yet whose philosophy was inspiration for millions, and for the veracity of the following excerpt I have yet found no confirmation, but has nevertheless been included here because of its charm, wrote, in “Men Who Have Walked with the Master”:

   “I think many of you have planted seeds or set out plants and loved them and watched them grow. Plants will respond very readily. Luther Burbank never sent out a plant from his garden unless it responded to his voice. George Washington Carver did the same thing. I worked with George Washington Carver, and I knew Luther Burbank from the time he was six years old.”

   “Luther Burbank always said, and it disturbed his mother and father very much because they did not understand it, that Jesus worked with him all the time.”

   “One Sunday afternoon he walked with his father over to visit a neighbor. They took a short cut through the fields and passed through a potato patch. As children will do, little Luther Burbank ran ahead. It was at the time when the potato blooms were ripening. One stem was standing up a little higher than all the others and Luther stopped to look at it, and his father said when he came up that the flower was waving back and forth, and the boy said to him, “Papa, that’s talking to me.” “Well,” the father told my father, “I thought the boy was going wrong, and I hurried him on and went over to the neighbor’s.” All the time they were there Luther was anxious to return, and fiunally, about half past three they staryed homeward. They returned through the same potato field, the boy rushing ahead and going directly to this same plant. There was a great calm over the field, not a leaf moved. When the father came up to where the boy was standing, that tall seed pod was moving again, back and forth, and Luther said, “Papa, I want to stay here, Jesus is talking to me and telling me what to do.” His father took him home and made him do his chores and sent him to bed. In a short time he found him stealing downstairs trying to get out of the house. he was sent back to bed three different times that night. By that time it was eleven o’clock and the parents thought the boy was asleep for the night.”

   “The next morning Luther was missing. The father walked out into the field and there he found the boy wrapped around that potato hill just as close as he could get to it, sound asleep. When he was awakened he said, “Papa, Jesus talked with me all night long and He told me that if I would watch that little bulb until it ripened, take it and preserve it and plant the seed next Spring, that when it developed there would be one potato there that would make me famous,” - and that is just what happened!”

   “Luther Burbank
[later in life] also worked with the cactus. He took the prickly pear, put it in a glass cage where it would be protected. For five and a half months he sat before that case one hour each day and talked to that prickly pear something like this: “Now you are protected, you don’t need those spikes, let them go.” In seven and a half months the spikes had dropped off. He had the spineless cactus.”

   “Luther Burbank used to say: “Why, I walk and talk with Jesus, and He with me. He teaches me! He tells me what to do.”
(3)

   In Autobiography of a Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda devoted an entire chapter in which he wrote effusively and lovingly of his relationship with Burbank, whom he named his ‘Amercian saint,’ and to whom he dedicated his famous book.

   Yogananda went on to write a further glowing testimonial to Burbank within an issue of his own publication East-West, Jan-Feb, 1929, called “Quickening Human Evolution :

   “How is the human brain going to acquire in a lifetime all knowledge and wisdom? That is my question. When I met Luther Burbank, he showed me a walnut tree, and he said, “I took off more than one hundred years from its usual period of growth. I grew that in twelve years.” And you could see the tree bearing walnuts! He made almonds have soft shells, made over the tomato and created the Shasta daisy from bulbs, and the cactus without thorns. In primitive times the different animals used to eat the cactus, so the cactus developed thorns. When one life begins to hurt another life, that life develops weapons of defense. Burbank went into the garden, looked at the cactus, and every day began to talk to the cactus. “Please, beloved Cactus, I am Luther Burbank, your friend. I don’t mean to hurt you. I am not going to hurt you at all, so why develop thorns?” And so the thornless cactus was developed by talking, by attention, by his knowledge of nature’s laws. You can impress certain vibrations on protoplasm. If the walnut tree can be made to grow in twelve years instead of one hundred and fifty years, there is a chance for human beings also. How is a human being within sixty years of existence to develop so that he can be the center of all knowledge? That is the point I want to drive home in your mind. I have shown how machinery quickened world evolution. Where did machinery come from?—from the factory of human minds. If man quickened evolution in business, man can quicken his evolution in all branches of life, including his own inner life."

