Reviewed by Cyndie Browning
(c) Copyrighted by Cyndie Browning 2001
    Have you read "The Botany of Desire" yet??  I finished it last night (9/1/2001) and it was SO good, I'm about ready to turn back to page one and read it all over again.

     The full title is "The Botany of Desire:  A Plant's-Eye View of the World," by Michael Pollan.  (Good name for the author of a book about botany, n'est-ce pas?)  In it, the author examines how our human desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control have molded the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato, respectively, into the plants you and I know (and, in some cases, love) today.  And, in a delightful twist, Pollan explores the possibility that by offering us what we desire, these same plants have manipulated us---whom he calls "the human bumblebees"---into providing the plants with the optimum conditions they need for growing and reproducing.

     When I first heard about this book, I was at once skeptical about a plant's ability to
manipulate humans into providing what the plant needs in order to grow.  I mean, really!! how could a plant make ME do anything I don't want to do?  Pollan seems to have struggled with the same question:

     "Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?"

     And his answer was that the plant can only
make us fuss with it in the same sense "that the flower 'makes' the bee pay it a visit."  In other words, the plant attracts us to it so that we can't help but fuss with it.

     There are readers who will resist Pollan's ideas as soon as they discover that he's talking about the way a plant evolves in order to entice bees, birds, and other creatures---including humans---to improve its chances of reproducing.  Evolution can be a very touchy subject with some people because they assume that evolution is in direct competition with the Bible as to which is "the Truth" (capital T on that) about how all life on earth came to be, as if it were an "either-or" choice.  However, Pollan's discussion goes nowhere near that flashpoint of contention.  Instead, he explains how plants (among other forms of life on earth) exist in a constant state of trial-and-error as they change, experiment, mutate, even make mistakes and die off---in short, how they evolve in an effort (1) to adapt themselves to their environment and (2) to entice pollinators, whether human or otherwise, to help them reproduce their own kind.  And I began to understand that evolution isn't a conscious process; it doesn't say, "hey, I'm gonna make that hummingbird's bill longer because it can't quite reach the nectar in this plant, which means it won't come near enough to the plant to feed so that the plant can dust its little head with pollen."  Rather, evolution is what we call the "trail" of the process of change that we observe
AFTER the fact; in this case, the process that caused the bill of some hummingbirds to change over time so that those hummers whose bills were longer could more effectively and efficiently feed themselves AND pollinate the plant at the same time.  The how and why of that process is a whole 'nother story that I'm not going to get into here, but suffice it to say that when I finally understood that meaning of the term "evolution," as used in this book, I no longer struggled with the concept.

     In a remarkable irony about how pollinators help plants reproduce "their own kind," I learned that apples planted from seeds do not "come true"; that is, "an apple tree grown from a seed will be a wildling bearing little resemblance to its parent....[and i]f not for grafting---the ancient technique of cloning trees---every apple in the world would be its own variety, and it would be impossible to keep a good one going beyond the life span of that particular tree."  Can you imagine??  Every Red Delicious apple ever harvested and eaten is a clone of the fruit from the original tree where such an apple was found to be growing!!! (and incidentally, the Delicious apple was so named back in 1893, and there's a charming little story that goes with how the tree was discovered and named.)  Well, that boggles my mind!!  It also makes me want to buy an apple, cut it open and harvest the 5 seeds within, and then plant them, just to see what comes up.

     Pollan told about how, as John Chapman (aka "Johnny Appleseed") traveled across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in the early 1800s, he planted millions of apple trees---from seed---all along what was then known as the frontier, usually in groves near areas along the rivers where he thought people would eventually settle.  As they did so and towns began to form, the settlers sought out his apple trees and, after selling the grove or leaving it in the hands of a manager, Chapman would move on deeper into "the wilderness" and plant more trees.  Now remember:  no two apple trees planted from seed ever produce the same variety of apple! and not only that but "the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible---'sour enough'," Thoreau once wrote, 'to set a squirrel's teeth on edge and make a jay scream'."  ('Course, the birdwatchers among us know it doesn't take much to make a jay scream!)  So I asked myself:  why would anyone go around planting apple trees if the fruit they produce is inedible (what the author called "a spitter")??  And the answer I found in the book was that the fruit was generally considered to be good for only one thing:  the making of cider.  During the 19th century, Americans drank apple cider the way we now drink coffee or sodas, and the fermented form of apple cider, known as "hard cider," was even more desirable than its nonalcoholic version.  So by planting his apple trees, Johnny Aappleseed brought alcohol to the frontier.  The author later describes how the idea of eating "an apple-a-day" didn't come along until Prohibition, as "part of a public relations campaign dreamed up by the apple industry in the early 1900s to reposition a fruit that the Women's Christian Temperance Union had declared war on," and that Carrie Nation's famous hatchet was good for more than busting down the door of a saloon; it was just as effective in chopping down "the very apple trees John Chapman had planted by the millions"!!

