on June 13, 2001
Two different people sent me copies last week of Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire. I'm a writer (Allergy-Free Gardening, from Ten Speed Press) myself and a lifetime horticulturist and I guess they figured I'd appreciate this book. They were right too. I found this book extremely hard to put down. Pollan is a writer first and a botanist second but he is remarkably observant about horticultural matters. He is also unusually talented at explaining complex ideas and he does so in a way that is fresh, fun, often funny, and suprisingly profound. Pollan's section on Johnny Appleseed alone is worth the price of the book. Here Johnny is a multi-dimensional character, one not just eccentric, but a shrewd fellow with great vision and considerable human frailty. The Botany of Desire is chiefly the history of the tulip, apples in America, cannabis, and the potato. This may not sound like the recipe for a really satisfying read, but in Michael Pollan's more than able hands, it certainly is. If you enjoy gardening, history, or just plain old very decent writing, I expect you too would appreciate this excellent book.
"What existential difference is there between the human being's role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebees?" "Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? With profound questions like these, Michael Pollan pollinates your mind with a new world view of our relationships with plants, one in which humans are not at the center. The book focuses on four primary examples of how plants provide benefits to humans that lead humans to benefit the plants (apples for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication, and the potato for control over nature's food supply). You will learn many new facts in the process that will fascinate you. The book's main value is that you will learn that we need to be more thoughtful in how we assist in the evolution of plant species.
The book builds on Darwin's original observations about how artificial evolution occurs (evolution directed by human efforts). So-called domesticated species thrive while the wild ones we admire often do not. Compare dogs to wolves as an example. Mr. Pollan challenges the mental separation we make between wild and domesticated species successfully in the book.
The apple section was my favorite. You will learn that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) was a rather odd fellow who was actually in the business of raising and selling apple trees. He planted a few seeds at the homes where he stayed overnight on his travels. Mr. Chapman had apple tree nurseries all over Ohio and Indiana, which he started 2-3 years before he expected an influx of settlers. Homesteading laws required these settlers to plant 50 apple or pears trees in order to take title to the land. And these apples were for making hard apple cider, not eating apples. He was the "American Dionysus" in Mr. Pollan's view. Apple trees need to be grafted to make good eating apples. Chapman's trees produced many genetic variations, which are good for the species. Apple trees became more narrow in their genes after other sources for alcohol and sweetness became available (from cane sugar). Now, the ancient genes of apple trees are being kept in living form from Kazakhstan, before they are lost due to economic development.
Tulips were the source of the famous Tulipmania in Holland. Rare colors occurred due to viruses. Those became extremely valuable during the tulip boom market in the 17th century. Now, growers try to keep the viruses out and we have much more dull, consistent species. We have probably lost much beauty in favor of order in the process.
The intoxicants in marijuana are probably caused by toxins that the plants make to kill off insects. Because the plant is a weed, it grows very rapidly. There is a hilarious story about the author's experiences in growing two plants that you will love. As the antidrug war progressed, marijuana became a hothouse plant and was bred and developed to grow much more rapidly under humid, high-light conditions indoors. You will read about modern commercial farms in Holland.
The potato story is the most complex. The Irish potato famine related to monoculture. The Incas had always planted a variety of potatoes to avoid the risk of disease. Now, biotechnology has added an insecticide to the leaves of potato plants, taking monoculture one step further. Interestingly, the insects are already becoming resistant to the insecticide. Are we building a new risk to famine with this approach? How will genetically altered potatoes affect humans? Is having consistent french fries at fast food places enough of an incentive to take this risk? These are the kinds of questions raised by this chapter.
Mr. Pollan has described a "dance of human and plant desire that left neither the plants nor the people . . . unchanged."
His key point is that we should be sure to include strong biodiversity in our approaches. Nature can create more variation faster than fledgling biotechnology industry can. Time has proven that biodiversity has many advantages for humans while monoculture has usually proven to have at least one major drawback. In reality, we can probably have both.
If you are like me, you will find Mr. Pollan's personal experiences with the plants and his investigations of the historical figures to be fascinating. He is a good story teller, and a fine writer.
After you read this book, take a walk through a park or a garden and think about Mr. Pollan's argument. Then consider how these principles can be applied to help ideas change, improve, and grow in more valuable ways.
