The Botany of Desire

November 3, 2009

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The first time I saw the title of Michale Pollan’s novel about “a plant’s-eye view of the world,” I couldn’t help but think of the Either/Orchestra, a local jazz ensemble that had released albums titled The Half-Life of Desire and The Calculus of Lust. But The Botany of Desire isn’t about what goes on between humans.

Pollan uses a conceit made popular by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene: Humans aren’t in control, they’re controlled by other organisms whose sole interest is to be propagated as widely as possible. The book’s four sections use different plants — apple, tulip, cannabis, potato — to support his thesis. It had been on my “to read” stack for almost a year, but I was finally prompted to read it last week when I saw that it had been made into a PBS documentary:

It’s a faithful translation of the book, narrated by Pollan (on screen) and Frances McDormand (off screen). But, because no Pollan book is about just one thing, many of his detailed explanations are compressed into a single sentence or scene. You still need to read the book to learn about the “real” Johnny Appleseed, the injustce of marijuana laws, or the political economy of British wheat versus Irish potatoes.

So I advise you to do both: watch the documentary (streamed online here) and read the book. You can see Pollan working toward the ideas he’d develop fully in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and you’ll learn some interesting botany. At the farmer’s market after watching the television broadcast, I found myself paying much more attention to the variety and diversity of the apples available from New England orchards.

Roxbury Russett

That’s a Roxbury Russett, the oldest apple variety bred in America. A week ago I would have passed it over in favor of larger, brighter, redder varieties, and I would have missed out on it’s crisp flesh with a perfect balance of tart and sweet.

And that, to me, is the success of the book: the plant’s-eye view opened my eyes as well.

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