Why I Chose this Book
My book choice can feel sporadic sometimes. At one point, I determined that my book selection should be more deliberate. I should read books that align with the goals in my life. One of them is to further my science knowledge and understanding. So, I decided that the next audiobook I would choose would be something science related.
I visited overdrive.com and viewed the science selection. It’s not big. Among the currently available titles was The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye-View of the World by Michael Pollan. A book about plants by a guy with the last name Pollan? That can’t be his real name. Is it? I had read the synopsis for the book before, but wasn’t interested. This time I decided to give it a try.
The Botany of Desire
The domestication of animals has given us many advantages such as four-legged hunting partners, faster means of transportation, and the convenience of plucking the day’s meal out of the backyard rather than risking life and limb tracking it for miles. In addition, our mastery of growing and sowing the appropriate plants to consume made us more prosperous than before, setting a precedent for cities and empires. We learned to grow the most delicious and nutritious plants. We selected and even bred flowers that delighted our sense of smell and rewarded our visual centers. What if, though, it was not we that chose these plants, but they that chose us?
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’’’ (Genesis 1:26 New International Version)
This is the question that Michael Pollan addresses in this book. As bees and flowers have coevolved, so too have humans and plants. The relationship between humans isn’t master over servant, but bidirectional. Agriculture gave us communities, cities, and…obesity. Certain attractive qualities of some plants enticed humans to do for plants what they could not do for themselves. We provide protection against herbivorous beetles, we plant the seeds of some plants, but not others, and we even aid the evolutionary process of some. Such good stewards, aren’t we?
“Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.’” (Genesis 1:29 New International Version)
Pollan supports his thesis by discussing the 4-5 different plants that have had significant effects on us as a society. He interweaves history, anecdotes, and science with the discussion of each plant.
The first plant Pollan discusses is the apple. Today, we think of apples as sweet and delicious or at the very least edible. Apples in the wild, though, are not so. Before the invention of the modern-day apple, the taste of an apple was described as “sour enough to set a squirrel’s teeth on edge and make a jay scream.” Sounds like something to send you running to the doctor rather than keeping you away from one.
Instead of eating them, we made drinks out of apples, hard cider. Modern popular apples are clones of an early strain made through a process known as grafting. Pollan goes through the history of the apple from Kazakhstan to ancient China to Rome to Johnny Chatman better known as Johnny Appleseed. Admittedly, I’m not sure that I was aware that Johnny Appleseed was a real person or even cared who he was at all. The only thing I could remember about Appleseed was that he was a thing and that the rapper Mystikal once rhymed “Devour cause I’m sour like Johnny Appleseed I intrude, Hoes call me rude.” Pollan spends much time discussing the interesting character that was Appleseed and his contribution to modern-day American apples.
He next discusses how the history of tulips and our fascination with their beauty and smell. How about marijuana? What is our fascination with this plant? Marijuana famously alters our consciousness, which is an act sought after in all ages and cultures. The world we live in is full of information, more so than we could possibly completely process. Therefore, we have filters that allow us to receive the information most useful to us. Drugs, such as marijuana may alter these filters, which then affects our consciousness.
Lastly, we have the potato. Besides the Irish potato famine, the potato has had other significant effects on our society. Pollan uses the potato as an example of humanity’s desire to control nature. French fries can be found in nearly every American restaurant and also throughout the world. To produce so many potatoes companies such as Monsanto have genetically modified potatoes to make growing them efficient and the end product visually appealing. We’re left wondering about the place of genetically modified foods in society.
Pollan introduces an interesting thesis and uses interesting examples to acquaint the reader of how plants have affected us. Pollan’s storytelling ability and interweaving of multiple narrative techniques provides an interesting work. Personally, some parts were unengaging, but overall this book proved to be an interesting look at an underappreciated subject.
This book was narrated by Scott Brick and produced by Audio Evolution, LLC. Brick did a fine job.
Sidenote: From Michael Pollan’s Wikipedia page, he is the son of Stephan and Corky Pollan. So, I guess Pollan is his birth name.