Look at life from many different perspectives . . . and live more intelligently and beneficially!
Read this book and you may never eat a conventionally grown potato again. I know I won't. If I hadn't been a dedicated organic gardener for over 40 years, I would become one after reading THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. I find it incredibly puzzling that more people haven't bitten the organic bullet. I truly believe a diet of conventionally grown food can shorten your life and bring on all sorts of aches, pains, and illnesses you might not otherwise suffer. Organic gardening works and the stuff you grow is better for you. If you can't grow it, for goodness sakes, hustle on down to your closest Whole Foods store and buy it. Organic food may be more expensive than conventional foods, but in the long run you will save on medical bills.
Michael Pollen's book is simply the best set of gardening essays I've read in a long while, maybe ever. And that's saying a lot because I am a big fan of gardening books (I've reviewed over 100 of them for Amazon). I haven't read something so enjoyable since Henry Mitchell's columns and books. It's not often a book of garden essays can make you laugh (misadventures with Mary Jane), make you cry (one million Irish dead of starvation), make you angry (one million Irish dead), and make you smile (is there any tulip so lovely as `The Queen of the Night?'
Pollan covers four plants, Apples, Tulips, Marijuana, and Potatoes. His first chapter on apples, disabused me of all my notions about Johnny Appleseed. I had read Anna Pavord's book THE TULIP, so the tulip section of Pollan's book was the least interesting for me, although he added some interesting anecdotal information.
The best section of this book as far as I am concerned is the chapter on Marijuana. My husband is a substance abuse counselor and I recommended the chapter to him. It could have been titled, "Everything you ever wanted to know about Marijuana that they didn't tell you in medical school or criminology class." If you haven't yet decided the U.S. government officials who devised the war on drugs are nuts, read this chapter and you will become convinced. Drug war indeed!!! Didn't we learn anything with Al Capone??
The section on the potato plant is downright scary. Pollan's adventures with Monsanto are illuminating. Once again, the feds come out as the dumb bunnies. Or, maybe it's the elected officials and their appointees who won't let the EPA and USDA do it's job. The material on evolution in this section nicely complements Steve Jones' DARWIN'S GHOST. Monsanto is in the process of obtaining patents on natural substances and evolutionary processes that will affect the whole food chain-and the CEO says "trust me". Yeah, right.
Do yourself a favor, during the cold weather ahead. Curl up in an easy chair with a cup of tea and read this book. Whether you garden or not, you will love it.
Pollan makes the rather striking point in the Introduction that we and our domesticated plants are involved in a coevolutionary relationship. We use them and they in turn use us. The bumblebee thinks that he is the "subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar" is the object. "But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom." (p. xiv)
And so it is with us. There is no subject and no object. The grammar is all wrong. We plant and disperse the apple, thinking we act from our volition, yet from the apple's point of view, it has enticed us through its bribe of sweetness to further its propagation. It has played upon our desire. The same can be said of every other plant "domesticated" by humans. As Pollan points out, from a larger point of view our farms and gardens are just another part of the "wild" environment. And we, too, are part of that environment--increasingly a most significant part. The plants, and of course the cows, the ants, the roaches, the dogs and the cats, adjust to the environment, or they don't. The ones that do will flourish. Those that don't, the mighty oak, perhaps, the hard wood trees of equatorial jungles, the tigers and the condor, that cannot, will go the way of the dodo.
This idea is not original with Pollan, of course, but nowhere have I seen it presented so convincingly. In a sense we are not the doer, we are the done. Pollan illustrates his thesis in four chapters on the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
In the chapter on tulips and the tulip mania we learn that we are probably hard-wired to love flowers. Why? Because "the presence of flowers...is a reliable predictor of future food." (p. 68) We love what is good for us. We find beauty in that which nourishes. Pollan adds that "recognizing and recalling flowers helps a forager get to the fruit [that is to come] first." (p. 68) I might add that our love for little animals is both in their resemblance to our children and (hidden from our consciousness) their potential nutritional value in a time of famine. One might watch on PBS's Nature series to see how lovingly the big cat doth lick its prey.
