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“A wry, informed pastoral.” —The New Yorker
The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Change Your Mind, 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?
About the Author
Hometown:San Francisco Bay Area, California
Date of Birth:February 6, 1955
Place of Birth:Long Island, New York
Education:Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University
Read an Excerpt
Plant: The Apple
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.
Table of Contents
|Introduction: The Human Bumblebee||xiii|
|Chapter 1||Desire: Sweetness / Plant: The Apple||1|
|Chapter 2||Desire: Beauty / Plant: The Tulip||59|
|Chapter 3||Desire: Intoxication / Plant: Marijuana||111|
|Chapter 4||Desire: Control / Plant: The Potato||181|
What People are Saying About This
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
(Penelope Hobhouse, author of On Gardening)
An Exclusive Interview with Michael Pollan
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.