Book Review – ‘The Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollan

Dear Readers, I’m a bit late to the party here: my friends have been raving about ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and this book for quite some time. Indeed, it took one of my friends buying ‘The Botany of Desire  – A Plant’s-Eye View of the World’ for me as a birthday present for me to actually read it. I’ve found it a fascinating read, one of those where you interrupt your partner’s book about the Vietnam War to regale him with facts about the arrival of the apple in the US or the way that prohibition and the war on drugs in the US led to the development of much stronger marijuana in Europe. But, first things first.

The book centres on four human desires, and the plants that encapsulate them. So, firstly we have the story of the apple, which fulfills our need for sweetness, something which seems almost primal. For most of the history of mankind, sweet food would have been a handful of berries in autumn, or a lick of honey when someone was brave enough to knock down a wild bee’s nest. I loved this description of Pollan’s son’s first encounter with sugar – the icing on his first birthday cake.

‘I have only the testimony of Isaac’s face to go by (that, and his fierceness to repeat the experience), but it was plain that his first encounter with sugar had intoxicated him – was in fact an ecstasy, in the literal sense of that word. That is, he was beside himself with the pleasure of it, no longer here with me in space and time in quite the same way he had been just a moment before. Between bites Isaac gazed up at me in amazement (he was on my lap, and I was delivering the ambrosial forkfuls to his gaping mouth) as if to exclaim, “Your world contains this? From this day forward I shall dedicate my life to it.” (Which he basically has done). And I remember thinking, this is no minor desire, and then wondered: Could it be that  sweetness is the prototype of all desire?’

What an interesting question! And from here we have the story of Johnny Appleseed, the Garden of Good and Evil, the way that apples only ‘come true’ from grafting, not from seed, and how varieties fall in and out of fashion.

The second is beauty, and for that we have the tulip. There is an exploration of tulipomania, of course, but also on the whole notion of the ‘broken’ tulip – a virus will cause a particular flower to be coloured in a different way from its neighbours, and in the Holland of the 1630’s, added to its value even though the offsets from the bulb were smaller and weaker than those from other plants. Pollan has some interesting thoughts about why, in the relentlessly mercantile environment of the 17th Century Low Countries, a lust for these extravagant blooms took hold. I found this part interesting, but not as compelling as the apple chapter, probably because I already knew a bit about tulipomania from Anna Pavord’s book ‘The Tulip’.

The next chapter is on the human desire for intoxication, and features marijuana. It starts with the story of Pollan growing some of the plant in his backyard, and suddenly realising that the person dropping off some wood that he’s ordered is actually the local policeman. We investigate the history of marijuana in the US and then in Europe, where selective breeding not just for strength, but also for a particular ‘kind’ of high really got going. And he has a description of that open-eyed wonder that often goes along with smoking pot that made me laugh out loud. Having eaten some vanilla icecream while high, he reports back:

For the first time in your journey on this planet you are fully appreciating Vanilla in all its italicized and capitalized significance. Until, that is, the next epiphany comes along (Chairs! People thinking in other languages! Carbonated water!) and the one about ice cream is blown away like a leaf on the breeze of free association.’

And yes, this just about sums it up.

It is by temporarily mislaying much of what we already know (or think we know) that cannabis restores a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world, and innocence in adults will always flirt with embarrassment’.

Indeed.

But it’s in the final chapter, where Pollan looks at the human desire for control through the lens of the New Leaf potato, a genetically-modified organism which has a pesticide against Colorado beetle actually built in, that some of the most interesting facets of the relationship between humans and plants reveal themselves. So many gardens are a battle between what ‘nature’ wants and what human beings want. Genetically-modified crops seem to Pollan to represent the very pinnacle of this need for control, but he also sees it as an illusion: as one organic farmer says, the bugs will find a way to fight back. Isn’t it our desire to create monocultures that’s the problem, Pollan asks?

To shrink the sheer diversity of life, as the grafters and monoculturists and genetic engineers would so, is to shrink evolution’s possibilities, which is to say, the future open to all of us. “This is the assembly of life that it took a billion years to evolve,” the zoologist E.O.Wilson has written, speaking of biodiversity. “It has eaten the storms – folded them into its genes-and created the world that created us. It holds the world steady.” To risk this multiplicity is to risk unstringing the world.’

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, and makes me want to read some of Pollan’s other work, especially ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Let me know what you think if you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

You can buy ‘The Botany of Desire’ in lots of places, but if you’re in the UK the NHBS bookshop is my go-to site, you can find it here.

3 thoughts on “Book Review – ‘The Botany of Desire’ by Michael Pollan

  1. FEARN

    The “no refined sugar” rule meant our children gobbled down any medicine they were given. They also had no fillings. Of course it didn’t last. I recall the story of the dentist’s family. When they moved the buyers found sweet wrappers crammed behind every radiator.

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  2. Bobbie Jean

    Darn this dangling carrot! I’ll buy a copy and add it to my groaning shelf of must reads. I bought the Omnivore’s Dilemma some years ago and never finished it. I intend to though. After I finish M. F. K. Fisher’s “The Art of Eating” and other tomes I thought I cannot live without.

    Do you ever wonder what you will do with all the information that’s being stockpiled in your brain? Why are some of us so curious about ourselves and the world around us, while so many don’t seem to care?

    I just discovered the receipt for Fisher’s book. It is so old the ink has faded. I may have temporarily shelved it at the chapter on oysters. The book is flagged with colorful post-it flags but I seem to have read 348 pages of the 744. May we never lose the love of learning for learning’s sake?

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