What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

In the midst of a wicked winter, I like to curl up with some sultry nature writing. My father instilled in me a fascination with the natural world.


By Michael Pollan
304 pp. $13.95 (paper).

In the midst of a wicked winter, I like to curl up with some sultry nature writing. My father instilled in me a fascination with the natural world. As a young girl, I even had a bug collection (sadistic in hindsight) that kept me engaged for a summer. But the best nature writing fosters empathy–a recognition of our place in a complex world of give and take where humans are simply one of many species.

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire turns the relationship between humans and plants on its head. Imagine, if you will, a world where the flora cultivate the humans, rather than vice versa. Pollan looks at four plants–the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato–and fancifully traces how our histories are intricately interwoven with them. By fulfilling four common human desires–the desire for sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (cannabis) and control (the potato)–these plants have become mega-success stories, evolving ever more clever ways of satisfying human appetites, thus insuring their genetic immortality. Who needs the bee to spread pollen, or the squirrel to bury acorns, when you can get a human being to insure your reproductive success? In our terminal solipsism, it’s too easy to see what these successful plants do for us. Pollan brings alive what we do for them.

The Botany of Desire is full of engaging history lessons. For instance, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman was in fact peddling apple trees to the early Americans for making hard cider, the drink of choice for adult pioneers and their children. Instead of munching on wholesome Granny Smiths, settlers depended on the alcoholic cider as an important part of their diets and a reliable source of hydration as they moved west. Apples played an essential role in nourishing a nascent country, and landed themselves a reproductive windfall in the process.

Then there’s the bizarre “tulipomania” that infected Holland from 1634 to 1637, when a single bulb from a coveted bloom fetched as much as the grandest house in Amsterdam–a fascinating historical period that was never repeated, but that helped insure that the tulip’s genes were protected and cultivated with an insane devotion.

The section on humans’ relationship with marijuana is equally illuminating. Pollan details the universal desire for intoxication (common among all mammals) and shows how the highly adaptable cannabis plant evolved to match this impulse, insinuating itself into human culture, assuring that its genes spread to every continent.

The story of the humble potato and our desire for control ends the book on a note of caution. Pollan follows the potato from its origins in South America to its pre-eminence on the tables of Ireland, explaining how this food essentially saved an entire people. When the English colonialists appropriated the arable land of Ireland, the Irish discovered that the nutritionally complete potato could grow on almost any forlorn acre, and could feed a large family and their livestock. As Pollan says, the potato “gave the Irish a welcome measure of control over their lives. Now they could feed themselves off the economic grid ruled by the English and not have to worry so much about the price of bread or the going wage.”

But today, “control” takes on a different cast with the development of the “New Leaf,” a genetically engineered (via Monsanto) potato that produces its own insecticide. There are plans for genetically altered corn that can withstand drought, bananas that can deliver vaccines and tomatoes enhanced with flounder genes (to tolerate frost), all of which will likely be available in the near future.

As Pollan points out, something very new in the relationship between humans and plants is at work here. No longer are the two of us participants in a co-evolutionary dance, using each other for our mutual benefit. “Nature has always exercised a kind of veto power over what culture can do with a potato,” he writes. “Until now. The New Leaf is the first potato to override that veto.” As horticulturists today can conceivably pluck qualities from anywhere in nature and introduce them into a plant, the evolutionary game has changed profoundly. Our control seems absolute. Or is it? The future will tell.

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