Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire is a collection of four essays on four different plants, each representing a desire that humans have: apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and potatoes (control). Pollan’s writing is clear and purposeful, full of the kind of rampant speculation that would get a real scientist in trouble (or labeled as a “pop scientist” as Carl Sagan was), but perfect for the gardener-turned-investigator that Pollan is. In high school, we learn that plots boil down to basic structures, one of them being human vs. nature. Pollan attempts to flip that and write a book that is nature vs. humans by focusing on how the plants benefit from the years of selection by humans. Although the book is obstensibly about the plants, Pollan introduces you to a number of people who provide both the assistance and the foils for his natural protagonists, like: Johnny Appleseed (a real figure) and Bill Jones (who is more interested in a St. Appleseed); Monsanto, their captive customers, and the off-the-grid organic farmer Mike Heath; Bryan R., a breeder and grower of marijuana in Amsterdam, who is both frightened and proud of his patch of weed; and Dr. Pauw, who owned all but one of the most desired tulips during the mania that hit Holland.
The style of the book resembles that of John McPhee, partly because of its four-essay structure, but also in the short, broken sections that flit back-and-forth in time, place and thought. Pollan, unlike McPhee, has a conclusion to draw from his subject, though, and that is the need to support biodiversity and his fear of monoculture–be it a natural one like the reliance on the “lumper” potato in Ireland that led to the Great Potato Famine or the artificial one of human culture, where people show a range of interest on many things, not just the tulip (or dot.com) of the moment. Reading between the lines, one can celebrate not only the wonder of nature but also fear the danger of hubris in thinking that we are separate from that nature, that we are not as changed by it as we change it. In these days of global warming and other environmental pressures, it’s a lesson we would all do well to heed.
[Finished 21 July 2002]