     The other thing that the odd apple tree provided to humans was sweetness.  Sugar was a rarity in 18th century America and, even when available, a luxury most Americans could not afford.  Pollan explains that until the English arrived in North America, there were no honey bees here and therefore no honey to speak of, and the Indians in the north relied in maple sugar for sweetness.  Sugar as we know it today didn't become plentiful and cheap until the late 19th century so until then, the sensation of sweetness for most people came from fruit, and "in America that usually meant the apple."

     Apparently, "[a]nthropologists have found that cultures vary enormously in their liking for bitter, sour, and salty flavors, but a taste for sweetness appears to be universal."  Pollan recounts the first time his infant son ever tasted sweetness in an absolutely delightful section of this chapter that I'll let you discover for yourself.  I myself have a terrible sweet tooth:  I tell the li'l gal who runs the cash register in the cafeteria downstairs at work that "my doctor said I have to eat a piece of chocolate cake everyday!"---and I usually do, too!!

     In the chapter on tulips, the desire here being beauty, I learned that just like apples, tulips don't "come true" from their seeds, either.  Tulips are duplicated (that is, cloned) by removing and replanting the small "bulb-lets" that grow on top of the main bulb of the plant, thus producing genetically identical copies of the original.  However, unlike apples, no one has ever figured out anything useful that tulips are good for, such as medicine or food, so the only thing that tulips offer us is beauty.  Pollan tells about how, in Holland during the 17th century, people began buying and trading "futures" in tulips, holding notes promising that when a particular tulip was finally removed from the ground (in June, to be replanted in October), the noteholder would own it.  The prices of these tulip futures and the accompanying frenzy to be part of "the tulip scene" grew to such an enormous extent that the economy in Holland came to an abrupt standstill in 1637, virtually overnight, when people suddenly found they couldn't sell their tulip notes at any price.

     Another interesting fact about tulips is how even a cloned tulip will occasionally "break" with its parent and throw a totally unanticipated color into its blooms.  The explanation for these breaks was fascinating reading and drove the author, at one point, to fantasize about digging up a "breaking" tulip he found in a Manhattan (NY) flower bed one day, and to run with it, screaming like a maniac, down the street while someone---a doorman from one of the hotels he passed---chased behind him yelling, "stop! thief!!"

     I've never smoked marijuana (which the author mostly called by its botanical name, cannibis, and I don't know which is the more correct but I'm more comfortable with the term "marijuana," and will continue using it here), so the chapter on this particular plant held little fascination for me in the beginning.... until I came to his discussion about the effect of intoxication and the universal human desire for experiencing an altered state of consciousness.  Apparently, "with the solitary exception of the Eskimos, there isn't a people on earth who doesn't use psychoactive plants to effect a change in consciousness," and the author goes on to state that "historically, Eskimos didn't use psychoactive plants because none of them will grow in the Arctic."  Well, jeez...... THAT makes sense!  But since I no longer enjoy the "altered state" of a mild buzz from drinking beer or wine (altho' I used to... ~:-), the appeal of marijuana or any mind-altering drug still didn't grab me.

     And then Pollan began talking about the way certain chemicals in marijuana (and other plants) seem to work on our brains, in particular, allowing us to focus on something as incidental as watching a dust mote dance in a sunbeam, allowing us to forget time and details and shut out extraneous influences that distract us from "the moment."  As Pollan notes, "[d]on't be so sure that forgetting is undesirable.  'Do you really want to remember all the faces you saw on the New York City subway this morning?' "  Without spoiling the book for you, I think I can add Pollan's conclusion about this effect:

     "For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach
     the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.  And
     the wonder of THAT experience, perhaps more than any other, seems to be at the
     very heart of the human desire to change consciousness, whether by means of
     drugs or any other technique."

