A biological treasure hunt in Gold Rush territory

Amigo Bob Cantisano, dreadlocks to his waist and clad year-round in shorts and tie-dyed shirts, hunts in the remnants of homesteads, small orchards and stagecoach stops dating from the Gold Rush days in northern California. Rather than mineral wealth, the treasure he seeks “are trees, the fruits and nuts and ornamentals planted … in the late 1800s,” said public broadcaster KQED in a story produced in partnership with FERN. “Despite decades of neglect, many are still highly productive and could prove valuable at a time when California faces drought and the effects of climate change. Cantisano is looking to bring the best-tasting, heartiest ones back to life, back to gardens and farms.”

Cantisano and two partners run the Felix Gillet Institute, a nonprofit named after a nursery operator of the 1880s and committed to heirloom fruits and nuts, which it sells to gardeners and small farmers. As an example, Cantisano pointed out to reporter Lisa Morehouse a high-yielding, disease-free 120-year-old pear tree — “absolutely just the more hearty tree,” he says, that flourishes without human aid. “If we can figure out how to take those characteristics and meld them into modern agriculture, we’re going to have a more sustainable agriculture.”