michael pollan’s book, “the botany of desire”

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has been on my stack for about 7 years.  i dutifully read pollan’s articles in the new york times magazine, but when it came to reading an entire book, there were just too many other things i’d rather be doing.  the truth is that pollan’s articles usually strike me as a little bit whiny.   I read them.  i almost always agree completely with him.   but they’re naggy.    thoroughly-researched and well-reasoned, but no fun.   then i found myself about to fly home from new york without any other book for the plane…

“botany of desire” has 4 chapters, each telling the story of a “domesticated species” — the apple, tulip, cannabis and potato.   pollan postulates that each of these species exists to the spread its’ genes.  how do they best do it?   pollan says, it’s by playing on the desires of animals.    “the flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.”    upon realizing this, he says, “the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive.    all these plants, which i’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, i realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves.”

my favorite chapter, far and away, is the one about the tulip.    a sampling:

“once upon a time, there were no flowers – two hundred million years ago, to be only slightly more precise.  there were plants then, of course ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit….

the world before flowers was sleepier than ours because, lacking fruit and large seeds, it couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures…

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flowers changed everything,   the angiosperms, as botanists call the plants that form flowers and then encased seeds, appeared during the cretaceous period, and they spread over the earth with stunning rapidity…   now, instead of relying on wind or water to move genes around, a plant could enlist the help of an animal by striking a grand co-evolutionary compact:  nutrition in exchange for transportation.    with the advent of the flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world:  more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.

.   .   .

the evolution of plants proceeded according to a new motive force:   attraction between different species.   now natural selection favored blooms that could rivet the attention of pollinators, fruits that appealed to foragers.   the desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants, for the simple reason that the plants that succeeded at gratifying those desires wound up with more offspring.    beauty had emerged as a survival strategy.

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the new rules speeded the rate  of evolutionary change.   bigger, brighter, sweeter, more fragrant:  all these qualities were quickly rewarded under the new regime.

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with flowers came fruit and seeds, and these too, remade life on earth.   by producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of large warm-blooded mammals.   without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule.    without flowers, we would not be.

so the flowers begot us, their greatest admirers, in time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower did what it has always done:  made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding into its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes.

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we in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason, moving their seeds around the planet, writing books to spread their fame and ensure their happiness.   for the flower it was the same old story, another grand co-evolutionary bargain with a willing, slightly credulous animal –  a good deal on the  whole, though not nearly as good as the earlier bargain with bees.

pretty wonderful.   the chapter on apples is nearly as good.   johnny appleseed and american settlers’ love of hard cider and the fact that each of the five seeds in every single apple produces it own unique tree with it’s own unique apples (turns out the saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is b.s.) evolves into the narrative of the domestication of the american wilderness.     the chapter on pot is a meditation on the history of the use of plants to modify consciousness.    the chapter about genetically modified potatoes (which i’d read in the nyt magazine) is thoughtful and enlightening and horrifying.

pollan is an excellent story teller, and occasionally an exquisite writer.   he’s making enormous contributions to the way people think about their food and the environment and deserves to be read for that.     but it’s when he doesn’t have an ax to grind, but brings his poetic insights to history, that i really love his work.      everyone interested in plants or gardening or eating, should read this book.DSCN3721

thomas heinser took the photo of the hummingbird at his farm in sonoma county.    david stroud took the photo of the tree peony in my garden.   i took the rest there.

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