“We don’t give nearly enough credit to plants.
They’ve been working on us ”“ they’ve been using us ”“ for their own purposes.”
~ Michael Pollan
The Botany of Desire was my trans-Pacific flight companion in good measure of the 5 hours it takes to fly from Hawai‘i to Portland: I read half of the book on the way there, covering Pollan’s first two stories of the botany of desire (the apple/sweetness and tulip/beauty), and then finished it on the trip back home (learning of his connection for marijuana/intoxication and the potato/control in the last two stories). Pollan’s coevolutionary premise, that plants have had a much greater influence and effect on us than we realize, especially given their need for rooting and apparent immobility, was fascinating to me, and the book did not disappoint — I loved it.
Synopsis from the publisher:
Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of honeybees and flowers: The bee collects nectar and pollen to make honey and, in the process, spreads the flowers’ genes far and wide. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan ingeniously demonstrates how people and domesticated plants have formed a similarly reciprocal relationship. He masterfully links four fundamental human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—with the plants that satisfy them: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. In telling the stories of four familiar species, Pollan illustrates how the plants have evolved to satisfy humankind’s most basic yearnings. And just as we’ve benefited from these plants, we have also done well by them. So who is really domesticating whom?
This is a “Made you think!” kind of book, and Pollan stokes the reader’s curiosity very skillfully. I was intrigued with learning more of what botany can teach us, about plants yes, but mostly about ourselves in the coevolutionary connection Pollan explains so well, for there is simply no denying it. He writes well, and he’s woven good stories, all boosted with significant personal research, including that within his own garden, a wonderful personal touch. I wished the book was longer, to tell us of even more stories — the botanical connections certainly abound here at my own home in the Hawaiian tropics, and I am quite sure that the four desires he’s covered simply begin to peel back our complex layers.
Pollan was brilliant I think, in starting his book with the apple and largely untold story of Johnny Appleseed, for we’ve all heard of the legend without knowing the depth of the story, and it’s so easy to take the apple for granted. The fruit is not as common as we think!
We humans are so self-absorbed, and it’s quite impossible to read this book without changing the way one thinks of plants, and without continuing to wonder just how much more they have affected us. What Pollan has done, is awake the reader’s inquisitiveness and respect for botany in very successful way — we can continue our study on our own to a certain degree, the scientific calling unnecessary, and most notably with our own relationship to nature.
I would also recommend this book to someone wanting to stretch in their reading with more non-fiction, for it’s a compelling choice, entertaining, easy to read, and quite in a league of its own.
PBS has produced a two-hour documentary with Pollan as well; no surprise to me, for their partnership seems a perfect fit. Here is the Preview Trailer (if you’re reading via RSS, you may need to click directly into the blog to see this):
More PBS Links:
- About the Program
- The Apple: Our desire of Sweetness
- The Tulip: Our desire of Beauty
- Cannabis: Our desire of Intoxication
- The Potato: Our desire of Control
Why Goodreads? They have become an App Smart choice for me in 2011 for I want to return to more book reading, and have set a goal to read at least 36 books this year (this was book 15 for me). Read more about the Goodreads mission here, and let’s connect there if you decide to try it too! You can also follow them on Twitter.
Previous review: Do the Work by Steven Pressfield for The Domino Project