The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
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Annotation: Explains how people and domesticated plants have formed a reciprocal relationship and examines four species of plants that have evolved to satisfy humankind's most basic yearnings.
Catalog Number: #4539208
Format: Paperback
All Formats: Search
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition Date: 2002
Pages: xxv, 271 pages
Availability: Available
ISBN: 0-375-76039-3
ISBN 13: 978-0-375-76039-6
Dewey: 306.4
LCCN: 00066479
Dimensions: 21 cm.
Subject Heading:
Human-plant relationships.
Language: English
Kirkus Reviews
We've cultivated plants since the dawn of time; but all along, the plants have been cultivating us as well. Pollan ( A Place of My Own , 1997) uses four plant species to support his thesis: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. Each, by offering some quality that we humans find valuable, has managed to propagate itself throughout the world. In the process, each has generated more than its share of fascinating lore. Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) has become an icon of early American enterprise, creating orchards out of untamed forest. But the apples Chapman planted were meant not for eating, but for cider, the ubiquitous tipple of early America. Only when temperance began to give the apple a bad name did orchardmen switch to the sweet varieties for eating. The tulip boom in early 18th-century Holland saw prize bulbs selling for the price of a fashionable house in Amsterdam. Now, ironically, the plant that commands high prices in Amsterdam is marijuana, over the last few decades the focus of some of the most intense research in the botanical sciences (most of it conducted indoors, away from official eyes). The humble potato, for its part, has come a long way since its origins as an Andean weed: The russet Burbank, for example, which yields perfect fries for the fast-food trade, dominates the US market almost to the exclusion of all other taters, and its cultivation depends heavily on chemicals nastier than anything the cannabis bud secretes. Pollan keeps the reader aware of how the plants induce us to spread their genetic material to new environments—and how the preservation of natural variability is a key to keeping them (and us) healthy. Lively writing and colorful anecdotes enhance this insightful look at an unexpected side of agriculture.
School Library Journal
Who domesticated whom, the flower or the gardener? Which came first, the apple or the apple seed? These and other provocative notions emerge in Michael Pollan's latest foray into the natural world. This time out, Pollan, the author of Second Nature: A Gardener's Education and a contributor to Harper's and the New York Times Magazine , is fascinating, irreverent, and even laugh-out-loud funny. Pollan (not pollen) limits his botanical storytelling to four of the world's more familiar cultivated plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. In his discussions of this foursome, he skillfully introduces such sophisticated topics as sexual reproduction in plants, genetic engineering, hybridization, monoculture, pollination, drug trafficking, pesticides, organic farming, and biological pollution. Pollan is intent on revisiting icons and accepted homilies. For example, after reading Pollan's account of John Chapman, the "American Dionysus" who popularized the apple, it's difficult to cling to the benign Disney-fied version of Johnny Appleseed. And just what was Chapman's fabled gift to farmers? It was not the gift of "eating apples" (they grow only on branches grafted onto apple trees). No, what the actual Mr. Appleseed passed on were "spitters"a nearly inedible variety that is perfect for making alcoholic, hard cider! Pollan also explores that brief, frenzied intersection of botany and commerce known as Dutch Tulipomania. From 1634 to 1637, Holland's obsession with status, coupled with its zest for futures trading, focused an entire society's attention on tulip bulbs. Readers of a certain age will chuckle knowingly at Pollan's anxiety-drenched, short-lived experiment with the intoxicating possibilities of growing marijuana behind his barn. And many readers may be chilled by his visit to the Monsanto company's headquarters. There, Pollan learned about the development of Monsanto's "NewLeaf," a genetically engineered russet potato that produces its own beetle-killing insecticide. Speaking of russets, did you know that the Burbank russet is widely cultivated simply because it's the best variety for making fast-food French fries? Written with panache, The Botany of Desire is a perfect choice for those long winter nights spent longing for spring.
Starred Review ALA Booklist
*Starred Review* Pollan has an epiphany in his garden: what if the plant species humankind has nurtured over the last 10,000 years benefit as much from us as we do from them? Do humans choose to plant potatoes, or do potatoes attract humans like a flower lures a bee? Ablaze with this transformational vision, Pollan intertwines history, anecdote, and revelation as he investigates the connection between four plants that have thrived under human care--apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes--and the four human desires they satisfy in return: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. In the process, he casts new light on the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Holland's mania for tulips serves as a catalyst for a galvanizing discussion of why we wouldn't exist if flowers hadn't evolved. His refreshingly open-minded consideration of marijuana leads to profound reflections on the workings of the brain and the role psychoactive plants have played in the evolution of religion and culture. And, finally, Pollan ponders the Pandora's box of genetic engineering when he plants a patch of NewLeaf, a beetle-killing potato patented by Monsanto. Pollan's dynamic, intelligent, and intrepid parsing of the wondrous dialogue between plants and humans is positively paradigm-altering.
Bibliography Index/Note: Includes bibliographical references (pages 247-256) and index.
Reading Level: 9.0
Interest Level: 9+
Lexile: 1350L
Chapter 1
Desire: Sweetness
Plant: The Apple

(Malus domestica)

If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806—somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say—you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.

The peculiar craft you’d have caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed the scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting in the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.

The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already well known to people in Ohio by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomace that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but it’s safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.

The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth—a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot.

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.

As an emblem of the marriage between people and plants, the design of Chapman’s peculiar craft strikes me as just right, implying as it does a relation of parity and reciprocal exchange between its two passengers. More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plants’ point of view—“pomocentrically,” you might say. He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes likened himself to a bumblebee, and why he would rig up his boat the way he did. Instead of towing his shipment of seeds behind him, Chapman lashed the two hulls together so they would travel down the river side by side.

We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species. Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated. It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.

The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America. Like generations of other immigrants before and after, the apple has made itself at home here. In fact, the apple did such a convincing job of this that most of us wrongly assume the plant is a native. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew a thing or two about natural history, called it “the American fruit.”) Yet there is a sense—a biological, not just metaphorical sense—in which this is, or has become, true, for the apple transformed itself when it came to America. Bringing boatloads of seed onto the frontier, Johnny Appleseed had a lot to do with that process, but so did the apple itself. No mere passenger or dependent, the apple is the hero of its own story.

Excerpted from The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Change Your MindCooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America

Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?

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