     That passage really spoke to me.  Have you ever experienced one of those moments when you suddenly feel, "my god! it's great to be alive!!!!"??  I have (and without the aid of drugs, by the way).  They often occur when I'm driving somewhere in my car altho' I've never figured out why that does it for me.  The most recent that I can recall happened one day as I was driving home from a doctor's appointment; I came over the crest of a hill near my apartment and, looking out to the west across Tulsa, I suddenly thought, "god, it's great to be alive! and I'm happy.... right at this moment, I am supremely happy."  I have no idea what caused it or why it happened just then, but those moments are precious to me, and if that's something like the high people experience with marijuana, then I certainly do not begrudge them the experience.  (Altho' this does NOT mean I intend to take up the practice myself.... just so we're clear on that.  ~:-)

     The last plant discussed in this amazing book is the potato.  Like many of you, I have long associated the potato with Ireland and I knew vaguely about the great famine that occurred there in 1845, '46, and '48.  But I hadn't thought about the effect of introducing the potato in Ireland back in the 16th century, the result being that by the 18th century, a poor man could feed his whole family and their livestock a nutritionally complete food (potatoes supplemented with cow's milk) grown on just a few acres of land, at a time when the price of wheat was so high, a poor man couldn't afford to buy bread.  On the one hand, it was argued (after the wheat harvest in England failed in 1794) that "introducing a second staple [the potato] would be a boon in England, a way to feed the poor when bread was dear and keep wages---which tended to track the price of bread---from rising."  The other side argued that "while it was true that the potato fed the Irish, it also impoverished them, by driving up the country's population * * * and driving down its wages.  The prolific potato allowed young Irishmen to marry earlier and support a larger family; as the labor supply increased, wages fell.  The bounty of the potato was its curse."

     Altho' Pollan discusses the history of the potato in European culture (such as I've described above), the lion's share of the chapter, by far, is devoted to the topic of genetic engineering in our food and the way we seek to control the land, the pests, and the diseases that live in, on, and around the ground where we grow our food.  A search for "the perfect french fry" rules the market for potatoes around the world, which has led to tens of thousands of acres of farmland in this country being planted with the same crop:  the Russet Burbank potato.  And in their battle against pests and disease in their potato crops, farmers have come to rely so heavily on pesticides and fertilizers to bring their crops to term, that many of them deem their own crops unsafe for their families to eat.  The soil where they grow potatoes is gray, powdery, lifeless, and nearly sterile because of the heavy load of chemicals that permeates it.... and if the chemicals have saturated even the earth itself, then where do you suppose those chemicals end up??  Why, in the very crops that are grown in it, of course!  And THAT's a scary thought, isn't it?

     Pollan tells of visiting 3 different potato farms in Idaho, one of them an "organic" farmer who has to work harder than other farmers (who rely on chemicals) to outsmart the bugs that want to devour their crops, but he counters those pests by using a complex system of crop rotation "to avoid a build-up of crop-specific pests.  He's found, for instance, that planting wheat in a field prior to potatoes 'confuses' the potato beetles when they emerge their larval stage."  He plants a dozen different varieties of potatoes, never "betting the farm" on a single crop, and he also uses "green manures" (growing cover crops and plowing them under), cow manure, and even occasionally sprays the plants with liquified seaweed for fertilizer.  He also plants "strips of flowering plants on the margins of his potato fields---peas or alfalfa, usually---to attract the beneficial insects that dine on beetle larvae and aphids.  If there aren't enough beneficial insects around to do the job, he'll introduce ladybugs."  Pollan was startled to find that "instead of the uniform grayish powder I'd assumed was normal for the area, Heath's soil was dark brown and crumbly.  The difference, I understood, was that this soil was alive.  Much more than an inert mechanism for conducting water and chemicals to the crop's roots, it actually contributed nutrients of its own making to the plants."

     I tell ya, after reading this chapter and realizing all the poisons and fertilizers that are brought to bear on the land and the crops from which we get our McDonalds french fries (let alone baked potatoes w/butter, sour cream, chives, bacon bits, etc.), I'm hesitant to eat potatoes at all anymore, or if I do, I wonder whether the genetically engineered potatoes would be safer.  The author was faced with the same choice after growing some of the new genetically altered potatoes in his own garden.  I won't tell you what he decided; read the book and discover it for yourself.  Alas, it seems to me that eating potatoes has now become a question of choosing between eating "the evil you know vs. the evil you don't."

     All in all, this was a marvelous book, entertaining, informative, and written in a style that time-and-again made me break my promise to myself that "I'll only read to the end of this chapter and then I'm gonna put the book down."  I highly recommend it to you.
A Plant's-Eye View of the World

by Michael Pollan (2001)
Click on the book cover to go to a 2001 PBS interview with author Michael Pollan, first aired in 2001.