Pollan Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Toronto (ONT): Random House, Inc.
The more I learn about my food the more I realize how much I do not know anything about it. I sat down to read this week’s assigned chapters with a bowl of potato chips and a glass of apple juice. I have to admit, I did not know what the chapters were about beforehand and so I had no idea how ironically appropriate my snack was. That humble little bowl of perfectly rounded potato chips and that tall glass of sweet apple juice was unknowingly about to take me on a trip through time with deities and genetic engineering. Sounds like an interesting plot, right? Well you’re in luck, because with the help of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, that is exactly what you get. This week’s reading had me delving into the desires of sweetness and control through the stories of the apple and potato.
I was excited to read more of Pollan’s work because I find him to be an excellent story teller. He did not prove me wrong with The Botany of Desire. However, there were a few things I found to be a bit nit-picky. Firstly, I was not expecting Pollan to delve into the history of John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed.
I am not sure if it is because I was born a Canadian and that Johnny Appleseed rests only within the minds of Americans, but I was not particularly interested in learning about him. In fact, before reading The Botany of Desire, I thought he was a fictional character that Americans invented to explain how the apple spread across their country. Even then, it took me a couple pages to realize that Pollan was not talking about a folktale and that he was, instead, referring to a real person.
Despite my newfound knowledge, I still was not very interested in learning about him. Unfortunately, Pollan had other plans and he dragged me along with him to discover the roots of John Chapman. On the up-side, I was able to learn some interesting things about apples along the way. For example, I never knew that apples were used to make alcoholic beverages (applejack) or that finding a sweet apple in an orchard of bitter ones was the equivalent to winning the lottery.
I began to see Johnny Appleseed in a new light when Pollan came to his realization of who he truly represented. Along the way, Pollan foreshadowed it many time but until he outright said it, I could not quite put the puzzle pieces together. “Johnny Appleseed was no Christian saint – that left out too much of who he was, what he stood for in our mythology. Who he was, I realized, was the American Dionysus.” (pg. 36) From that point on, John Chapman and his apple orchards became a little more interesting. My love of Greek mythology far outshines my knowledge of American folk heroes.
With my interest restored, I delved further into The Botany of Desire, but now, I was not in the apple orchards of Ohio, I was in the laboratories of the genetic giant, Monsanto. Many people fear that genetically modified foods are dangerous. Certainly, the words ‘genetically modified’ sound intimidating on their own. These words bring to mind the misshapen by-products of a post-apocalyptic world. However, one would be surprised upon seeing the product of genetic engineering: a simple potato.
I have never really had much of an opinion on genetically modified foods. From a scientist’s point of view, it’s simply evolution and artificial selection but on a much faster scale. Pollan, was quick to show me that there was much more to it than just that. It was not so much the food itself that posed the problem; it was the company behind it. Such is the power of Monsanto that it can patent the food you grow and endanger a public resource, Bacillus thuringiensis, with nary a thought. Monsanto defines the word control.
The Botany of Desire is the story of man’s aspiration to assert its authority over nature. The Botany of Desire is also the story of nature’s devious manipulations over man. We think that we are the ones in control. Monsanto is a good example of man’s triumph over nature. We have designed and manipulated plants to fulfill our desires. We’ve created hundreds of new species of apples to satisfy our lust for sweetness. Plants, in turn, have cleverly used us to ensure the survival and improvement of their own offspring. Michael Pollan’s unique perspective on the subject matter has left me with some new ways of viewing plants and people. Who knew that a bowl of potato chips could be the source of such controversy and a glass of apple juice could have such close ties to a god?
P.S. I wrote this before the reading list was updated and I didn't want to rewrite it. There were some sentences that I just really wanted to keep.