Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Botany of Desire Pt. 1 of 3

The Botany of Desire
By Michael Pollan
Copyright 2001

Is anyone sick of hearing about Michael Pollan yet? Well, if you are...I don’t blame you. Every time I speak to someone about anything relating to food these days, either myself or someone else drops his name, either to speak about his amazing work, or just to name drop and appear socially conscious. You can never know one’s true intentions...

The reason why those of us who keep reading his work keep talking about him is because he is such an inspiring, thoughtful and provocative writer – he really brings you inside the issues of food and how it relates to ourselves and our world at large.

Michael Pollan, taking a bite out of real food

Recently I read one of his books, The Botany of Desire, and shortly thereafter caught a documentary version of this book on PBS. (You can see a glimpse of it here). Although it may be tempting just to watch the documentary, I highly suggest you read the book as there is so much more in the book that will be valuable to you.

This book is not just for foodies or environmentalists, it speaks to us as humans. Basically, Pollan discusses 4 major desires we all have, and illustrates plant domestication using our desires through our relationship with four plants.

In a nutshell, the main desires and plants are:
1) Sweetness (Apple)
2) Beauty (Tulip)
3) Intoxication (Marijuana) and
4) Control (Potato)

Pollan starts out his thesis by drawing a parallel between humans and bees with respect to their relationship with plants. Essentially, without animating the plants, he is suggesting that plants have actually domesticated us. They have subtly trained us to replant them, pollinate them and so on, so that they can literally be fruitful and multiply.

“Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness in the case of the bee; heft and nutritional value in the case of the potato-eating human. The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of its desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato taking part in this arrangement. All those plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself.”(pg xv of introduction)

In what I found to be the most enlightening section of the book, he discusses the apple. For a small, unassuming fruit, what a powerful symbolism the apple has come to embody throughout history. You know when you realize something that really, you already knew...but a brilliant person has pointed it out to you and you have that moment of ultra-realization? That is basically what happened when I read about the apple and its role in history. For example, did you ever think about the fact that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was an apple? According to Pollan, given the geographic area where the Bible was written, the fruit was probably something like a pomegranate. However, the apple became the symbol of sweetness and temptation over time, especially through art, as depicted by artists throughout history who used the apple as a Christian symbol.

What about “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” – have you ever thought, “Why an apple”? Well, Michael Pollan has an answer for that as well.

“It wasn’t until this century that the apple acquired its reputation for wholesomeness – “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was a marketing slogan dreamed up by growers concerned that temperance would cut into sales.”(page 22)

If you’ve ever heard the song “Johnny Appleseed”, perhaps you wondered about its origins? Well, he provides us with much lore about the mythical John Chapman, nicknamed “Appleseed”.

“So many of the legends about Appleseed depict him as a kind of liminal figure, part man and part....well, something else. The something else, which was perhaps symbolized by the soles of his bare feet callused to a tough hide, is what permitted him to live with one of those feet planted in our world, the other in the wild. He was a kind of satyr without the sex – a Protestant satyr, you might say, moving through these woods as if they were his true home, making his bed in hollowed logs and his breakfast from a butternut tree, keeping the company of wolves. As I thought about the scattering of settlers along these streams who would welcome Chapman into their homes, offering a meal and a bed to this strange man in rags, I was reminded of how the gods of classical mythology would sometimes appear at people’s doors dressed as beggars."(page 35)

Pollan even visits a massive, meticulous orchard in Geneva, N.Y. and touches on the issue of pesticides:

“(Phil)Forsline (the curator of the Geneva Orchard) has devoted a career to preserving and expanding the apple’s genetic diversity. He’s convinced that the modern history of the apple – particularly the practice of growing a dwindling handful of cloned varieties in vast orchards – has rendered it less fit as a plant, which is one reason modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop.”(page 52)

He probes further, pointing out a major theme in the book, the fact that more and more plants are being grown in monocultures and we are losing the variety that makes our world unique: “...the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature (where it still has to live, after all) has been dangerously compromised. Reduced to the handful of genetically identical clones that suit our taste and agricultural practice, the apple has lost the crucial variability – the wildness – that sexual reproduction confers.”(page 52)

Imagine if there were only one type of apple, or one type of anything for that matter! This world would definitely be a less interesting place to say the very least. I will continue this review and discussion in Part 2 of "What I'm Reading: The Botany of Desire". Until then, why not try an apple variety you've never tried before?

Photo Credits all via Flickr: The Kitchen Gardener, HarryAKA & f.im

1 comment:

  1. Oh I actually haven't heard of this book yet- great to know! Thanks!