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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, the book that helped make Michael Pollan one of the most trusted food experts in America, the bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four ...
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, the book that helped make Michael Pollan one of the most trusted food experts in America, the bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma 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, the plants have also benefited at least as much from their association with us. So who is really domesticating whom?
Praise for the narrator: "Scott Brick uses his skill with expression...to produce an audible intoxication." - AudioFile
Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.
“[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.”
“A whimsical, literary romp through man’s perpetually frustrating and always unpredictable relationship with nature.”
—Los Angeles Times
Introduction: The Human Bumblebee
Ch. 1 Desire: Sweetness/Plant: The Apple 1
Ch. 2 Desire: Beauty/Plant: The Tulip 59
Ch. 3 Desire: Intoxication/Plant: Marijuana 111
Ch. 4 Desire: Control/Plant: The Potato 181
Barnes & Noble.com: I love the title of your book, especially since it refers both to human desires -- in your examples, sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control -- and also to the plant's desire to reproduce itself. As you point out, being domesticated has turned out to be the hands-down (or roots-down!) best way to maximize one's reproductive potential. What kinds of reactions have you gotten from people on this different way of looking at domestication?
Michael Pollan: You know, these days we feel so guilty about our power over nature that I think people find it heartening to learn that nature also exerts power over us in ways we scarcely notice. It's humbling but also exhilarating to realize we have a lot more in common with the bees than we realize. The bee thinks he's getting the better of the deal when he takes nectar from the flower, but in fact it's the flower that has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its genes from place to place. Our relationship with domesticated species -- plants as well as animals -- is no different, really. The evolutionary strategy of these species is to gratify our desires, in exchange for which we help them multiply and spread across the world. So who's really domesticating whom? What I find so encouraging about this slightly upside-down perspective is that it puts us back into the web of nature, as one species both acting on and being acted upon by other species -- which is of course what we are and will always be. We're less different from the rest of nature than we like to think.
B&N.com: Although not widely known, one of the hottest issues in biodiversity is the loss of domestic breeds that represent the genetic diversity of so many of our most important sources of food and other uses. You touch upon this issue several times throughout the book. Can you describe the importance of heirloom plants, seed banks, and so on?
MP: Yes, we're accustomed to thinking of biodiversity strictly in terms of wild nature -- places like the Amazon, where species loss is a serious problem. But of course the biodiversity of the domesticated species we depend on -- for our food, fiber, drugs, etc. -- is every bit as important. Every time we lose another variety of corn or cattle, an irreplaceable set of genes -- which is to say, a set of qualities of pest resistance, taste, color, anything you can think of -- vanishes from the earth. And we may need those genes in the future. The great famine in Ireland was a biodiversity problem: The Irish depended almost entirely on a single variety of potato -- the Lumper -- that happened to be vulnerable to a devastating fungus. When the fungus arrived in 1845, the entire potato crop was lost, and a million Irish starved to death. After the blight, botanists went looking for a potato that could resist the fungus, and they found it in the Andes, where Indians continue to cultivate thousands of different potato varieties. This vast genetic archive happened to contain the gene for blight resistance. The problem today is that the gene pool for all our crops and domestic animals is shrinking, and if we don't preserve this precious stock of biodiversity, we leave ourselves vulnerable to disasters. This is one reason it's so important for gardeners to grow heirloom plants -- it's a concrete way everyone can do something about biodiversity, a problem that often seems remote and impossible to solve. Seed banks are important, but the gardener also has a key role to play in keeping old species going year after year after year.
B&N.com: Back to the human desires embodied in these plants, I found it interesting that even though each one -- the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato -- had one main desire, often the other desires were present to some degree. For example, the apple is sweet, but you discovered that Johnny Appleseed was supplying intoxication to the early settlers in the form of hard cider. Also, modern growers of cannabis use high-tech control to produce a "high."
MP: In the book I talk about four plants (apples, tulip, cannabis, and potato) and four corresponding desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control), but of course the same plant can gratify more than one desire. Cannabis, for example, is also an important fiber, which is why in colonial America every farmer was required by law to grow it for the war effort: Hemp rope was indispensable. The opium poppy answers the desire for beauty, for intoxication, for spice, and for pain relief -- all in one flower! So the relationship of plants to human desire has many dimensions. I would argue, too, that there are desires we scarcely knew we had until we discovered the plants that could stimulate and gratify them. I'm convinced the architecture of flowers is not only an example of beauty but in all sorts of way actually shaped our conception of what beauty is.
B&N.com: Being a gardener yourself, this book is in many ways a personal story. Do you think gardening changes the how people experience the world around them?
MP: I've found that if you approach the garden in a spirit of openness and inquiry you will find in it a whole world of meaning. I'm convinced, in fact, that there is more to be learned in the garden about our place in the natural world -- as well as about our nature as human beings -- than just about any other realm you can think of. Americans have traditionally looked to the wilderness when they've wanted to understand how they fit into nature -- think of Thoreau at Walden Pond -- but I believe the garden is an even better teacher. For one thing, in the garden you see how people can learn to use nature without abusing nature. For another, you see in the garden that our relationship to other species need not be a zero-sum game: In our relationship with the potato, to take a very prosaic example, we have gained immensely (the potato made possible the Industrial Revolution in Europe) -- and at the same time so has the potato, which without us would never have gotten out of the Andes.