Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, by Gary Lachman. Tarcher/Penguin. 352 pages. $16.95.
Last things first: How did the avocado come to its present prominence in the agriculture of California? It happened just about a hundred years ago and belongs to the history of the syncretic occult system called “theosophy” and the life of its creator, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky, or HPB, as she preferred to call herself, passed from the earthly plane in 1891; her death caused upheaval in the Theosophical Society she created, dividing the loyalties of its many Orders, Sections, and Lodges among several successors. Katherine Tingley, a strong-willed woman of the type important to the spread of organized theosophy, renamed her American partition of HPB’s empire the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society and established its headquarters at Point Loma, California, in San Diego. With donations from wealthy devotees she created Lomaland, a spread of farms and orchards that also featured schools, theaters, and temples in a mélange of styles — Hindu, Muslim, Greek, Egyptian. The Purple Mother, as Tingley chose to be called, had a great fondness for ritual and regalia, but she was also a successful educational and agricultural entrepreneur, installing an innovative irrigation system on her grounds and undertaking the first large-scale cultivation of avocados in California.