Sunday, 10 August 2008

Book Review: The Botany of Desire - A Plant's Eye View of The World by Michael Pollan

So, a while back (when I went to the Barbara Kingsolver thingy) Jodi recommended I read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan. I put my request in at the Library, and eventually, my number was up. I got it, but at the time, I had about 3 other books I was reading (also Library books), so by the time I got to reading it, I had like 4 days left. I tried to renew, but unfortunately I could not because it is so popular. So, after reading the first section - on corn; it had to go back. I've put my request in again, and I won't make the same mistake twice. As soon as I get it, I will put whatever else I have on hold and read it through. Anyway, because I enjoyed Michael's writing style sooooooooo much; and also because I really thought his subject matter was fascinating (what's not fascinating about food?), I decided to get a less popular book of his from the library. (not less popular, just less demanded at the library currently). The Botany of Desire is a kind of essay on four human desires that can each be satiated by a plant. Michael goes into detail in each of the four sections about the history and story of the plant. I loooooooooooooove how he tells stories. He really is an amazing writer.

The first section is on the Apple based on the desire of sweetness. I learned things I never knew about the history of the apple in North America. Did you know that apples actually originate from Kazakhstan? Yes, that's right, and there are forests of them there in every kind you can imagine; with new ones being reproduced all the time. When Apple trees reproduce sexually, there is no telling what kind of apple you're going to get. The different varieties we have today are all clones of a variety of apple that was discovered at some point, or two grafted together, or what have you. On a side note, I bought some lovely B.C. grown organic apples called "Discovery" today at the health food store. My giddy aunt, they are tasty. They have this lovely pinkish/white flesh. So tasty, and just enough tartness. So, it turns out that John Chapman - aka "Johnny Appleseed" floated down the Ohio on a raft with a giant pile of these Kazakhstani (or wherever he got them) apple seeds of every variety imaginable. He planted nurseries all over the mid-west, and had a huge amount of land by the time he died. He was also a crackpot, but a really colorful one.(and if you're going to be a crackpot - you might as well be colorful) Truthfully, I don't know if the apple would have taken hold of North America the way it has - had it not been for him. He didn't believe in grafting, it was entirely unnatural and godless to him. He preferred that apples reproduced the old fashioned way. I quite agree with him in many aspects (mainly in the maintenance of genetic variability in any plant really); but there's nothing wrong with grafting and cloning plants at all really, because God created the cloning ability in plants (umm, not in animals - note). Anyway, I think - wouldn't it be fantastic to go to one of those Kazakhstan forests and collect as many seeds as possible (be careful which ones you eat though - you never know what you're going to get - very much like Bertie Bott's every flavor beans), plant the seeds in your own back yard, let the trees mature, see what kind of apples you get and discover or graft a really exciting variety? I'm currently preparing Cherry pits to plant with the same intentions. Who knows if I'll actually get to see the trees that come from them grow to maturity or ever taste their fruit, but it's an exciting project nonetheless.

The second section of the book is based on the human desire for beauty, and Michael chose to write on the Tulip for this one. Tulips really are another amazing plant with huge capability for genetic variability. There was an entire nation obsessed with them at one time - umm - yeah - you guessed it - Holland. You couldn't buy bulbs for these precious varieties of flowers at one point (priceless), so people stole them. Another fascinating section.

The third section is based on the human desire for intoxication and Michael chose to write on the Cannabis plant for that section. To be honest with you, (I'm sure you're not surprised) I had a really hard time getting through this section, so I really didn't get through the whole thing. Started reading it for education's sake, but then really couldn't finish it because it's something I just couldn't wrap my head around or even slightly agree with. Well, I mean - yes - I understand the human desire to have an altered perception. I mean, I do get that from exercise, or heck even a coca-cola on a really sleepy day - admittedly. But, I really can't relate to the desire for intoxication, because for me, spirituality and enlightenment are very real, and it's only when I'm alert and aware of my surroundings that I feel it the most. Does that make sense? On another note, I am a huge hemp fan. Most of you who read my blog regularly know this. I eat hemp seed every day pretty much - it's a fantastic source of Essential Fatty Acids and also Fibre. There are huge benefits to receive from eating hemp. Hemp and Marijuana - yes - are grown from the same plant, but in different ways, so there is no THC in Hemp. There's this company called "Manitoba Harvest" and they produce a fantastic line of Hemp foods that are amazing. I'm a big fan of Hemp Milk - it has a slightly nutty flavor to it. You can feel the health benefits flowing out of it. Fantastic.

The 4th section, and possibly the most important of the whole book is based on the human desire for control and Michael chose to write about a Genetically Modified Potato made by Monsanto called "New Leaf" which I'm guessing - pretty much every person who has ever eaten fast food - has eaten. GMO's are organisms that have been altered genetically for whatever reason - whether it be to prevent a certain disease, or have a more desirable trait, or to deter insects (in the case of the New Leafs), or insanely enough to prevent farmers from being able to collect seed from - simply because the company that altered it want to make more money off of farmers. Monsanto has actually produced GMO's that will not produce seed simply for this reason - capitalism. Scientists have also produced a Tobacco leaf that glows in the dark using firefly genes. Why? Who knows - probably because they can. I remember seeing Danios that glow in the dark at the pet store - another GMO, though not a food item (except for my cat) What sort of price are we paying by allowing plants and animals to be genetically modified? Well, in the case of these New Leafs - there's a common bacterium called "Bacillus thuringiensis" or Bt for short which is usually used by organic growers to spray on potatoes to work as a kind of natural insecticide. So, Monsanto have actually placed this bacterium into the genetic code of these potatoes. Which means that it is in every cell - every leaf, stem, flower, root, and every potato. We are actually eating the insecticide. There's no tests that have been done to see what kind of long-term affects this has on those who eat the potatoes. I'm guessing, it could turn out to be a bad thing, as every other thing humans have altered in their constant desire to have control over nature has turned out. In reality, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't consider "New Leaf" potatoes a food, so it is evidently not FDA approved. The other really bad thing about planting "New Leaf" potatoes, is that over time, the insects will build up immunity to Bt, and what could be a harmless natural insecticide used by organic farmers simply to spray on plants would be rendered useless. Immunity is inevitable. That's just the nature of evolution. Then Monsanto will no doubt develop a new biotech potato that will cause us who knows what kind of damage. Messing with the genetic make-up of organisms to be honest - gives me the willies. I know there's thousands of reasons why GMO'S are bad, but for me - that's enough.

Michael uses a theme throughout the book of Dionysus versus Apollo. The god of nature versus the god of order and control. For me, the theme is simply God's creations versus man's desire to show he knows more than the creator. Men are always thinking they know more than God. The truth is, you can't improve upon perfection. God knows infinitely more than we do, and there's always going to be something we didn't think of. So, best not to mess with it.

Long story short - I love Michael Pollan. I look forward to finishing "The Omnivore's Dilemma", and also to actually getting my hands on his new book "In Defense of Food" for which I am now 173rd in line for at the library. He's seriously a very smart man who writes about an issue that is important for anyone who lives. Love him, and hope you all read his books.

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