The Botany of Desire


by Michael Pollan (Random House)


(This column was first published in the November 22, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


No, Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire isn't an adventure in pornography. Quite the contrary, this delightful book is about apples and tulips and potatoes and, yes, marijuana.


The author's approach is to consider these four plants from the plant's point of view. Here is how he tells us he came upon this idea: "I happened to be sowing rows in the neighborhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And what I found myself thinking about was this: What existential difference is there between the human being's role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee's?


"If this sounds like a laughable comparison, consider what it was I was doing in the garden that afternoon: disseminating the genes of one species and not another, in this case a fingerling potato instead of, let's say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I'm in charge here, in other words, and behind me stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gardeners and botanists, plant breeders, and, these days, genetic engineers who 'selected,' 'developed,' or 'bred' the particular potato that I decided to plant. Even our grammar makes the terms of this relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects.


"But that afternoon in the garden I found myself wondering: What if that grammar is all wrong? What if it's really nothing more than a self-serving conceit? A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom....


"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. Through trial and error these plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals -- bees or people, it hardly matters -- to spread their genes. How? By playing on the animals' desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.


"So the question arose in my mind that day: Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it?"


You don't even have to buy into Pollan's conceit to enjoy these four quite different but equally attractive essays. In the first, admittedly my favorite, he tells the story of John Chapman, the half-fictional Johnny Appleseed of our school stories and Disney cartoons. The tulips essay then focuses on the Dutch tulip mania and the potato essay on the Irish famine. Finally, his cannabis chapter tells how this plant is changing its form - for the better may be questionable - through manipulation of those who grow it.


I like Pollan's Johnny Appleseed better than the Disneyfied version. This one wasn't simply a do-gooder spreading seeds over the countryside. Quite the contrary, he was a frontier entrepreneur who, despite his Ben Gunn regalia, amassed a considerable fortune. And he did so by providing Ohio River farmers not with delicious apples but with liquor.


Consider some of what Pollan has to say about this: "Henry David Thoreau once wrote that 'it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,' and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman's story. It's the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. 'Exotics, we're apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat....


"If a man had the temperament for it and didn't care about starting a family or putting down roots, selling apple trees along the shifting edge of the frontier was not a bad little business. Apples were precious on the frontier, and Chapman could be sure of a strong demand for his seedlings, even if most of them would yield nothing but spitters. He was selling, cheaply, something everybody wanted -- something, in fact, everybody in Ohio needed by law. A land grant in the Northwest Territory specifically required a settler to 'set out at least fifty apple or pear trees' as a condition of his deed. The purpose of the rule was to dampen real estate speculation by encouraging homesteaders to put down roots. Since a standard apple tree normally took ten years to fruit, an orchard was a mark of lasting settlement....


"The identification of the apple with notions of health and wholesomeness turns out to be a modern invention, part of a public relations campaign dreamed up by the apple industry in the early 1900s to reposition a fruit that the Women's Christian Temperance Union had declared war on. Carry Nation's hatchet, it seems, was meant not just for saloon doors but for chopping down the very apple trees John Chapman had planted by the millions. That hatchet -- or at least Prohibition -- is probably responsible for the bowdlerizing of Chapman's story....


"Americans were...strongly inclined to cider, an inclination that accounts for the high esteem in which the apple was held in the colonies and on the frontier. In fact, there was hardly anything else to drink.... Up until Prohibition, an apple grown in America was far less likely to be eaten than to wind up in a barrel of cider.


"Corn liquor, or 'white lightning' preceded cider on the frontier by a few years, but after the apple trees began to bear fruit, cider -- being safer, tastier, and much easier to make -- became the alcoholic drink of choice.... Allowed to ferment for a few weeks, pressed apple juice yields a mildly alcoholic beverage with about half the strength of wine. For something stronger, the cider can then be distilled into brandy or simply frozen; the intensely alcoholic liquid that refuses to ice is called applejack....


"In rural areas cider took the place not only of wine and beer but of coffee and tea, juice, and even water. Indeed, in many places cider was consumed more freely than water, even by children, since it was arguably the healthier -- because more sanitary -- beverage."


This is a collection of four great stories, admirably told.