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189 of 202 found the following review helpful:
Some of the Most interesting Botany You'll Ever Read. Jun 14, 2001
By Thomas L. Ogren
Two different people sent me copies last week of Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire. I'm a writer (Allergy-Free Gardening, from Ten Speed Press) myself and a lifetime horticulturist and I guess they figured I'd appreciate this book. They were right too. I found this book extremely hard to put down. Pollan is a writer first and a botanist second but he is remarkably observant about horticultural matters. He is also unusually talented at explaining complex ideas and he does so in a way that is fresh, fun, often funny, and suprisingly profound. Pollan's section on Johnny Appleseed alone is worth the price of the book. Here Johnny is a multi-dimensional character, one not just eccentric, but a shrewd fellow with great vision and considerable human frailty. The Botany of Desire is chiefly the history of the tulip, apples in America, cannabis, and the potato. This may not sound like the recipe for a really satisfying read, but in Michael Pollan's more than able hands, it certainly is. If you enjoy gardening, history, or just plain old very decent writing, I expect you too would appreciate this excellent book.
207 of 225 found the following review helpful:
Plants and Humans Influence Each Other for Mutual Benefit! May 22, 2001
By Donald Mitchell
"Jesus Loves You!"
"What existential difference is there between the human being's role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebees?" "Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? With profound questions like these, Michael Pollan pollinates your mind with a new world view of our relationships with plants, one in which humans are not at the center. The book focuses on four primary examples of how plants provide benefits to humans that lead humans to benefit the plants (apples for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication, and the potato for control over nature's food supply). You will learn many new facts in the process that will fascinate you. The book's main value is that you will learn that we need to be more thoughtful in how we assist in the evolution of plant species.
The book builds on Darwin's original observations about how artificial evolution occurs (evolution directed by human efforts). So-called domesticated species thrive while the wild ones we admire often do not. Compare dogs to wolves as an example. Mr. Pollan challenges the mental separation we make between wild and domesticated species successfully in the book.
The apple section was my favorite. You will learn that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) was a rather odd fellow who was actually in the business of raising and selling apple trees. He planted a few seeds at the homes where he stayed overnight on his travels. Mr. Chapman had apple tree nurseries all over Ohio and Indiana, which he started 2-3 years before he expected an influx of settlers. Homesteading laws required these settlers to plant 50 apple or pears trees in order to take title to the land. And these apples were for making hard apple cider, not eating apples. He was the "American Dionysus" in Mr. Pollan's view. Apple trees need to be grafted to make good eating apples. Chapman's trees produced many genetic variations, which are good for the species. Apple trees became more narrow in their genes after other sources for alcohol and sweetness became available (from cane sugar). Now, the ancient genes of apple trees are being kept in living form from Kazakhstan, before they are lost due to economic development.
Tulips were the source of the famous Tulipmania in Holland. Rare colors occurred due to viruses. Those became extremely valuable during the tulip boom market in the 17th century. Now, growers try to keep the viruses out and we have much more dull, consistent species. We have probably lost much beauty in favor of order in the process.
The intoxicants in marijuana are probably caused by toxins that the plants make to kill off insects. Because the plant is a weed, it grows very rapidly. There is a hilarious story about the author's experiences in growing two plants that you will love. As the antidrug war progressed, marijuana became a hothouse plant and was bred and developed to grow much more rapidly under humid, high-light conditions indoors. You will read about modern commercial farms in Holland.
The potato story is the most complex. The Irish potato famine related to monoculture. The Incas had always planted a variety of potatoes to avoid the risk of disease. Now, biotechnology has added an insecticide to the leaves of potato plants, taking monoculture one step further. Interestingly, the insects are already becoming resistant to the insecticide. Are we building a new risk to famine with this approach? How will genetically altered potatoes affect humans? Is having consistent french fries at fast food places enough of an incentive to take this risk? These are the kinds of questions raised by this chapter.
Mr. Pollan has described a "dance of human and plant desire that left neither the plants nor the people . . . unchanged."
His key point is that we should be sure to include strong biodiversity in our approaches. Nature can create more variation faster than fledgling biotechnology industry can. Time has proven that biodiversity has many advantages for humans while monoculture has usually proven to have at least one major drawback. In reality, we can probably have both.
If you are like me, you will find Mr. Pollan's personal experiences with the plants and his investigations of the historical figures to be fascinating. He is a good story teller, and a fine writer.
After you read this book, take a walk through a park or a garden and think about Mr. Pollan's argument. Then consider how these principles can be applied to help ideas change, improve, and grow in more valuable ways.
Look at life from many different perspectives . . . and live more intelligently and beneficially!
