Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Pollan: The Botany of Desire—Valentine for a Dozen Roses


Michael Pollan's interesting treatise The Botany of Desire is a four-part examination of mankind's interaction with plants, with its main premise that man and domesticated plants have formed a symbiotic link of the same kind enjoyed by flowers and bees.

Pollan examines four specific plants in his exploration of this theme. Sweetness (the apple), Beauty (the tulip), Intoxication (marijuana) and Control (the potato) are all desires of man that are satisfied by plants. For each desire, Pollan makes his case that man and plant have mutually adjusted each other. So, as the cover text asks, "who is really domesticating whom?"
The four plants whose stories this book tells are what we call "domesticated species," a rather one-sided term... that leaves the erroneous impression that we're in charge. We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests. The species that have spent the last ten thousand or so years figuring out how best to feel, heal, clothe, intoxicate and otherwise delight us have made themselves some of nature's greatest success stories.
—Introduction to The Botany of Desire

Sweetness: Once, sweetness stood for all that satisfied desire: wholesomeness, freshness, fertility and purity. Women, good farm plots, economies and philosophies were "sweet" to the extent that they were productive and good. Even now, though sweetness has lost most of its power, it is still a highly desired quality for food, especially fruit. Pollan tells the story of the apple tree, from its roots in Eurasia as a bitter shrub to its spread across the American frontier by John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) in an early American capitalist success story.

Beauty: The tale of man's desire for botanical beauty is told through the story of the tulip, which "has been reinvented every century or so to reflect our shifting ideals of beauty." Pollan contrasts his "boyish view" of flowers as pointless with the frenzy of passion for them in Dutch history, a passion that literally made and broke banks in Holland in the 17th century.
This stands for that: flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a field of wildflowers brims with meanings not of our making. Move into the garden, however, and the meanings multiply as the flowers take aim not only at the bee's or bat's or butterfly's obscure notions of the good... but ours as well.

Intoxication: From the medieval gardens of wizards to the herbal gardens of the country chef, plants that provide toxins and intoxicants have always had a place. Even our tame residential borders are likely to contain catnip, especially if we have a family feline to indulge. Pollan follows the discovery of marijuana in the ancient East (from the loopy behavior of pigeons eating cannabis seeds), through the incremental increase in sturdiness and resin production driven in North America, ironically enough, by the war on drugs.
With the solitary exception of the Eskimos, there isn't a people on earth that doesn't use psychoactive plants to effect a change in consciousness, and there probably never has been. As for the Eskimos, their exception only proves the rule: historically, Eskimos didn't use psychoactive plants because none of them will grow in the Arctic. (As soon as the white man introduced the Eskimo to fermented grain, he immediately joined the consciousness changers.)

Control: Why the potato for Pollan's thesis on the desire for control? Because this plant is his experience with genetically-altered plants. Monsanto looked at the devastation wreaked in Ireland by the potato blight, and the crash of potato production in America's high plains following the advent of the Colorado potato beetle, and decided to create a resistant strain of the plant. Pollan looks closely at the whole topic of biotech crops with a fairly even-handed approach.
Today's gain in control over nature will be paid for by tomorrow's new disorder, which in turn will become simply a fresh problem for science to solve. We can cross that bridge when we come to it. [Emphasis the author's.]

As well as being an enjoyable book to read, The Botany of Desire has a substantial bibliography, with plenty of suggestions for further reading, and is liberally indexed. Pollan unravels the complex interconnections of history, botany and human nature to give us a satisfying and unique perspective on desirable fruit, flower, weed and food plants.


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