52 Books a Year: #14 - The Botany of Desire

Posted by Brian Fri, 13 Nov 2009 21:19:36 GMT

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
By Michael Pollan


Occasionally I like to ask others to suggest books for me to read. Both Second Nature and The Botany of Desire were suggested to me by my yoga teacher. Michael Pollan’s books had been on my radar for a while, having read several of his essays and seeing him on Bill Moyers’ Journal, and he does not disappoint.

In The Botany of Desire Pollan examines how four different types of plants (apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes) affected culture and and how culture has affected each of these plants. This simple premise provides for a fascinating read.

You learn about the real Johnny Appleseed (eccentric but rich) and the copious amounts of applejack made from his trees. Quite often the truth is stranger than fiction and in his case it is. He proves to be more far more interesting than the popular image of some wanderer randomly throwing apple seeds around with a pot on his head. You also learn about the culture of prized apple types that existed before the 20th century. A man with a new type of apple could become famous.

Tulips provide the most confounding plant in the book. Amazingly enough in the 1630’s they produced the first well-documented speculative bubble in history in Holland. The idea of a flower causing a bubble today seems absurd, but the idea of homes causing a bubble seems absurd to me as well.

Marijuana provides the simplest explanation of a plant affecting culture. Pollan explores the burgeoning pot farms of Amsterdam and describes his own experiment in growing pot from his younger days. It is an honest and refreshing look at the role of drugs in our culture

He finishes by looking at potatoes and the way they have affected modern agribusiness. The growth of fast-food empires such as McDonalds has created enormous demand for identical potatoes, which modern agribusiness has grown to supply. This last section provides a launching point for most of his work since, describing the growing role of multi-billion dollar chemical and genetic engineering corporations in farming.

Pollan is a gifted writer and flows easily from philosophy to history to anecdote without missing a beat. This particular book also stands out since I read most of it on my honeymoon watching over Niagara Falls and Toronto. Every bit as good as Second Nature.


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