62 of 69 found the following review helpful:
Fabulous.... Nov 06, 2002
By Dianne Foster
Read this book and you may never eat a conventionally grown potato again. I know I won't. If I hadn't been a dedicated organic gardener for over 40 years, I would become one after reading THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. I find it incredibly puzzling that more people haven't bitten the organic bullet. I truly believe a diet of conventionally grown food can shorten your life and bring on all sorts of aches, pains, and illnesses you might not otherwise suffer. Organic gardening works and the stuff you grow is better for you. If you can't grow it, for goodness sakes, hustle on down to your closest Whole Foods store and buy it. Organic food may be more expensive than conventional foods, but in the long run you will save on medical bills.
Michael Pollen's book is simply the best set of gardening essays I've read in a long while, maybe ever. And that's saying a lot because I am a big fan of gardening books (I've reviewed over 100 of them for Amazon). I haven't read something so enjoyable since Henry Mitchell's columns and books. It's not often a book of garden essays can make you laugh (misadventures with Mary Jane), make you cry (one million Irish dead of starvation), make you angry (one million Irish dead), and make you smile (is there any tulip so lovely as `The Queen of the Night?'
Pollan covers four plants, Apples, Tulips, Marijuana, and Potatoes. His first chapter on apples, disabused me of all my notions about Johnny Appleseed. I had read Anna Pavord's book THE TULIP, so the tulip section of Pollan's book was the least interesting for me, although he added some interesting anecdotal information.
The best section of this book as far as I am concerned is the chapter on Marijuana. My husband is a substance abuse counselor and I recommended the chapter to him. It could have been titled, "Everything you ever wanted to know about Marijuana that they didn't tell you in medical school or criminology class." If you haven't yet decided the U.S. government officials who devised the war on drugs are nuts, read this chapter and you will become convinced. Drug war indeed!!! Didn't we learn anything with Al Capone??
The section on the potato plant is downright scary. Pollan's adventures with Monsanto are illuminating. Once again, the feds come out as the dumb bunnies. Or, maybe it's the elected officials and their appointees who won't let the EPA and USDA do it's job. The material on evolution in this section nicely complements Steve Jones' DARWIN'S GHOST. Monsanto is in the process of obtaining patents on natural substances and evolutionary processes that will affect the whole food chain-and the CEO says "trust me". Yeah, right.
Do yourself a favor, during the cold weather ahead. Curl up in an easy chair with a cup of tea and read this book. Whether you garden or not, you will love it.
19 of 19 found the following review helpful:
Soft-spoken, but packs a punch Sep 23, 2001
By Dennis Littrell
Pollan makes the rather striking point in the Introduction that we and our domesticated plants are involved in a coevolutionary relationship. We use them and they in turn use us. The bumblebee thinks that he is the "subject in the garden and the bloom he's plundering for its drop of nectar" is the object. "But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom." (p. xiv)
And so it is with us. There is no subject and no object. The grammar is all wrong. We plant and disperse the apple, thinking we act from our volition, yet from the apple's point of view, it has enticed us through its bribe of sweetness to further its propagation. It has played upon our desire. The same can be said of every other plant "domesticated" by humans. As Pollan points out, from a larger point of view our farms and gardens are just another part of the "wild" environment. And we, too, are part of that environment--increasingly a most significant part. The plants, and of course the cows, the ants, the roaches, the dogs and the cats, adjust to the environment, or they don't. The ones that do will flourish. Those that don't, the mighty oak, perhaps, the hard wood trees of equatorial jungles, the tigers and the condor, that cannot, will go the way of the dodo.
This idea is not original with Pollan, of course, but nowhere have I seen it presented so convincingly. In a sense we are not the doer, we are the done. Pollan illustrates his thesis in four chapters on the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato.
In the chapter on tulips and the tulip mania we learn that we are probably hard-wired to love flowers. Why? Because "the presence of flowers...is a reliable predictor of future food." (p. 68) We love what is good for us. We find beauty in that which nourishes. Pollan adds that "recognizing and recalling flowers helps a forager get to the fruit [that is to come] first." (p. 68) I might add that our love for little animals is both in their resemblance to our children and (hidden from our consciousness) their potential nutritional value in a time of famine. One might watch on PBS's Nature series to see how lovingly the big cat doth lick its prey.
In the chapter on marijuana Pollan admits to growing the noxious weed in his garden among the potatoes andthe tulips, but incurs paranoia since such horticulture is against the law. He points with restraint to the absurdity of the anti-marijuana laws, to the unconstitutional seizure of property by the marijuana police, etc., but one senses that he's pulling his punches. Or perhaps he feels that something is gained by using a quiet voice. He goes to Amsterdam and finds out just how potent the new marijuana has become. He views an indoor marijuana grow room and sees how sinsemilla is produced while noting that cannabis has become America's number one cash crop. (p. 130). He also notes that "the rapid emergence of a domestic marijuana industry represents a triumph of protectionism" (p. 131). Yes, Virginia, the drug war is artificially supporting the high price of marijuana and protecting domestic "farmers" from foreign competition.
