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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World Hardcover – May 8, 2001
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Working in his garden one day, Michael Pollan hit pay dirt in the form of an idea: do plants, he wondered, use humans as much as we use them? While the question is not entirely original, the way Pollan examines this complex coevolution by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants is unique. The result is a fascinating and engaging look at the true nature of domestication.
In making his point, Pollan focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. He uses the history of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how both the apple's sweetness and its role in the production of alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west, thus greatly expanding the plant's range. He also explains how human manipulation of the plant has weakened it, so that "modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop." The tulipomania of 17th-century Holland is a backdrop for his examination of the role the tulip's beauty played in wildly influencing human behavior to both the benefit and detriment of the plant (the markings that made the tulip so attractive to the Dutch were actually caused by a virus). His excellent discussion of the potato combines a history of the plant with a prime example of how biotechnology is changing our relationship to nature. As part of his research, Pollan visited the Monsanto company headquarters and planted some of their NewLeaf brand potatoes in his garden--seeds that had been genetically engineered to produce their own insecticide. Though they worked as advertised, he made some startling discoveries, primarily that the NewLeaf plants themselves are registered as a pesticide by the EPA and that federal law prohibits anyone from reaping more than one crop per seed packet. And in a interesting aside, he explains how a global desire for consistently perfect French fries contributes to both damaging monoculture and the genetic engineering necessary to support it.
Pollan has read widely on the subject and elegantly combines literary, historical, philosophical, and scientific references with engaging anecdotes, giving readers much to ponder while weeding their gardens. --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan's fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature. Using the histories of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis to illustrate the complex, reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world, he shows how these species have successfully exploited human desires to flourish. "It makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees," Pollan writes as he seamlessly weaves little-known facts, historical events and even a few amusing personal anecdotes to tell each species' story. For instance, he describes how the apple's sweetness and the appeal of hard cider enticed settlers to plant orchards throughout the American colonies, vastly expanding the plant's range. He evokes the tulip craze of 17th-century Amsterdam, where the flower's beauty led to a frenzy of speculative trading, and explores the intoxicating appeal of marijuana by talking to scientists, perusing literature and even visiting a modern marijuana garden in Amsterdam. Finally, he considers how the potato plant demonstrates man's age-old desire to control nature, leading to modern agribusiness's experiments with biotechnology. Pollan's clear, elegant style enlivens even his most scientific material, and his wide-ranging references and charming manner do much to support his basic contention that man and nature are and will always be "in this boat together."
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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A great little read that will provoke thought and discussion. It will leave you wanting more.
- tulips and the pursuit of beauty, apples and the pursuit of sweetness, marijuana and the pursuit of intoxication, and potatoes and the pursuit of a staple crop
- pollan moves from his experiences as a casual gardener, an intent breeder, an accidental discoverer, as an observer, a reader, a researcher to information he uncovered in histories, annals and journals seamlessly; in other words, he can tell you about his afternoon spent tending his tulip patch and the Dutch tulip mania in one continuous, endlessly entertaining flow
- the set up of the book is concise and well considered
- pollan's writing style is approachably anecdotal, but the book is in fact backed up with a lot of science
- for people who find his views on what to eat "political" or antagonizing, please still give this book a chance. I know vegans have used his other works to preach, and it put me off reading Pollan for a long time... but I am glad I gave this book a chance
I have only two problems with this book. First, the section on marijuana is a little scattered as Pollan begins to describe what the plant does to our mind, then descends into a rambling discussion on the importance of forgetting and the meaning of wonder. Not necessarily bad writing, but not really focused on plants, either.
My second problem is that while the first three sections do for the most part focus on the plants, the potato section is mostly an indictment of Monsanto, the seed company. While this is a company with plenty of demons to expose, the section could have been very interesting if it focused on the potato's evolution and transformations from noxious root to staple food. You get the feeling Pollan was just waiting to tee off on Monsanto and went off on a tangent.
All that being said, it is a very good book about a most interesting and unique topic. I have never thought about the "plant's-eye view," as Pollan says. He is a gifted writer who can make the strangest and most obscure topics exciting and interesting. Throughout his books you just stop after reading something and wonder at it. He tells of a plant that has evolved spots that appear to be a female bee's backside so that male bees plow into it, getting coated with pollen. Becoming frustrated, they do this multiple times to many different flowers and spread the pollen around. How amazing is that? A plant figuring out what the backside of an insect looks like. A year ago, I cared not one whit about plants, but now Pollan is one of my favorite writers.
I should add that I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Scott Brick while reading. The narration was excellent and really added to the experience. If your reading time is limited, I would recommend it.