Garden Edition: Review of Botany of Desire: September 2001
by Linda Coyner
Whether you're a gardener who gardens or a gardener who reads about gardening, (or just a reader) you'll want to track down a copy of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, A Plant's-Eye View of the World (Random House, $24.95). Botany of Desire is Pollan's second book-length foray into gardening.
His first, the prizewinning Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, published back in 1992, was called a modern-day Walden and a funny read. In the new book, the enviromental philosopher picks up where he left off in a laid-back, witty musing about the complex coevolution of humans and plants. To tell this story, Pollan selects four plants: apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato. Along the way, he delves into subjects as varied as, well, nature.
Social history stops include colorful images of early American settlers pushing into the Northwest Territory, the Irish potato famine, the Ottoman Empire's obsession with tulips and seventeenth-century Amsterdam's cravings for beauty. The science of botany is revealed through stories about Monsanto's tinkering with biogenetics, visits to potato farms in Idaho and Peru as well as high tech marijuana grow-rooms in Amsterdam. Parts of the book deals with the discovery of THC in cannabis and cannabinoids in the human brain, and the virus that doomed the tulips.
The author doesn't overlook psychology and spirituality. His tales frequently summon figures in Greek mythology, traces psychoactive plants to the origin of religion, and examine and explores what it's like to alter one's consciousness.
Using anecdotes and colorful imagery, Pollan spins his modern-day tales with a moral. The apple, tulip, and potato stories argue persuasively for biodiversity and expose the dangers of monoculture. The high tech path of the potato raises serious questions about genetic engineering that cannot be dismissed. After the discourse on the marijuana plant, the reader is left wondering what the fuss is all about.
What's intriguing about Pollan's approach is that he considers the plant's point of view, portraying humans as unwitting partners working in the service of plants. For instance, he asks, is domestication something we do to other species or "something certain plants and animals have done to us, a clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests." For each of the four chosen plants, he asks what did the plant get in return for their bargain with humans?
The most important and obvious benefit was dispersion, far and wide. In exchange for sugar and cider (read alcohol) and Vitamin C, the apple was repaid with untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat. In much the same way, the potato provided nourishment in exchange for new varieties, one with a ticking bomb, the genetic resistance to the Colorado beetle. The tulip, highly malleable, made and remade itself beautiful in human eyes. In return, "we multiplied the flowers beyond reason, moving their seeds around the planet." Marijuana provided us first with hemp fiber and then with its medicinal and psychoactive powers. It also made possible amazing insights into human consciousness. In the bargain, the most potent plants were spread around the world.
The shift in perspective from human to plant takes us from viewing nature as outside or apart from us to being part of us. It also lets us examine how the relationship between human and plant has changed both parties, which is exactly what Pollan has done.
The author's storytelling is that of an impatient essayist, flitting erratically here and there like a bumblebee with too many flowers to choose from, leaving the reader with lots of stops and starts in the narration.
That's not all that surprising, once he explained his personal approach to observation in the marijuana chapter: "My attention can't wait to beat a retreat from the here and now to the abstract, frog-jumping from the data of senses to conclusions." "Very often," he explains, "the conclusions or concepts come first, allowing me to dispense with the sensory data altogether or to notice in it only what fits."
By book's end, Pollan accomplishes his goal of changing our perspective. We can't help but look at ourselves
as the objects of other species' designs and desires, as one of the newer bees in Darwin's gardeningenious, sometimes reckless, and remarkably unselfconscious.