The chapter on the apple concentrates on the life and career of John Chapman, AKA Johnny Appleseed, in which Pollan transforms the Disney-ish Christianized American folk hero into "the American Dionysus." The reason? The apple seeds that Chapman dispersed grew not into Red Delicious apples or Macintoshes but into scrawny little things, mostly too bitter to eat that were made into hard cider, which contained about three percent alcohol, the drink of default for the pioneers. They loved him for it, and occasionally there did indeed grow out of the cider orchards a tree or two that brought forth fruit that could be eaten with pleasure, and made into pies and butter....
The final chapter on the potato has Pollan planting Monsanto's genetically engineered NewLeaf potato, a potato that produces its own insecticide as part of the potato itself by using a gene borrowed from a common bacterium found in the soil. Pollan weighs the significance of this while recalling the history of the potato from its origins in the Andes through its economic effect on Europe, and especially Ireland, to its status today. He comes out strongly against monoculture and in favor of biodiversity. He reports on Monsanto's infamous "Terminator" technology, genetic alteration of plants so that their seeds are sterile, requiring the farmer to become dependent upon Monsanto for seed, a technology that Monsanto "has forsworn" following "an international barrage of criticism." (p. 233)
This a very pretty book written in an understated style about how we deceive ourselves, how we fail to see the world as it really is; how we see the world from a singular and restricted point of view, we as subject and actor, the rest of the environment as acted upon, when in truth, we are just part of the larger ecology, part of the process. We are creatures that kid ourselves to make more palpable our morally ambiguous behavior.
My favorite insight of many in the book comes from page 247 where Pollan, in recalling the brilliant time-lapse photography from David Attenborough's PBS series, "The Private Life of Plants," observes, "...our sense of plants as passive objects is a failure of imagination, rooted in the fact that plants occupy what amounts to a different dimension."
103 of 123 found the following review helpful:
A good, but questionable, effort Jul 22, 2001
By Amazon Customer
Pollan's The Botany of Desire is certainly a fascinating book, and I would say that it is also a valuable read, but not for its scientific accuracy or integrity. Firstly, the author is not a scientist but a journalist, and we all know that journalists tend to glorify and exaggerate. His argument itself is attractive in some ways but consistently equivocal and vague. Though skeptical throughout, I did enjoy this book for the author's fluid writing, good sense of humor, and solid attempts and evolutionary insight.
Pollan claims that that the plants we domesticate have evolved to please our senses and thus encourage us to grow them in vast amounts, in effect, helping them to propagate. At first, this is a very attractive idea, but with further thought it does not hold up. Are people and the plants they grow commercially really in an obligate mutualistic relationship? Well, yes, they are. Human society, particularly in industrially developed countries, has become dependent on domesticated crops. But I would argue that we have moulded these crops to our own ends; the influence of natural selection upon these crops' ancestors is not as significant as the artificial selection we exerted upon them. Yes, apple trees did first have to get our attention before we would start growing them voluntarily, but we have artificially selected the apples that you and I eat today. Those huge Granny Smiths and Red and Golden Delicious you see at the grocery are not wild type species in the least bit. They are as much a designed piece of technology as is a finely tuned engine, and the orchard in which they grow is not really different from a factory. These domesticated species would never have flourished in a primitive environment, and they are totally defenseless to pests and other threats without the aid of their inventors, us. What difference does this make? We are still producing large numbers of them; isn't that all that counts? Well, you could always say that we are propagating the apples, potatoes, cannabis, whatever, but we produce them on our terms, not theirs. We artificially select the characters we want, and then we clone them by vegetative methods. The plants were not and are not evolving to please us; they are being manipulated to please us. Think about all the seedless fruits we have developed and sustained (grapes, bananas, watermelon, pinneapple, just to name a few). This process is the equivalent of evolutionary castration, reducing these plants to nothing more than a toolbox of malleable biotic mechanisms. They are no longer independently evolving; we sustain them solely for our own benefit, and the genetic lines of the plants themselves are frozen in time.
Now that I have griped, I must say that this book is not without its benefits. I had not really thought about plants the way Pollan presents here, and I must thank him for opening my eyes in this respect. Although I don't agree with him, I derived great value in following his thought process about domesticated plants. For this reason, I would recommend this book to those who would like to debate an interesting evolutionary topic that is a nice twist on traditional perspective.
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