Michael Pollan is probably most well-known for his recent non-fiction publication, The Omnivore’s Dilemma where he discusses the repercussions of the western diet and the foods we put on our tables. But before he wrote Omnivore’s Dilemma, he was focused on a human drive that has some influence, big or small, on almost everything we do – desire.
The Botany of Desire is divided into four parts that cover four different plants: apples, which satiate our desire for sweetness. Tulips, which satiate our desire for beauty. Cannabis, which satiates our desire for intoxication, and potatos which satiate our desire for control.
Pollan takes on a very interesting perspective on these plants, arguing that as much as humans like to believe that we control the relationships we have with various plant species, we do not consider how the plant may have evolved specifically to will us to fulfill its needs. Pollan casts off the view that humans act on plants in order to fulfill our desires and turns it around – maybe it is the plants who act on us to fulfill their desires, like the bumblebee serves the flower or the squirrel serves the oak tree.
I found the first and last chapters to be the most interesting. The first chapter on apples delves into the life of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman was his real name) and tracks the history of apples back to the forests of Kazahkstan (I know, I thought they originated in America too, being an American staple and all). In reading this book, I am ashamed to admit that I really knew very little about the journeys of each of these plants, especially the apple which I eat at least once a week.
The last chapter on the potato was also very interesting. Pollan took his readers on a journey through the American great plains to discover the variances between organic and non-organic farming. Truth be told, this chapter had some of the most horrifying realities of today’s farming methods laid out and examined. The potato, which started out as a tuber of many varieties grown by the Incas, is tracked to Ireland and then to America where it becomes the face of western monoculture and the fast food french fry.
The chapter on tulips was also very interesting, and cannabis as well, both delving into various different social groups and time periods in order to unearth histories that are so closely intertwined with humans. He touches on the history of “broken tulips” – the staple of beauty at one point until it was discovered that the “breaking” that was originally so prized was caused by a virus spread from nearby peach trees. When discussing cannabis he notes how much of American civil liberties have been set aside in the governments pursuit of control of this plant/drug that has always been constructed to be so villainous by its naysayers, and so spiritually freeing by its supporters.
All in all, I really enjoyed the book. It was a bit out of the league of books I traditionally gravitate to, but I felt it really brought me down to earth – pun intended. I learned a lot about plants, and how the destiny of said plants and all nature is really so intertwined with the destiny of mankind. A great read.
Overall Score: 8. A great first step into the world of nature and plants.
For more information check out:
The PBS documentary by the same title that is based on Pollan’s book and research.