Excerpts from “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan

I resisted reading this book for a long time because I heard an NPR interview with the author and he sounded…pretentious, I guess I would say.  I don’t like reading sanctimonious books.  But my adviser loaned it to me, and recommended that I read it and I enjoyed it thoroughly in spite of myself.  There were some parts of the book that annoyed me (for example, lines like this one, “A bumblebee would probably also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he’s plundering for its drop of nectar as an object.” HIMSELF??!?), and I think the way he writes about evolution in general is pretty misleading.  In spite of this, a great an fascinating book.

It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and pure nature begins…For a great many species today, “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force.

Nature’s success stories from now on are probably going to look a lot more like the apple’s than the panda’s or the white leopard’s.

An orchard is also an idealized or domesticated version of a forest, and the transformation of a shadowy tract of wilderness into a tidy geometry of apple trees offered a visible, even stirring proof that a pioneer had mastered the primordial forest.

Everyone knows that the settlement of the West depended on the rifle and the ax, yet the seed was no less instrumental in guaranteeing Europeans’ success in the New World.

Befitting the American success story, the botany of the apple–the fact that the one thing it won’t do is come true from seed–meant that its history would be a history of heroic individuals, rather than groups or types or lines.

The boy’s eye view has the wintry weight of rationality on its side: all this useless beauty is impossible to justify on cost-benefit grounds.

…flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a meadow of wildflowers brims with meanings not of our making.  Move into the garden, however, and the meanings only multiply as the flowers take aim not only at the bee’s or the bat’s or the butterfly’s obscure notions of the good or the beautiful, but ours as well.  Sometime long ago the flower’s gift for metaphor crossed with our own, and the offspring of that match, that miraculous symbiosis of desire, are the flowers of the garden.

The bees!  The bees will let themselves be lured into the most ridiculous positions, avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in a single peony’s blond Medusa thatch of stamens–they remind me of Odysseus’s crew in thrall to Circe.

…but of course the flower’s perspective would disclose that in the garden human desire looms just as large.  In fact, the place is crowded with species that have evolved expressly to catch my eye, often to the detriment of getting themselves pollinated.

…the tulip is that rare figure of Apollonian beauty in a horticultural pantheon mainly presided over by Dionysus.

Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are help in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.

Psychoactive plants are bridges between the worlds of matter and spirit or, to update the vocabulary, chemistry and consciousness.

Cannabis has thrived on its taboo the way another plant might thrive in a particularly acid soil.

Some of our greatest happinesses arrive in such moments, during which we feel as though we’ve sprung free from the tyranny of time–clock time, of course, but also historical and psychological time, and sometimes even mortality.

Wilderness might be reducible, acre by acre, but wildness is something else again.  So the freshly hoed earth invites a new crop of weeds, the potent new pesticide engenders resistance in pests, and every new step in the direction of simplification —toward monoculture, say, or genetically identical plants–leads to unimagined new complexities.

There is another word for this extremist noticing–this sense of first sight unencumbered by knowingness, by the already-been-theres and seen-thats of the adult mind–and that word, of course, is wonder.

One sultry afternoon I watched the bumblebees making their rounds of my potato blossoms, thoughtlessly chalking themselves with yellow pollen grains before lumbering off to appointments with other blossoms, other species.

Monoculture is the single most powerful simplification of modern agriculture, the key move in reconfiguring nature as a machine, yet nothing else in agriculture is so poorly fitted to the way nature seems to work. Very simply, a field of identical plants will always be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease–to all the vicissitudes of nature. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer, and from which virtually every agricultural product is designed to deliver him.


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