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180 of 193 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.
203 of 220 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!
61 of 68 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.
23 of 24 found the following review helpful:
Excellent book Jan 15, 2002
This is an amazing book.
Author Pollan takes us on a journey through history, botany, and the human psyche through examination of four plants - the apple, tulip, marijuana, and potato.
Recurring themes through the book are how plants benefit from encouraging human attention, and the dangers of monoculture, especially how modern man has taken the diversity available in nature and severely limited that diversity, limiting the plants' ability to respond to environmental challenges.
Throughout the book he sprinkles tidbits of information on the plant described, and on the surrounding human culture. He reveals, for instance, that the apple was not only one of the only sources of sweetness in early America, but that the main use of apples in early America was cider. Because we have so limited the original diversity of the apple into just a few strains, apples require large amounts of artificially-applied pesticide to fight the continually-adapting apple pests.
He explains not only how the tulip mania in Holland rose and fell, but why the prized feathered or "broken" tulips were less hardy.
In the discussion on marijuana, Pollan diverges into interesting discussions of the chemistry of human consciousness, how psychoactive plants interact with our consciousness, society's reaction to the use of marijuana, and how strengthened prohibitions against marijuana have ironically led to more potent marijuana.
Talking about the potato, Pollard discusses the dangers of genetically engineered plants - bringing in a pesticide gene from a bacteria to the potato, which results in not only biological dangers, but the danger of putting big business in tight control of agriculture. Pollard also discusses not only how the Irish potato blight came to be, but why it particularly impacted the Irish.
Woven through all these discussions is the theme of the split human attitude toward nature - admiring its wildness, while attempting to exert maximum control over it.
You'll enjoy this book - as you will a similar book (though less esoteric) - _An Empire of Plants: People and Plants that Changed the World_ by Toby and Will Musgrave, which explores the worlds of tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, tea, poppies, quinine and rubber.
18 of 18 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."
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