REVIEW: The Botany of Desire

Plants and people use each other in co-evolutionary relationships

Reviewed by Adam Grybowski


The Botany of Desire: A plant's-eye view of the world

Michael Pollan, Random House, 2002; ISBN 0375760393; 271 pp; $13.95

purchase now

September 28 , 2004: Michael Pollan promises a plant’s perspective of the world in The Botany of Desire and delivers a book about human nature. Inverting the natural tendency to believe that people are somehow outside of nature, he asserts that plants manipulate our desires to help them survive and proliferate – that we are, in essence, rendered "human bumblebees." Leaping across many genres, the result is a joyful, informative, and fascinating book.

Pollan’s premise is reminiscent of the work of contemporary philosopher Elaine Scarry, who believes made objects ‘know’ things about people. For example, a chair ‘knows’ something about the problem of weight and our need to relieve that problem. Pollan contends that a flower ‘knows’ something about our ideas of and longings for beauty, and (re)makes itself in order to best exploit them.

The domestication of the apple, for instance, Pollan declares, is connected with our desire for sweetness. The mythic figure of Johnny Appleseed—aka John Chapman—looms large in this first chapter. Chapman planted apple trees across the American frontier, spreading a coveted quality without match: sweetness. Pollan attempts to deconstruct the legend and portray Chapman and his intentions as they truly existed. For example, the apples he planted were mostly not eaten fresh, but were made into hard cider.

Chapman is equated with the Greek god Dionysus, who brought wine – a catalyst for boisterousness - to civilization. The blurred line between wildness/wilderness and a cultured society is a reference point Pollan invokes throughout the narrative. He is anxious to return human beings to the circle of nature - despite our almost complete domestication of wilderness - and the invocation of the Greek god is a clever way to navigate that idea. Chapman’s depiction is also in a way the prototype of the author himself; they both had the imagination to subvert the human role in domestication and emphasize the role of the plant.

The citizens of Holland were unable to achieve such a perspective during a brief three-year span in the 17th century. They were caught in a whirlwind of fevered desire for trade and tulip bulbs. A seemingly human phenomenon, “Tulipmania”, as it has since become known, is revealed as a great accomplishment for a particular flower species. “Of course, their willingness to take part in the moving game of human culture has proven a brilliant strategy for their success,” Pollan notes, “for there are a lot more roses and tulips around today, in a lot more places, than there were before people took an interest in them. For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.” The beauty of the tulip became, for a time, more valuable than money.

The author busily strikes the right tone with a mixture of informal observation, speculation and historical analysis. The book’s profundity is both masked and elevated by its charm. There is more happening than may be readily apprehended, specifically because the ideas and the writing are a lot of fun.

Marijuana is best known for its intoxicating properties, despite its other practical uses. In the book's third chapter, Pollan makes an exuberant inquiry into the nature and experience of intoxication. The success of cannabis depends on how greatly it can gratify the human desire for intoxication while facing the prevention of its use. The plant’s prohibition and popularity make a remarkable story. The offshoot topics of intoxication – coping, brain chemistry, fulfillment, spirituality, consciousness – are explored and captured in a strikingly original way.

Finally, Pollan uses the humble potato—and the development of the genetically modified Bt potato—as an example of our desire for control. To kill the Colorado potato beetle a natural occurring pesticide is engineered into the genes of Monsanto’s NewLeaf potatoes. GMOs are controversial: they provide a solution to hunger, along with the threat of other uncalculated effects. The problems at the source of this technology - such as farmer’s rights, monoculture, and culture (the demand for perfect, unblemished French fries has consequences!) - are investigated, and rightly so. Socially, these are important issues, and the answers are often confusing and unsettling. “In fact, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t even officially consider the NewLeaf as food”. The NewLeaf is actually considered a pesticide and is under the jurisdiction of the EPA. Since learning this, the “Support Organic Farmers” bumper stickers I see around town appear that much more attractive.

Adam Grybowski is a former farmworker and a lover of good books.