In the chapter on marijuana Pollan admits to growing the noxious weed in his garden among the potatoes andthe tulips, but incurs paranoia since such horticulture is against the law. He points with restraint to the absurdity of the anti-marijuana laws, to the unconstitutional seizure of property by the marijuana police, etc., but one senses that he's pulling his punches. Or perhaps he feels that something is gained by using a quiet voice. He goes to Amsterdam and finds out just how potent the new marijuana has become. He views an indoor marijuana grow room and sees how sinsemilla is produced while noting that cannabis has become America's number one cash crop. (p. 130). He also notes that "the rapid emergence of a domestic marijuana industry represents a triumph of protectionism" (p. 131). Yes, Virginia, the drug war is artificially supporting the high price of marijuana and protecting domestic "farmers" from foreign competition.
The chapter on the apple concentrates on the life and career of John Chapman, AKA Johnny Appleseed, in which Pollan transforms the Disney-ish Christianized American folk hero into "the American Dionysus." The reason? The apple seeds that Chapman dispersed grew not into Red Delicious apples or Macintoshes but into scrawny little things, mostly too bitter to eat that were made into hard cider, which contained about three percent alcohol, the drink of default for the pioneers. They loved him for it, and occasionally there did indeed grow out of the cider orchards a tree or two that brought forth fruit that could be eaten with pleasure, and made into pies and butter....
The final chapter on the potato has Pollan planting Monsanto's genetically engineered NewLeaf potato, a potato that produces its own insecticide as part of the potato itself by using a gene borrowed from a common bacterium found in the soil. Pollan weighs the significance of this while recalling the history of the potato from its origins in the Andes through its economic effect on Europe, and especially Ireland, to its status today. He comes out strongly against monoculture and in favor of biodiversity. He reports on Monsanto's infamous "Terminator" technology, genetic alteration of plants so that their seeds are sterile, requiring the farmer to become dependent upon Monsanto for seed, a technology that Monsanto "has forsworn" following "an international barrage of criticism." (p. 233)
This a very pretty book written in an understated style about how we deceive ourselves, how we fail to see the world as it really is; how we see the world from a singular and restricted point of view, we as subject and actor, the rest of the environment as acted upon, when in truth, we are just part of the larger ecology, part of the process. We are creatures that kid ourselves to make more palpable our morally ambiguous behavior.
My favorite insight of many in the book comes from page 247 where Pollan, in recalling the brilliant time-lapse photography from David Attenborough's PBS series, "The Private Life of Plants," observes, "...our sense of plants as passive objects is a failure of imagination, rooted in the fact that plants occupy what amounts to a different dimension."
on July 22, 2001
Pollan's The Botany of Desire is certainly a fascinating book, and I would say that it is also a valuable read, but not for its scientific accuracy or integrity. Firstly, the author is not a scientist but a journalist, and we all know that journalists tend to glorify and exaggerate. His argument itself is attractive in some ways but consistently equivocal and vague. Though skeptical throughout, I did enjoy this book for the author's fluid writing, good sense of humor, and solid attempts and evolutionary insight.
Pollan claims that that the plants we domesticate have evolved to please our senses and thus encourage us to grow them in vast amounts, in effect, helping them to propagate. At first, this is a very attractive idea, but with further thought it does not hold up. Are people and the plants they grow commercially really in an obligate mutualistic relationship? Well, yes, they are. Human society, particularly in industrially developed countries, has become dependent on domesticated crops. But I would argue that we have moulded these crops to our own ends; the influence of natural selection upon these crops' ancestors is not as significant as the artificial selection we exerted upon them. Yes, apple trees did first have to get our attention before we would start growing them voluntarily, but we have artificially selected the apples that you and I eat today. Those huge Granny Smiths and Red and Golden Delicious you see at the grocery are not wild type species in the least bit. They are as much a designed piece of technology as is a finely tuned engine, and the orchard in which they grow is not really different from a factory. These domesticated species would never have flourished in a primitive environment, and they are totally defenseless to pests and other threats without the aid of their inventors, us. What difference does this make? We are still producing large numbers of them; isn't that all that counts? Well, you could always say that we are propagating the apples, potatoes, cannabis, whatever, but we produce them on our terms, not theirs. We artificially select the characters we want, and then we clone them by vegetative methods. The plants were not and are not evolving to please us; they are being manipulated to please us. Think about all the seedless fruits we have developed and sustained (grapes, bananas, watermelon, pinneapple, just to name a few). This process is the equivalent of evolutionary castration, reducing these plants to nothing more than a toolbox of malleable biotic mechanisms. They are no longer independently evolving; we sustain them solely for our own benefit, and the genetic lines of the plants themselves are frozen in time.
