, 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
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.