Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What I'm Reading...Part 2 of 3: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

And now for Part 2 of my post about Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire:(Part 1 can be found here)

We left off at Pollan's analysis of the apple and its relationship to the human desire for sweetness. In case you had enough of the apple, Pollan wakes up the reader with some sexual references to the tulip. Sexual references to the tulip? Yes, we've all made the correlation between a flower and a woman's anatomy, but Pollan goes one further and exerts the tulip as a phallic symbol.

“The canonical flowers seem to me almost all female – except, that is, for the tulip, perhaps the most masculine of flowers. If you doubt this, watch next April how a tulip forces its head up out of the ground, how the head gradually colors as it rises. Dig down along the shaft, and you’ll find its bulb, smooth, rounded, hard as a nut, a form for which the botanists offer a most graphic term: 'testiculate'” (page 98).

He goes on to discuss the flower with respect to our desire for beauty, and how it transcends into a philosophical relationship:

"... we gazed even farther into the blossom of a flower and found something more: the crucible of beauty, if not art, and maybe even a glimpse into the meaning of life. For look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature – that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiring toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it – right there, in a flower – the meaning of life?”(page 109)

It is a paragraph such as this that reminds me of the brilliance of Michael Pollan's observations. He is not just writing a book about food, or plants or nature -- he seems to connect these subjects to the human experience in a way all his own. In my opinion he is a modern poet, beautifully and persuasively describing the world around him.

And now for the plant you’ve all been waiting for...when discussing marijuana, Pollan actually focuses on its medicinal properties and its stunted research due to the political war on drugs:

"For years Mechoulam* had been intrigued by the ancient history of cannabis as a medicine (a panacea in many cultures until its prohibition in the 1930s, it has been used to treat pain, convulsions, nausea, glaucoma, neuralgia, asthma, cramps, migraine, insomnia, and depression) and decided it might be worthwhile to isolate the plant’s active ingredient. But it was the popularity of marijuana as a recreational drug in the sixties, and the attendant official worries, that freed up the resources to underwrite this kind of work – and a great deal of other cannabinoid research that, taken together, has yielded more knowledge about the workings of the human brain than anyone could have guessed”(Page 152).*Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli neuroscientist who identified THC in the mid 60s.

The late Carl Sagan, a passionate, brilliant man who loved turtlenecks almost as much as the universe

He even references everyone's favourite cosmic scientist, Carl Sagan, and his relationship to marijuana and its effect on consciousness in his "Mr. X essay", which you can read here.

The most thrilling lightbulb moment I had was while reading about marijuana and its effect on memory. Keep in mind the desire he is focusing on is intoxication, or an altered state of consciousness. He then goes to explain how he realized that we have chemicals in our brain that naturally allow us to alter our own sense of the world around us, without even noticing it. Thus is the case as he describes forgetting as editing.

When referring to a receptor in the brain that THC affects (as discovered by scientist Allyn Howlett), Pollan remarks:

“What a curious thing this is for a brain to do, to manufacture a chemical that interferes with its own ability to make memories – and not just memories of pain, either. So I e-mailed Raphael Mechoulam to ask him why he thought the brain might secrete a chemical that has such an undesirable effect.Don’t be so sure that forgetting is undesirable, he suggested. ‘Do you really want to remember all the faces you saw on the New York City subway this morning?’”(Page 159/160)

He discusses this further:

“’If we could hear the squirrel’s heartbeat, the sound of the grass growing, we should die of that roar’, George Eliot once wrote. Our mental health depends on a mechanism for editing the moment-by-moment ocean of sensory data flowing into our consciousness down to a manageable trickle of the noticed and remembered. The cannabinoid network appears to be part of that mechanism, vigilantly sifting the vast chaff of sense impression from the kernels of perception we need to remember if we’re to get through the day and get done what needs to be done. Much depends on forgetting”(Page 159/160).

Alas I leave you again to ponder the tulip and the cannabis bud. I will see you again when I discuss the potato in Part 3 of this book analysis/appreciation.

On an unrelated Carl Sagan note, check out The Symphony of Science. It will blow your mind.

*All images via Flickr: slimmer_jimmer, ARush4U, deborahwithanh, blank00x.

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