Now that I have griped, I must say that this book is not without its benefits. I had not really thought about plants the way Pollan presents here, and I must thank him for opening my eyes in this respect. Although I don't agree with him, I derived great value in following his thought process about domesticated plants. For this reason, I would recommend this book to those who would like to debate an interesting evolutionary topic that is a nice twist on traditional perspective.
on July 21, 2002
Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire is a collection of four essays on four different plants, each representing a desire that humans have: apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and potatoes (control). Pollan's writing is clear and purposeful, full of the kind of rampant speculation that would get a real scientist in trouble (or labeled as a "pop scientist" as Carl Sagan was), but perfect for the gardener-turned-investigator that Pollan is. In high school, we learn that plots boil down to basic structures, one of them being human vs. nature. Pollan attempts to flip that and write a book that is nature vs. humans by focusing on how the plants benefit from the years of selection by humans. Although the book is obstensibly about the plants, Pollan introduces you to a number of people who provide both the assistance and the foils for his natural protagonists, like: Johnny Appleseed (a real figure) and Bill Jones (who is more interested in a St. Appleseed); Monsanto, their captive customers, and the off-the-grid organic farmer Mike Heath; Bryan R., a breeder and grower of marijuana in Amsterdam, who is both frightened and proud of his patch of [marijuana]; and Dr. Pauw, who owned all but one of the most desired tulips during the mania that hit Holland.
The style of the book resembles that of John McPhee, partly because of its four-essay structure, but also in the short, broken sections that flit back-and-forth in time, place and thought. Pollan, unlike McPhee, has a conclusion to draw from his subject, though, and that is the need to support biodiversity and his fear of monoculture--be it a natural one like the reliance on the "lumper" potato in Ireland that led to the Great Potato Famine or the artificial one of human culture, where people show a range of interest on many things, not just the tulip (or dot.com) of the moment. Reading between the lines, one can celebrate not only the wonder of nature but also fear the danger of hubris in thinking that we are separate from that nature, that we are not as changed by it as we change it. In these days of global warming and other environmental pressures, it's a lesson we would all do well to heed.
on March 30, 2002
I just finished this lovely little book,and would highly reccommend it. If nothing else, this book prepares one for many interesting conversations. I am now knowledgable about the true Johnny Appleseed, the tulip craze of Holland, the highly specialized marijuana culture, and new developments in the genetic engineering of potatoes. (To name a few!)
The fact that Pollan is not a scientist, but an avid gardener and researcher, among other things, should be considered an asset to the reader. He avoids esoteric scientific terminology, but the text remains sophisticated because his allusions prove huge amounts of research. Each part of the book, each "desire", has its own special charm. I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite. This book truly opens one's eyes to "a plant's-eye view of the world". Though by no means the be-all-end-all on this topic, it is a beautiful natural history.
on January 15, 2002
This is an amazing book.
Author Pollan takes us on a journey through history, botany, and the human psyche through examination of four plants - the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato.
Recurring themes through the book are how plants benefit from encouraging human attention, and the dangers of monoculture, especially how modern man has taken the diversity available in nature and severely limited that diversity, limiting the plants' ability to respond to environmental challenges.
Throughout the book he sprinkles tidbits of information on the plant described, and on the surrounding human culture. He reveals, for instance, that the apple was not only one of the only sources of sweetness in early America, but that the main use of apples in early America was cider. Because we have so limited the original diversity of the apple into just a few strains, apples require large amounts of artificially-applied pesticide to fight the continually-adapting apple pests.
He explains not only how the tulip mania in Holland rose and fell, but why the prized feathered or "broken" tulips were less hardy.
