The Plant Messiah at the Conservatory of Flowers

A Return to the Natural World, with Carlos Magdalena (A Book Review of “The Plant Messiah”)

Book Reviews, Call to Action

You see, plants are our greatest yet most humble servants; they care for us every day, in every way. Without them we would not survive. It is as simple as that.

In return for their generosity, we treat them appallingly.

I’m probably the last person to talk about plants or nature in my circle but in the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly seeking the natural world, listening to an intimate pull towards it.

When I finally read The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species (Shop your local indie bookstore) by Carlos Magdalena, it felt like a culmination of sorts because I’ve been thinking so much about my own relationship to flora and fauna, to a world beyond what human beings have created for ourselves. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded with so much news about catastrophe and destruction and violence (usually man-made) that a return to the natural world feels inevitable, incredibly urgent.

In some ways, reading Magdalena’s account is a lot like reading about my own childhood. Although he was born and raised in Spain, and I, in the country Spain colonized for over three hundred years (the Philippines), there were many moments of nostalgia. While he was growing up in Asturias tending to plants, trees and animals that his whole family nurtured, I spent many afternoons in Apalit helping my grandfather tend to his ducks and chickens, waiting patiently for tomatoes to ripen.

While I’m thousands of miles away from my hometown, I went to the closest place I can go to that reflected a growing intimacy with the natural world, aided by The Plant Messiah: San Francisco’s own Conservatory of Flowers.

The Plant Messiah at the Conservatory of Flowers

A Brief, Personal History with Food

Sunday Spotlight

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I gifted Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (Amazon | Indiebound) to all my aunts and uncles one Christmas, along with a plant. The slim volume just came out a few months before that and I thought of it as the best manifesto for eating, the perfect holiday present. Since reading In Defense of Food (Amazon | Indiebound), I’ve become a huge Michael Pollan fan. I loved how he dissected the most mundane things like grocery shopping, and turned them into such internally provocative gestures which revealed a lot more about ourselves and the world we live in that we initially thought of. (I’m not sure how well the books were received though — we are a family of carnivorous folks with a penchant for rich and salty food).

 This time around, I’m back to another one of Pollan’s book: The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). I’ll save all the details of the book for the review later this week but reading it touched on something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

As I get older (and as what older folks used to tell me), my body is not just as receptive as it was before to food. Sure, I’ve gained a few pounds and it’s been a lot harder to shed most of it than when I was 25 (I have a really high metabolism which is a curse and a blessing at the same time, if you ask me). I’ve also never been into sweets before (even as a young kid)  but these days, a week can’t go by without a cup of milk tea with tapioca. I tend to bobafy myself pretty consistently, just check my Instagram story.

I know which food is good for me, and I know which food will make me feel like crap. After a recent trip to the Philippines, I was jet lagged and depressed for days. After waking up at 2 on a Thursday morning feeling like I need to pack my bags and move back to the homeland, I decided to make myself some food. I fried some SPAM and eggs, ate it with rice and crawled back to bed, feeling a lot more at peace. I slept like a baby.

My own trips to the grocery store (Trader Joe’s to be exact) got me coming home with a bag full of the following things: eggs, chicken sausages, spinach, kale or arugula, ground turkey or chicken, chile dried mangoes and a bag of nacho cheese chips. By the end of the week, only the eggs, chicken sausages and the bag of chips would be fully consumed. There are weeks where I end up wasting so much food that it deters me from even going to the grocery store to begin with.

img_0048-1

Saturday brunch at Berkeley Social Club, featuring the tastiest and crunchiest Yukon potatoes ever.

So what do I eat? I tend to go to the cafe at my workplace which is relatively healthy and cheap (with some extremely processed options) or order food for delivery which has become quite an expensive habit. I also love to eat out, another drain in my bank account. At home, the rice cooker is usually brimming with cooked, white rice. The cupboard is stocked with many, many cans of processed food and bags of chicharron (fried pork rinds). Living with my family has been incredibly nourishing but alas, also fattening.

It’s quite apparent: I have a hard-to-break predilection towards processed food. SPAM, hotdogs, sausages, corned beef. I want them all, any time, any day. All of these things tell me one thing: that food is largely emotional for me. It was only in the past few weeks that I realized I was just mimicking what I grew up with back in the Philippines: an abundance of salty, processed food (we lived about an hour away from a U.S. military base) and the instantaneous presentation of meals (I grew up with Ate Marie, our nanny and cook). All of it finally made sense.

Reading The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound) then was something special because instead of just analyzing man’s relationship with food, Pollan went deeper into man and society’s relationship with plants instead, correlated to our different desires.

This perspective just turned my head around, because it gave me an appreciation of how plants can also possibly view the world around them. Affirming the life inherent in each morsel I bite does something to me, turning what I thought I already knew into an expanded version of reality, rife with biodiversity.

As I challenge my salty and processed food-seeking tastebuds, I’ll be keeping Pollan in mind, along with the philosophy, history and politics of food, of plants.