The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World tells the story of four plants and the desires they have gratified in people: the apple (sweetness), the tulip (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and the potato (control). Each story is rich and fascinating; likewise, each has important lessons for appreciating the positon of humanity within nature, as well as the choices confronting us. This book has convinced me that I need to finish the business of reading Michael Pollan’s entire canon.
This book taught me quite a bit about agriculture, plant breeding, and genetics. The section on apples contains very interesting analysis on the differences between reproducing plants sexually (though seeds) or through cloning (with grafts). Similarly, the sections on tulips and marijuana say a lot about hybridization and the steady development of desirable traits. Finally, the section on potatoes confronts deep questions about the future of agriculture: most importantly, whether the monoculture can persist. Michael Pollan argues very effectively that the question “do we genetically modify plants or not?” is largely an extension of the question “do we continue to plant vast fields of clones?” The alternative – in terms of polycultures and local varieties – is especially interesting to consider in the face of a changing climate. It may be that the biotechnicians in lab coats will be able to develop new varieties that increase our resilience – enduring floods and droughts, etc. It is equally fair to suggest that a global agricultural system based around massive monocultures of just a few key species is especially vulnerable to disruption.
While this book raises deep questions, it is also charming and accessible. Pollan is especially gifted at conveying the eccentricities of some of the characters involved, as well as at inverting relatively familiar ideas into provocatively unfamiliar new forms. In particular, his discussion of intoxication accomplishes that – both in relation to the apple cider that was Johnny Appleseed‘s real gift to the American frontier and in terms of the myriad Cannabis sativa and indica hybrids that have emerged as ironic products of America’s drug war. Certainly, the book does a good job of advancing the hypothesis that domestication of plants was not a one-sided imposition. Rather, human history is deeply entwined with the history of the plants that have both nourished and manipulated us.