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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World Paperback – May 28, 2002
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From The New Yorker
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
—The New York Times
“[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him to root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places.... Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A wry, informed pastoral.”
—The New Yorker
“We can give no higher praise to the work of this superb science writer/ reporter than to say that his new book is as exciting as any you’ll read.”
“A whimsical, literary romp through man’s perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.”
—Los Angeles Times
- Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 28, 2002)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 271 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0375760393
- ISBN-13 : 978-0375760396
- Lexile measure : 1350L
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.15 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #15,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2007, is subtitled: “A Natural History of Four Meals.” The number “four” is also operative in “The Botany of Desire,” which was published in 2002. It is the story of four plants: apples, tulips, cannabis and potatoes. Reflecting the theme of the title, there are four human desires that are associated with these plants: sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, respectively.
Early in the book Pollan teasingly throws out the idea that perhaps the classic view: “People cultivate plants” should be inverted. For sure, Pollan does not fall off some “New Age talk-to-the-plants” cliff (and they will talk back) but posits a sound argument that without a conscious effort, plants evolve to utilize humans and animals to make up for their lack of mobility. His introduction is entitled: “The Human Bumblebee.”
Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan) means “father of the apple.” From the surrounding area the apple spread throughout the world, in part, aided by John Chapman, an American folklore hero more famously called: “Johnny Appleseed.” Pollan traveled to eastern Ohio, which, in 1806, was once the American frontier, and attempted to sort out the man from the myth, providing many an illuminating insight. Among those insights: apples were planted not for eating, but for drinking… in fermented form, and it was Prohibition that forced the apple growers to concoct the marketing slogan: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Tulips originated in Turkey. An Austrian Ambassador to the Court of Suleyman the Magnificent in Constantinople served as the “bumblebee” in this case, bringing tulip bulbs back to Europe, where they spread to Holland and fueled one of the more famous financial “bubbles,” ironically among normally staid Calvinists, in the 17th Century. A “holy grail” among tulip cultivators is a black tulip since black occurs so infrequently in the living plant world. The grail is still elusive but Pollan is proud of his dark maroon one.
Cannabis is associated with the desire for intoxication. Hidden in plain sight, as Pollan says, is the chronic problem with mind-altering substances that are abused: “toxic.” Pollan provides a brilliant exposition on this perennial flashpoint of America’s cultural wars. Anslinger, and “Reefer Madness” make the obligatory cameo appearance. Much more instructive was the update from the ‘60’s, in terms of how marijuana is raised and cultivated in the United States, and the pendulum swinging back and forth towards legalization (written in 2002, he does not anticipate its legalization in neighboring Colorado, or a handful of other states). He has justified concerns about the two “errant” plants in his backyard, noting under federal asset forfeiture laws that if a case was brought: “The People of Connecticut v. Michael Pollan’s Garden”, his land could become the property of the New Milford Police Department. Pollan introduced me to Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist who isolated the chemically active component: THC. The author provides a BRILLIANT description of “plain-ol’” vanilla ice cream as experienced in an altered state of consciousness, and questions whether, chemically there is a difference between the chemically-aided version and that induced by meditation, fasting, and other methods. Indeed, there is a “sense of wonder,” as Pollan says, about seeing things fresh and anew, as a child might, that can make a trip worthwhile, so all the news does not repeat itself.
Potatoes are the subject of the last chapter, starting their journey from their historic epicenter high in the Andes and brought back to Europe by the conquering Spaniards. They may have been introduced into Ireland by a shipwreck from the Spanish armada in 1588, providing a godsend to a starving people where other crops would not readily grow. A “godsend” until the famine of the 1840’s caused a reduction by half of Ireland’s population (through starvation and emigration). The dangers of an agricultural “monoculture.” Pollan visits the headquarters of Monsanto in St. Louis, which is doing so much to introduce the entire world to the “intellectual property” of patented genes and seeds and goes off to Idaho to describe its implementation.
Indicative of Pollan’s outlook and writing style is the following quote concerning his visit to the St. Louis Monsanto headquarters, and his meeting with Dave Hjelle, the company’s director of regulatory affairs: “Dave Hjelle is a disarmingly candid man, and before we finished our lunch he uttered two words that I never thought I’d hear for the lips of a corporate executive, except perhaps in a bad movie. I’d assumed these two words had been scrupulously expunged from the corporate vocabulary many years ago, during a previous paradigm long since discredited, but Dave Hjelle proved me wrong: ‘TRUST US’.”
To see anew, and act anew, and the catalyst can come from a book: 6-stars for Pollan’s many, many fine insights.
Taking apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes, the author looks at how these plants pander to our desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. In doing so, he takes the reader on an interesting journey through history, civilisation, capitalism, and technological advancement.
There are, nevertheless, a few aspects in the author's style of writing that I feel are not reader friendly. The book consists of very long chapters which are not organised under any subheadings that would help the reader to follow his train of thought. Indeed he often jumps from one idea to another in a rather disorganised manner. There is a theme that he comes back to throughout his book--that of Apollonian order vs Dionysian diversity. However, he harps on this theme so often that the idea quickly loses its initial freshness to the reader.
In all, interesting stuff though rather disorganised.
A great little read that will provoke thought and discussion. It will leave you wanting more.
Top reviews from other countries
He has the most magical, open mind; the ability to take the everyday and look at it like a true artist - thus forcing the reader to look anew at his/her own everyday.
Here, he looks at four plant species whose development and spread has been closely linked with Homo sapiens - the apple, the tulip, the cannabis plant and the potato, and considers the evolutionary advantage from the plant perspective. The book uncovers history, folk-law, economics, politics and much more.
Pollan delivers much fascinating information and has the lightest and most passionately engaged of writing styles. He is a wonderful raconteur. I read this book with a wider and wider smile, thoroughly delighted and enchanted.
This book reminded me in many ways of Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers by Sharman Apt Russell. Both authors have the ability to be fascinatingly informative whilst simultanously managing charm, entertainment, profound thought and beauty.
Both effortlessly illustrate Blake's:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And A heaven In a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity In the Palm of Your Hand
And eternity in an hour
They are writers who can take the mundane, and open it to deep meaning, philosophical complexity and education
A small factual teaser from the tulip section - the most prized and valuable tulips were those variegated by fine filagrees of crimson patterning upon the primary colour base. But this was caused by the presence of a virus, so over time, plants grown from bulblets broken off from the 'parent' bulb would grow weaker and weaker - so increasing the rarity and fabulous cost of the prized variety. The evolutionary gainer from mans' 'meddling', not the tulip, but the virus, which we disseminated!
Definitely recommend this to anyone.