The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan transplants readers to view plants as intertwined in our own destiny, rather than the passive plant manipulated by the farmer or gardener. The author claims plants also have a control over humans and Pollan narrows this down to one word: desire. The writer gives four examples of how plants have evolved to utilize human desires for their mobility and how humans have exploited them: for sweetness, the apple; for beauty, the tulip; for intoxication, marijuana; for control, the potato. To illustrate his point, Pollan evokes the plants perspective to show readers that “domesticated species” did not become domesticated for the sole purpose of human utilization and control over the plant, but to advance the plant’s own interests, too.
Pollan offers a historical, political, scientific and insightful tale of how plants and humans have evolved together and how our anthropocentric view is not the full picture of our relationship with plants. The question, why have these plants evolved to include such desiring traits, is posed for each species beginning with the apple. The well-known John Chapman (aka. Johnny Appleseed), is regarded by Pollan for spreading a variety of apple seeds which had to first become primitive in new American soil. Rather than relying on grafts, Chapman let the apple seeds flourish on their own leaving the new orchards for months on end, an act that Chapman recognizes as meeting both the tree’s need and his own as the circulator – a symbiotic relationship not often associated between humans and plants. Pollan later attributes Chapman’s wildness to the Greek God Dionysian and compares him to the orderly Monsanto farmers who are more aligned to Apollonian, clearly with more awe for the former. Moving onto the Tulip we learn the plant’s beauty is a survival tool by the plant to hardwire humans into replanting the bulbs, an important propagation technique to aid in their dispersal and survival. Such an image is usually thought of as a between the bee being attracted to the nectar of a flower, but is used to remind us that we are in a similar relationship with nature.
The next chapter offers the most perplexing question: why has marijuana evolved so that it alters consciousness? To answer this question Pollan not only travels to Amsterdam, he also grows and samples some of the plant himself, all in the name of research. Intoxication (which motivated humans to domesticate the plant) has shaped history’s philosophers, medicine and even religion. The intoxication that leads to forgetting and turning our brain off, as Pollan argues, is the allure of the plant.
A reoccurring theme in each story is the progression from diversity of plant species to a narrowing and limiting array on behalf of human’s wish to simplify and control. The warning is made clear: limiting biodiversity makes us more vulnerable to collapse. This point is grounded in the last chapter on the potato. After visiting the Monsanto headquarters, Pollan interviews a Monsanto farmer. The neat rows of the genetically modified Monsanto NewLeaf potato follows a prescribed regimen of pesticides applied by the touch of a computer, leaving little interaction between farmer and plant. Pollan suggests a similarity between the NewLeaf fields spanning across hundreds of acres to that of 1845 Ireland. Could we be setting the modern stage to replicate the Irish potato famine? The tales of these four plants stress that our control of nature can go too far and modern technology is not limitless.
While at times his point is made repetitively, the imagery and quips by Pollan are thoroughly entertaining. His multifarious array of sources and approaches to the subject (scientific, sociological and historical) make for a well-rounded discussion of our relationship with plants. Pollan, the tuned in gardener and writer, leaves readers looking at the natural world differently, and he hopes to reinvigorate our evolutionary connection to plants.