An Intimate Look of How Plants View the World, with Michael Pollan

My grandfather was an avid gardener and the house I grew up in the Philippines was surrounded by an orchard of fruits and vegetables, flanked by different kinds of flowers, plants and trees.

A favorite one when I was growing up was a flimsy flower tree by the foot of the stairs that led to our house — it was tall, but light enough for me to shake gently so that my sisters and I can pretend that it was raining (the dew drops filled in). On sunny afternoons, I would give the tree a gentle shake, its flowers falling slowly from its branches and the three of us would sit in wonder, in awe of the falling pink petals.

I was thinking about that tree, and these things in my childhood as I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). The book has brought up a lot of different emotions and memories for me on nature, on food, on my complex history with these things; it even prompted a post on my personal history with food earlier this week.

The Botany of Desire is a book about the plant’s eye-view of the world — specifically the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato — and how each of these things have been shaped by human desires. What seems to be at first a process of domestication, Pollan explores how humans can actually be objects of these plants’ desires for survival.

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Malus Domestica

A is for apple. A is for America(n). How many times have you ever heard of the phrase “as American as apple pie”? The apple has been an essential part of American lexicon — wholesome, healthy and sweet. These attributes, specially sweetness, has elevated the symbol of the fruit, actually a native of Kazakhstan to a symbol that most of us identify with.

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 into 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.

I’ve never heard of John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed before, an American farmer who planted apple trees in the frontier. Barefoot and unkempt, he went about planting apple trees, turning empty lands into orchards. It became a successful venture, although Johnny Appleseed kept true to his ‘earthy’ ways. He also built a different kind of relationship with Native Americans who trusted him, unlike his antagonistic and oppressive counterparts.

But Johnny Appleseed never intended to plant those apple trees for the consumption of the beloved American fruit. He was planting them for alcohol, for hard cider.

Apples were something people drank. The reason people in Brilliant wanted John Chapman to stay and plant a nursery was the same reason he would soon be welcome in every cabin in Ohio: Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier.

Turns out, the apple’s identity as a symbol of good health and wholesomeness was actually part of a public relations campaign by the apple industry after the Women’s Christian Temperance “declared war” on it. That was the 1900s. And it stuck. But beyond the image it tried to redo, there was also a type of apple (not the same ones that Johnny Appleseed planted) that became an important source of sugar at a time when it was a luxury. Who knew the apple had such a complicated history?

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Tulipa

Pollan also spoke of the tulip, as a simultaneous object and subject of beauty. The cool, unscented flower is unlike the rose, revered in the West and visible in several artwork, nor is it like the peony, a flower admired in the East.

The tulip, by contrast, is all Apollonian clarity and order. It’s linear, left-brained sort of flower, in no way occult, explicit and logical in its formal rules and arrangements (six petals corresponding to six stamens), and conveying all this rationality the only way conceivable: through the eye. The clean, steely stem holds the solitary flower up in the air for our admiration, positing its lucid form over and above the uncertain, shifting earth.

Beyond the tulip, what Pollan also explores is our relationship with beauty itself, as expressed with flowers, which are creatures first and foremost interested in their survival. From a flower’s point of view (which Pollan writes about rather fascinatingly), each color, pattern and element in every petal is geared towards reproduction. Attracting bees, butterflies and other insects in its fold, its symmetry and grace beckons. While we see meaning (as well as our projection of other things — love, gratitude, grief), what the flower sees is a means to ensure its longevity.

There may or may not be a correlation between the beautiful and the good, but there probably is one between beauty and health. (Which I suppose, in Darwinian terms, is the good). Evolutionary bioligists believe that in many creatures beauty is a reliable indicator of health, and therefore a perfectly sensible way to choose one mate over another.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise then that Pollan wrote this: beauty as a form of survival.

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Cannabis Sativa x Indica

The marijuana plant, in all its nuances within the physical, social and political realms of our modern society, comes down to gratifying another one of our desires: intoxication. This section may be my favorite part, because I love how Pollan related to the plant from a personal standpoint — as a botanist, as a research subject, and as a spiritual entity that brings us closer to the present.

