Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Botany of Desire

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World
© 2001 Michael Pollan
256 pages

     Meander through your garden and ponder the meaning of life; such is the advice of Michael Pollan, who in The Botany of Desire asks what four domesticated plants (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes)  might tell us about ourselves. Although he describes his subject as human-plant coevolution, the final result is more philosophical than scientific. In truth, it’s a little of both – a surprising read that makes the average garden even more interesting.

            Pollan’s four chosen examples allow him to explore the subjects of sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The first section on apples is the most ‘scientific’, as he establishes fruits’ sweetness as not some happy accident, but an evolutionary strategy: animals that eat fruits swallow their seeds – and later deposit them in a pile of fertilizer. That sweetness appeals to us because it’s a signal: here lies energy-giving glucose, lots of it. Pollan’s treatment of each subject isn’t a straightforward “The relationship between plants and human evolution is THIS and THAT” --  Pollan strolls,  exploring side roads that somehow connect to one another. The section on apples introduces Johnny Appleseed,  praise for the merits of apple reproduction (each apple contains five radically different seeds: that great variety has allowed apple trees to thrive in different climates), and the introduction of a dichotomy that becomes a running theme: that of Apollian order and Dionysian wildness.

            Tulips inspire a discussion of beauty, with a history of tulip mania in Holland thrown in; Holland is also the stage for much of the discussion of marijuana. In that section, readers are treated to the comic tale of Pollan growing marijuana in his home garden in pot-friendlier times, then acting like a panicked sitcom character when his firewood delivery man, who doubled as a police chief, stopped by the homestead. This section is the most philosophical, since Pollan uses it to muse on consciousness. The final chapter, on potatoes and control, will be familiar ground to those who know Pollan’s usual subject. Here he revisits a topic introduced with the apples, the problems endemic to monocultures, and examines both the Irish Potato Famine and GMOs.  Each account is a mixture of history, science, philosophy, and personal anecdotes, and in this final section Pollan records his attempt to grow a potato that was engineered by Monsanto to produce its own insecticide, the “New Leaf”.  That astonished me: both that an author who despised GMOs and nutritional science for taking over food  would allow such things in his garden, and that Monsanto would allow the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a contributor to Food, Inc to play journalist with their magic potatoes. But Botany of Desire was written in 2001, possibly before Pollan had established his reputation as being critical of industrialized agriculture.

            Botany of Desire is fun reading for a foodie: it doesn’t have the teeth that Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food had,  but it’s also happily missing the anti-science tint that marred both of those. As usual, he provides plenty of food for thought.

Reefer Madness, Eric Schlosser
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

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