The Botany of Desire

2008-06-24

in Books and literature, Science, The environment

Anti-war graffiti

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.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

t June 24, 2008 at 1:51 pm

” 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.”

Sounds like quite a good book then. I will have to check it out – I certainly enjoyed “Omnivore’s Dilemma”.

I’m pleasantly finding more pop-scientific literature which doesn’t fall into the standard scientistic fallacies – I just finished a book on neuro plasticity called the self-made brain or some such. Fascinating case studies. Are you interested in neuro plasticity? I could send it to you.

Milan June 25, 2008 at 10:04 am

What is the brain book called?

. June 25, 2008 at 4:16 pm
. June 26, 2008 at 7:30 pm
. July 4, 2008 at 1:08 pm

DOES the American Dream come with fries or hash browns? In Jack Simplot’s version, it came with both. Starting out at 14 with little education and only $80 from his mother, Mr Simplot died a multi-billionaire. Much of his success he owed to the Russet Burbank that grows so well in Idaho’s light volcanic soil, and Mr Spud, as he became known, never forgot this debt, nor rejected his roots: till the day he died his favourite restaurant was McDonald’s, where he always ordered either french fries or hash browns.

. October 1, 2009 at 10:57 am

What Would John Adams Drink?
Get ready for the rebirth of cider in America.
By Brian Palmer
Posted Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009, at 11:52 AM ET

During the 1840 presidential election, opponents of William Henry Harrison portrayed him as a hard-drinking bumpkin. In a savvy act of political jujitsu, Harrison embraced the charge, branding his campaign paraphernalia with a portrait of pure Americana: a log cabin and a barrel of cider. Harrison rode the image to a 234-60 Electoral College victory over incumbent Martin Van Buren.

Shortly after the Harrison landslide, Americans would begin to drift away from his beloved libation. (He was spared the pain of witnessing its decline, succumbing to pneumonia only a month into his presidency.) A century later, cider would be almost completely forgotten. Most Americans now consider cider—if they consider it at all—to be in the same category as wine coolers or those enigmatic clear malt beverages: chemically suspect, effeminate alternatives to beer. And who can blame them? America’s mass-market ciders are comically weak and inexplicably fizzy. Many are made not from cider apples but from the concentrated juice of eating apples, which is a bit like making wine from seedless table grapes.

This is a sad state of affairs, given that hard cider was the favored beverage of America’s founding generation. Beer makers may adorn their bottles with ale-swilling patriots, and aristocrats like Thomas Jefferson may have enjoyed imported wine. But cider was the drink of the people, from farmers to fighting men, and deservedly so. Good cider is light but not boring, complex but not dominating, satisfying but not sating. Let’s get back to our roots.

Milan October 1, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth talks about how flowers and pollinators have effectively domesticated one another.

The bees, bats, birds, etc see the flowers as a convenient source of nectar; the flowers see the pollinators as a nice way to get your pollen to another plant of the same kind, without taking chances with the wind.

. October 20, 2009 at 9:48 pm

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