The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

4.1 74
by Michael Pollan
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to

See more details below

  • Checkmark Science & Medicine Books You Won't Want to Miss  Shop Now

Overview

The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Pollan shines a light on our own nature as well as on our implication in the natural world.”
—The New York Times

“[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him to root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places.... Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“A wry, informed pastoral.”
—The New Yorker

“We can give no higher praise to the work of this superb science writer/ reporter than to say that his new book is as exciting as any you’ll read.”
—Entertainment Weekly

“A whimsical, literary romp through man’s perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.”
—Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times
A whimsical, literary romp through man's perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.
Entertainment Weekly
We can give no higher praise to the work of this superb science writer/ reporter than to say that his new book is as exciting as any you'll read.
New York Times Book Review
[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him to root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places.... Best of all, Pollan really loves plants.
New York Times
Pollan shines a light on our own nature as well as on our implication in the natural world.
New Yorker
A wry, informed pastoral.
Burkhard Bilger
[Pollan] has a wide-ranging intellect, an eager grasp of evolutionary biology and a subversive streak that helps him root out some wonderfully counterintuitive points. His prose both shimmers and snaps, and he has a knack for finding perfect quotes in the oddest places (George Eliot is somehow made to speak for the sense-attenuating value of a good high). Best of all, Pollan really loves plants. His first book described his education as a gardener, and that hands-and-knees experience animates every one of his descriptions -- whether of hydroponic marijuana (''I don't think I've ever seen plants that looked more enthusiastic'') or of roses (''flung open and ravishing in Elizabethan times, obligingly buttoned . . . up and turned prim for the Victorians.'').
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan's fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature. Using the histories of apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis to illustrate the complex, reciprocal relationship between humans and the natural world, he shows how these species have successfully exploited human desires to flourish. "It makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees," Pollan writes as he seamlessly weaves little-known facts, historical events and even a few amusing personal anecdotes to tell each species' story. For instance, he describes how the apple's sweetness and the appeal of hard cider enticed settlers to plant orchards throughout the American colonies, vastly expanding the plant's range. He evokes the tulip craze of 17th-century Amsterdam, where the flower's beauty led to a frenzy of speculative trading, and explores the intoxicating appeal of marijuana by talking to scientists, perusing literature and even visiting a modern marijuana garden in Amsterdam. Finally, he considers how the potato plant demonstrates man's age-old desire to control nature, leading to modern agribusiness's experiments with biotechnology. Pollan's clear, elegant style enlivens even his most scientific material, and his wide-ranging references and charming manner do much to support his basic contention that man and nature are and will always be "in this boat together." (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Plants are important to us for many reasons. Pollan, an editor and contributor to Harper's and the New York Times Magazine and author of Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, muses on our complex relationships with them, using the examples of the apple, the tulip, the marijuana plant, and the potato. He weaves disparate threads from personal, scientific, literary, historical, and philosophical sources into an intriguing and somehow coherent narrative. Thus, he portrays Johnny Appleseed as an important force in adapting apple trees to a foreign climate but also a Dionysian figure purveying alcohol to settlers; tulips as ideals of beauty that brought about disaster to a Turkish sultan and Dutch investors; marijuana as a much desired drug related to a natural brain chemical that helps us forget as well as a bonanza for scientific cultivators; and the potato, a crop once vilified as un-Christian, as the cause of the Irish famine and finally an example of the dangers of modern chemical-intense, genetically modified agriculture. These essays will appeal to those with a wide range of interests. Recommended for all types of libraries. [For more on the tulip, see Anna Pavord's The Tulip (LJ 3/1/99) and Mike Dash's Tuplipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused (LJ 3/1/00). Ed.] Marit S. Taylor, Auraria Lib., Denver Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375760396
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
05/28/2002
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
125,090
Product dimensions:
5.14(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.66(d)
Lexile:
1350L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Desire: Sweetness
Plant: The Apple

(Malus domestica)

If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806—somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say—you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you’d have caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed the scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting in the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.

The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already well known to people in Ohio by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomace that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but it’s safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth—a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,” and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman’s story. It’s the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. “Exotics,” we’re apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat.

As an emblem of the marriage between people and plants, the design of Chapman’s peculiar craft strikes me as just right, implying as it does a relation of parity and reciprocal exchange between its two passengers. More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plants’ point of view—“pomocentrically,” you might say. He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes likened himself to a bumblebee, and why he would rig up his boat the way he did. Instead of towing his shipment of seeds behind him, Chapman lashed the two hulls together so they would travel down the river side by side.

We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species. Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated. It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.

The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America. Like generations of other immigrants before and after, the apple has made itself at home here. In fact, the apple did such a convincing job of this that most of us wrongly assume the plant is a native. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew a thing or two about natural history, called it “the American fruit.”) Yet there is a sense—a biological, not just metaphorical sense—in which this is, or has become, true, for the apple transformed itself when it came to America. Bringing boatloads of seed onto the frontier, Johnny Appleseed had a lot to do with that process, but so did the apple itself. No mere passenger or dependent, the apple is the hero of its own story.

Read More

What People are saying about this

Edward Hoagland
Like Tracy Kidder, Michael Pollan is a writer to immerse in. He's informed and amusing, with a natural sort of voice that spools on inventively beyond expectations into a controlled but productive and intriguing obsessiveness (whether on Johnny Appleseed or marijuana). A fine book.
— (Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points)
Betty Fussell
Anyone who has ever made personal contact with an apple, spud, tulip, or marijuana bud should read this book and be astonished at the eternal tango of men and plants, choreographed with wit, daring, and humanity by this botanist of desire who knows equally the power of plants and of words.
— (Betty Fussell, author of My Kitchen Wars)
Daniel J. Hinkley
Not since Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch have I been held so spellbound by a book. Using only four plants, The Botany of Desire succeeds in illuminating the radiant force of evolution. Remarkable.
— (Daniel J. Hinkley, author of The Explorer's Garden)
Mark Kurlansky
It is a rare pleasure to read a book of ideas so graceful and witty that it makes you smile - at times even laugh out loud - with delight as it challenges you to rethink important issues.
— (Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World)
Penelope Hobhouse
A fascinating and disturbing account of man's strange relationship with plants and plant science. Michael Pollan inspires one to rethink basic attitudes. Beautifully written, it is as compelling as a detective thriller.
— (Penelope Hobhouse, author of On Gardening)

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >