Monday, July 25, 2011

The Botany of Desire

I read Michael Pollan's later book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, a while back, so I snatched this one up when I saw it on display at the city library last time I was there. I was looking forward to reading a history of agriculture and plant domestication, but I was surprised to find out that this is a good book for any gardener to read. Michael Pollan makes it clear from the beginning he is One Of Us, and this book was inspired by his own time in the garden growing the plants he features.

Pollan covers how four plants, a fruit (the apple), a flower (the tulip), an entheogen (cannabis), and a staple crop (the potato) evolved to fulfill our desires for sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. He decided on those four to represent each category because they have especially interesting biographies. The main thesis of the book is how our domesticated plants have changed us as much as we've changed them, something I'd heard before with regard to domestic animals. These are the dogs, cats, horses, and cattle of the plant kingdom. He tells the story of how each of these plants were domesticated and have used Homo sapiens to spread their genes over the world, from Johnny Appleseed, to Dutch tulip growers, to Americans growing cannabis under lights in hidden sheds, to Monsanto's genetic engineers.

I am certainly under no illusion that my garden is actually under my control. At best, my plants and I are partners, but believe me, I often feel more like their servant, especially lately toiling under the 100+ degree heat. I don't know, maybe it's because I'm a cat person too. My cats never fail to remind me who exactly domesticated who in this relationship.

There was a lot in this book I hadn't heard of before. I didn't know what an odd character Johnny Appleseed was, having only really known the Disney version of him. I had heard the warnings that marijuana has gotten much stronger in recent years, but Pollan explains how that's because of the escalation of the drug war encouraging recent breeding efforts to make a more compact, efficient plant that can be grown in very confined spaces. The chapter on the modern potato was the most disturbing part of the book for me, and has made me reluctant to eat a conventionally grown potato ever again. Though I'm still afraid that I agree with Pollan that tulips are boring, and still don't really understand the Dutch obsession with them.

The thing that made this book fun to read for me is that Pollan is my kind of gardener. I really liked his story about how he tried grow some marijuana back in the 80's, not because he particularly liked to smoke it, but just to see if he could. He said any gardener reading this should understand, and that does sound like something I would do. I haven't tried to grow marijuana, but I have tried to grow Salvia divinorum twice, which is a not-yet-illegal magic plant. It just sounded like an interesting plant and I wanted to see if I could grow it. My efforts only convinced me that it would be silly to outlaw this plant, because unlike cannabis, S. divinorum is so hard to grow that we need not worry about a bunch of kids growing it in their closets!

Marijuana sounds like it's even more interesting to grow now than it was back in the 80's, with all the new varieties that have been developed, mostly from hybridizing the long-ago domesticated Cannabis sativa with it's cousin Cannabis indica. Modern marijuana growers go on about how such-and such variety is very relaxing to smoke, while such-and-such other variety enhances creativity, and such-and-such other variety is very good a pain relief. It sounds just like diehard heirloom tomato or chile pepper grows talking about which varieties are best for what purpose, this one is good for sauce, while that one is good for drying, etc. It actually sounds to me like modern marijuana varieties aren't more dangerous than the stuff was in the 60's, just more refined. Now we've got marijuana connoisseurs, which makes it seem even stranger that as far as drugs go, marijuana is treated by the law to be on par with cocaine and heroin rather than wine or tobacco. I don't think there are any heroin connoisseurs.

This book also made me regret that apples don't generally grow well in Texas, though after reading Pollan's description of the amazing diversity of wild, seed-grown apple trees, I wonder if people just haven't bothered with trying to breed apple trees for Texas, or even if there used to be varieties that would grow here that have gone extinct. I had no idea what an odd character Johnny Appleseed was, or how most apples grown for seed aren't good for much else than cider, giving a rather different spin on his whole story. Disney makes it sound like he was spreading nutritious, high fiber snacks around, when really he was an American Dionysus helping people get drunk!

Another theme I liked in this book was how plant domestication is a delicate balance between the control and order of Apollo with wild and unpredictable Dionysus. Dionysus is certainly underappreciated in today's modern industrial agriculture, though genetic engineering, it turns out, is a lot more of a crapshoot than I thought it was. They like to give the image of scientists carefully inserting genes precicely into chromosomes, but in turns out that one popular technique is literally shooting DNA-coated bullets into plants with a .22 and hoping some make their way into the chromosomes. Reading this book has only made me more of the opinion that genetic engineering is not that great. I try to keep an open, scientific mind, but it still seems like, at best, genetic engineering isn't that much better than conventional plant breeding. At worst it could have all sorts of unintended ecological consequences. And yeah, I resent Monsanto for basically breeding Bt resistant insects for profit and ruining that relatively safe organic insecticide for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, the description of conventionally grown non-GMO potatoes was just as scary as the story of the NewLeaf potatoes that are considered by the FDA to be an insecticide themselves. One potato farmer told Pollan that he doesn't like to actually eat the potatoes he grows for a living, and instead grows a small plot of organic potatoes for his own use. I wonder if he regrets being that open. It certainly makes me think twice about eating conventional potatoes if the actual farmers growing them are afraid to eat them, and afraid to even step out into the poisoned fields.

After taking a year off of potato growing, this book has inspired me to try again to plant a big crop of them next year. Growing the other crops mentioned in the book isn't feasable for me right now, since I don't have the room for apple trees, I'd rather not be thrown in jail for growing pot, and I'm just not interested in growing useless tulips, so potatoes it is! At least now I know that one of the reasons my potatoes didn't do so well last time is because they need a lot of nitrogen. I'll put plenty of manure in their beds next time around. I even got some actual potato seeds in my last seed trade (not seed potatoes, but potato seeds) that I'd like to experiment with. Like apples, potatoes don't come true from seed, but seed is how you get new genetic combinations for new varieties. Maybe I'll get lucky and get a potato plant that actually likes to grow in Texas! I know, it's a crapshoot, but that's how evolution works.

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