In the discussion on marijuana, Pollan diverges into interesting discussions of the chemistry of human consciousness, how psychoactive plants interact with our consciousness, society's reaction to the use of marijuana, and how strengthened prohibitions against marijuana have ironically led to more potent marijuana.
Talking about the potato, Pollard discusses the dangers of genetically engineered plants - bringing in a pesticide gene from a bacteria to the potato, which results in not only biological dangers, but the danger of putting big business in tight control of agriculture. Pollard also discusses not only how the Irish potato blight came to be, but why it particularly impacted the Irish.
Woven through all these discussions is the theme of the split human attitude toward nature - admiring its wildness, while attempting to exert maximum control over it.
You'll enjoy this book - as you will a similar book (though less esoteric) - _An Empire of Plants: People and Plants that Changed the World_ by Toby and Will Musgrave, which explores the worlds of tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, tea, poppies, quinine and rubber.
on May 7, 2002
This book languished on my shelf for far too long, until one of the dozen or so people who've recommended it to me finally threatened to summarize it in detail if i didn't take the plunge.
I'm exceedingly glad that i did.
The book is breathtaking, and at 245 pages it reads like a breezy 15. Granted, an editor might have trimmed it here and there, but as it stands it's as close to perfect as books get these days. And considering how ripe and firm and sweet and tart and purely delicious it is, the juice running down my chin by the end is really only a pleasure.
For one thing, these four topic plants - apple, tulip, cannabis, potato - are arranged in a surprisingly delightful order. Going into the book with only the barest knowledge of its particulars, i was at first seduced by Pollan's lucid pastoralism, then increasingly riveted through the remainder of the book. Really, it just gets better and better as you go along.
But while his discussions of the topic plants are crucial to its success, most of all this is a book about power - who or what has power, how power works, and whether our wills will even allow us to address these questions.
I think those who call this work "natural history" or "gardening" are at least partly missing the point.
It's a brilliant study of the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic - a fundamental dynamic thoroughly denied by our culture, but absolutely essential to even the most basic understanding of it.
And it's poetry - beautiful, frightening, invigorating, fluid, challenging, mind-expanding, and dangerous.
Michael Pollan likes bees, and mentions them frequently in _The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World_ (Random House). "A bumblebee would probably... regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom." His thesis in his book is that plants have not manipulated just bees, but humans as well in the ten thousand years since agriculture started. If we have a success with a plant, it is just as true to say that the plant is having a success with us. We may have learned plenty, but the plants have learned as well: make a flashier flower, a tastier tuber and those humans will do just what you want. Pollan examines apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes and finds that we are serving them well.
Apples we grow for sweetness, and sweetness surrounds our image of Johnny Appleseed, but Pollan shows that this strange character was not delivering apple orchards to the pioneers as much as he was delivering the alcoholic beverage cider, and incidentally he was making preserves of wild apple trees. Tulips we grow for beauty, and it is a beauty that has driven people wild. Pollan reviews the story of the Tulipomania of seventeenth century Holland, and shows that by what Darwin called "artificial selection," humans chose tulips that looked fancier, and tulips got fancier in order to be chosen. Marijuana we grow for intoxication, and Pollan admires what has happened with it: "_This_ was what the best gardeners of my generation had been doing all these years: they had been underground, perfecting cannabis." The government has boosted the potency of marijuana by forcing growing inside, where even carbon dioxide can be forced into the plants. The strangest and most troubling of the four stories is the potato, which we grow as a staple crop. Pollan got hold of the New Leaf potato from Monsanto, genetically engineered to have a toxin throughout the plant that kills beetles. The problem is that the toxin is behaving differently from natural toxins. Bees take it in pollen to other plants, and we know that monarch butterflies die when they eat milkweed dusted with pollen with the toxin in it; will this happen in the field? Pollan's potatoes grow into fine specimens, needing less worry and care than his other potatoes, but they fail as a harvest; he can't make himself eat them.
Pollan is an avid gardener and writes about these plants, all of which he has himself raised at one time or other, with an enjoyable wit and clarity. There is plenty of science packed into his chapters, as well as amusing personal stories and cautionary tales. Most important, his lesson of how plants are not just objects for our manipulation but are linked in pushing us along as we push them provides a vital evolutionary lesson.