For what it’s worth, I’ve had my own share of smoking pot a long time ago. Like Pollan, I never liked it. I usually fell asleep or just felt really, really lazy and really, really useless. Which is something I should’ve recognized at that time as a need for me to slow down, and really be introspective. I guess I wasn’t ready to dive deep, go within.

More than the plant itself, Pollan delved into what prods us into altering our consciousness, and what moves us to equating matter with spirit. Specifically, plant matter and human spirituality.

One of the world’s earliest known religions was the cult of Soma, practice by the ancient Indo-Europeans of central Asia; according to its sacred text, the Rig Veda, Soma was an intoxicant with the powers of a god. People worshipped the drug itself — which ethnobotanists now think was Amanita muscara, the mushroom sometimes called fly agaric — as a path to divine knowledge.

Much the same process took place again and again all over the ancient world as people experimented, individually and in groups, within the power of plants to transcend the here and now and induce ecstasy — to take them elsewhere.

To take them elsewhere. Pausing for posterity.

…plant drugs are not the only technologies of religious ecstasy; fasting, meditation and hypnotic trances can achieve similar results. But often these techniques have been used to explore spiritual territory first blazed by the entheogens.

What a natural history of religion would show is that the human experience of the  divine has deep roots in psychoactive plants and fungi. (Karl Marx may have gotten it backward when he called religion the opiate of the people.) This is not to diminish anyone’s religious beliefs; to the contrary, that certain plants summon spiritual knowledge is precisely what many religious people have believed, and who’s to say that belief is wrong? Psychoactive plants are bridges between the worlds of matter and spirit or, to update the vocabulary, chemistry and consciousness.

Much of what Pollan explores with marijuana deserves a good and thorough read — so revelatory of the many aspects of the plant that have been missing from the national narrative. If anything, what the use of marijuana reveals nothing about the plant itself (which has been reproduced, remolded in many different ways) but reflects how we’ve functioned as an entity from different perspectives: as growers, consumers, smugglers, law enforcers.

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Solanum Tuberosum

And last but definitely not the least: the potato. This chapter is perhaps the most enlightening one for me, because it exemplifies and illustrates the human’s desire for control. From a staple in Ireland to the perfect cut fries at McDonald’s, the potato has evolved and survived decades to yield the kind we habitually look for.

In his quest to understand the history of the potato, Pollan looks to the Incas of Peru who domesticated the plant about seven thousand years ago.

The Incas figured out how to grow impressive yields of potatoes under the most inauspicious conditions, developing an approach that is still in use in parts of the Andes today. A more or less vertical habitat presents special challenges to both plants and their cultivators, because the microclimate changes dramatically every change in change in altitude or orientation to the sun and wind.

No monoculture could succeed under such circumstances, so the Incas developed a method of farming that is monoculture’s exact opposite. Instead of betting the farm on a single cultivar, the Andean farmer, then as now, made a great many bets, at least one for every ecological niche.

Perhaps it is in the potato itself that not only our control for need is manifested, but also greed. Monsanto, the biotech firm responsible for creating genetically modified organism has capitalized on creating things like the NewLeaf, a potato which has been modified so that it produces its own insecticide. Unlike the Incas, large-scale farmers have also resorted to monoculture to supply the demand for potatoes. It’s a little disconcerting to see something so innocent, a little spud or a tuber symbolize capitalism. I’ll never eat french fries the same way again.

The Botany of Desire unearths, explores, experiments, truly amazes. Pollan’s prose, as well as his subjects, are rendered beautifully so this was a fascinating read, a deeper look into things we usually take for granted. Part memoir, part history and part philosophy, it is a handy compendium of our intricate relationship with plants.

I wonder if my grandfather ever thought of his garden this way, and if he ever had a spiritual relationship with the plants and trees he loved so much. I think he may have been the first organic farmer I knew, his love for land and nature apparent with the way he planted banana trees, or the way he would compost for fertilizer. Land in itself, specially in the Philippines and in other third world nations carry a different history, rife with meaning and a perpetual symbol of a people’s destiny. Along with plants and the biosystem it nurtures, we should think of more sustainable ways of relating with the whole of it.

To come back to it, to take good care of it, to revere it, to defend it — perhaps that is a life more worth living.

* * *

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The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound) by Michael Pollan
Random House (272 pages)
May 28, 2002
My rating: ★★★★★
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

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