   "In ordinary study there is a vast difference between the methods applied by teachers in India and in the West. In the West, they pump into the brains of children the ideas, “How many books have you read; how many teachers have you had?” A man returned from college with a Ph.D. in making sugar from different fruits. He was asked if sugar could be made from the guava fruit. After some deep thought, he said, “I did not study that. It was not in my curriculum.” Using common sense was beyond him. It is not pumping from the outside in, that gives you knowledge. It is the power and largeness of receptivity within that determine how much and how quickly you can grasp knowledge. The man who has the power of receptivity quickly sees everything. An intelligent man lives far ahead of the idiot. All your experiences are measured in terms of the cup of your receptivity."

   "Prof. James of Harvard said that most of our habits come through heredity. Feeble-minded people, science says, cannot be helped. Scientists take measurements and believe in the stamp of heredity too much. They forget this: that by awakening the brain cells, man can quicken his evolution. The power of receptivity of the brain cells can become so great that a man can receive all the things he wants to absorb within himself in a normal lifetime."

   "How can you quicken evolution? By consciously condensing all your experiences, by the power of concentration. By concentration you gather your attention, focusing it to a point. By condensation you again use your attention to quickly do a thing which ordinarily would take a long time. I will tell you of such an experience:

   "A friend of mine said I was all right as a spiritual man, but that I could not succeed in business. I replied, “I am going to make five thousand dollars in business for you within two weeks.” He said, “You will have to show me. I am from Missouri.” I did not rush to invest money on unwise things. I used concentration, disengaged my mind of all disturbances, and focused my attention on one thing. (Most of us have the searchlight of our attention turned outside all the time instead of inside—we should turn the searchlight of the mind on the divine source. Every change in business, every change in the planetary system, in the physical system—everything is recorded there. We are living on one side of the universe; the other side is more tangible than this side.) So I touched that source. Ordinarily men do not concentrate—the mind is restless, and the restless mind jumps at conclusions and races for something that does not belong to it. You must obey the law. Remember, concentrate and then ask Divine Power. Thus, as soon as I contacted that source, there were shows to me lots of houses. But I did not sit quietly in my room and say, “The Heavenly Father will open the ceiling and drop five thousand dollars in my lap,” because I had favored Him with a fervent prayer. I bought the Sunday papers and looked at real estate advertisements. I picked out a few houses, and told my friend to invest his money in them. He said, “Everything seems pretty shaky,” and I said, “Never mind, doubting Thomas, don’t try to spoil success by your doubts.” In two weeks there was a real estate boom and prices of houses went way up high. He sold the houses and had a clear profit of five thousand dollars. I showed him that the power of God or mind works wherever we apply it with faith.”


   In his last years, the quiet Burbank became active in the “Free-Thought” movement. This is a philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions are to be formed on the basis of science, logic, and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition, or other dogmatism. In some respects this view was heralded centuries before by the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta:

   "It is proper for you, Kalamas [the people of the village of Kesaputta], to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them. "...Do not accept anything by mere tradition... Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures... Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions... But when you know for yourselves—these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness—then do you live acting accordingly."

   Burbank published a paper,“ Why I Am An Infidel,” giving his views on the religionists of his day and his beliefs in evolution and science. He looked up the word "Infidel” in the dictionary prior to writing his piece and concluded it was the appropriate moniker for himself. He received mostly calumny for his efforts. He had not so much strayed from his childhood faith but expanded it in light of his years of intuitive scientific work. Even his beloved Darwin had held to the reasonableness of reincarnation and its compatibility with the tenets of evolution. Burbank didn't personally believe in individual salvation, nor explicitly disbelieve it, but rather acknowledged a universal force, call it Nature or God, and emphasized a religion of "justice, love, truth, peace and harmony, a serene unity with science and the laws of the universe, lived in the here and now." Burbank’s point with his declaration was not to promote atheism, but to show how shallow religion had become and how far it had to reform to come into accord with modern scientific discoveries. Burbank earned both scorn from the fundamentalists and praise from the traditional scientific community, neither whom spoke exactly for his views.

   While in some ways it might be seen as moving away from the innocent communion of his youth, his mature thoughts on religion were perhaps best expressed in the book, Luther Burbank: His Religion of Humanity (1926) by Frederick W. Clampett. The entire book is available on-line in footnote # 1; for ease of reading I have divided what I consider the spiritually relevant sections into three parts:

   Immortality - Part One

   Immortality - Part Two

   Reincarnation


   Luther Burbank In His Own Words

   "Science, unlike theology, never leads to insanity."

   "Science..has opened our eyes to the vastness of the universe and given us light, truth and freedom from fear where once was darkness, ignorance and superstition.”

   "The scientist is a lover of truth for the very love of truth itself, wherever it may lead." "The chief trouble with religion has been too much dependence upon names or words. People fail to discriminate. They do not think. Generally people who think for themselves, instead of thinking according to the rules laid down by others, are considered unfaithful to the established order. In that respect I, too, differ with the established order and established designations."

   "Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope and the spectroscope or any other instrument...used for the discovery of truth."
(4)


   And, as told to David Starr Jordan:


   “Truth shall make you free, not leave you in the bondage of superstition and fear.”

   “We are the latest product of those who have passed before.”

   “The integrity of one's own mind is of infinitely more value than adherence to any creed or system.”

   “We must learn that any person who will not accept what he knows to be truth, for the very love of truth alone, is very definitely undermining his mental integrity and destroying his moral fiber.”

   “We are now standing upon the threshold of new methods and new discoveries which shall give us imperial dominion in days to come.”

   “Thrice happy is the man whose youthful passions and appetites have not destroyed his ability at fifty to step lightly, think clearly and love truly.”

   “Man has by no means reached the ultimate. The fittest has not yet arrived.”

   “Every great man is at heart a poet, and all must listen long to the harmonies of Nature before they can make successful translations from her infinite resources, through their own ideals, into creations of beauty in words, forms, colors or sounds.”

   “Religion rejoices in the happiness of others and helps to make them happy.”

   “The rich blessings of freedom come only to those who seek the truth for truth's sake alone. "The truth shall make you free."

   “Belittling the life we have here is blasphemy; you can do nothing be nothing as long as you blaspheme in this foolish way. Look within, not without, for strength.”

   “Thinking and talking and reading of sin, death and the devil will certainly, by the very law of the universe, bring to you your full share of them.”

   “Look for and cultivate the good within yourself, your friends and neighbors; in animals, birds, trees, flowers, fields, rivers, mountains; and in stars which are not holes in the firmament but the light of other cosmic worlds.”

   “When the love of truth for truth's sake, this poetic idealism, this intuitive perception, this growth from within has been awakened and cultivated, thoughts live and are transmitted into endless forms of beauty and utility. We must cultivate a sturdy self-respect; we must break away from the mere petrified word-pictures of others and cultivate the "still small voice" within.”
(5)

   Luther Burbank was truly an American original. May there be more like him.


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   For more on Burbank, Carver, and "speaking to the plants and animals", please see The Greater Kingdom on this website.

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   May the Long Time Sun Shine Upon You

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1. Frederck W. Clampett, Luther Burbank: His Religion of Humanity, (The MacMillan Company, 1926)
2. from “Why I Am An Infidel,” published in Little Blue Book #1020 and from The Harvest Of The Years, by Luther Burbank with Wilbur Hale
3. Baird T. Spalding, Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, Vol. V (Marina Del Rey, California: DeVorss & Co., 1955), p. 169-171
4. from “Why I Am An Infidel", op. cit.,
5. Clampett, op. cit