“For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.” 1
The matrix through how humanity invests meaning is complex, but is largely related to desire. Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, reinvigorated botany through the sociological/philosophical/psychological framework which investigated the many whys behind desire, and the botany skills which have evolved to fulfil it. Broken up into four main categories-Sweetness, Beauty, Intoxication, and Control-a well-rounded portrait of the support structure of desire is cultivated.
“Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.” 2
Sweetness has been sought out by humanity in many forms-sugar, honey, and various states of mind. The apple is one of the most durable, long-lasting, and pleasing forms of courting sweetness. Like the many ways sweetness can be experienced, the process of the apple’s botanical cultivation was extremely varied. The period of the apple’s first cultivation in the high hills of Kazakhstan, people experimented with the malus domestica trees, playing “with the shape and color of their fruit, you can find an astounding variety of examples of what the apple could have been, from large purplish softballs to knobby green clusters” (PBS). Over time the version which became most widely cultivated was larger, durable, and able to travel the Silk Road while retaining its flavor (Pollan).
This process of courting the sweetness of the apple was one of the first forays into botany. One of the elements of this sweetness is the apple’s diversity, both innately and through its possibilities;
At its core, each apple contains seven or eight seeds, each of which contains the genetic ingredients for a tree radically different from its parents and its siblings. More than any other trait, it is the apple's genetic variability that accounts for its ability to make itself at home. (PBS)
Such diversity is what enables apples to find so many adoring consumers around the world, and apple botanists have come to realize that some brands do better in certain regions due to the idiosyncrasies of local taste.
“How did these organs of plant sex manage to get themselves cross-wired with human ideas of value and status and Eros? And what might our ancient attraction for flowers have to teach us about the deeper mysteries of beauty - what one poet has called ‘this grace wholly gratuitous’?
Is that what it is? Or does beauty have a purpose?” 3
Much like the film Wings of Life 4 Pollan’s work investigates the question of the evolutionary purpose of beauty. Unremembered by humanity, “Before there were roses and lilies and sprays of lavender on the hills…before the landscape went through its great primordial color shift, from green and green to every shade of the spectrum, the world was a ’slower, simpler, sleepier’ place” (Bilger). After the slow development of pollen carried on the wind;
Then came the angiosperms, and a new principle was loosed on the planet. To reproduce, these flowering plants didn't just cast pollen to the wind or clone themselves; they lured animals to their seed and paid them to carry it away. Two hundred million years later, the lure is known as beauty, and the payment is agriculture. (Bilger)
This state of the Earth without pollinators is unremembered in the depths of the mammalian brain because mammalian life was only made possible by the evolutionary adaption of flowers and pollinators which gave rise to a multiplicity of new forms of life and food on which new animals formed symbiotic relationships (Pollan).
While this evolution took place slowly, when humans caught wise to the principles of botany the expressions of flowers and many other forms exploded. The theme of this part of The Botany of Desire is the question if beauty has a purpose? Beauty has been one of the factors moving through evolution. Before flowers, reproduction was done through spores which created genetically identical clones, and this slowed the process of evolution which thrives on diversity (PBS). Thus, the investigation of the botany of desire is also a close look into the context in which humanity emerged. As Pollan puts it, “Everyday roles and values are suddenly, thrillingly, suspended, and astounding new possibilities arise” (PBS). The first plant (likely a tree) which developed the pollination scheme of the flower made our evolution possible.
Pollan uses the historical example of “Tulipmania” of the Dutch to express when the love of cultivating beauty can slide into an obsession with an ideal;
tulipmania that swept Amsterdam between 1634 and 1637, when a single bulb of the most prized tulips fetched a price greater than the grandest canal houses in the city. This brief paroxysm of aesthetic zeal and financial speculation brought the nation's economy to its knees, wiping out the fortunes of many and, for a time, making the flower into a national villain. (PBS)
Humanity did not learn its lesson from this time, but has simply shifted its focus onto different forms of beauty.
“...People who smoked cannabis were Other, and the cannabis they smoked threatened to let their Otherness loose in the land.” 5
Cannabis is an incredible plant, hardy and useful in so many ways. Botanical cultivation of cannabis has reached the level of high art around the world to the degree than scientists are able to craft strands of the plant which fulfill certain desires. Emphasizing one molecule over another in cultivation will lead to a plant which has greater pain killing capacity. However, for all of the plant’s uses it is still largely illegal. Pollan asks, “Just what is the knowledge held out by a plant such as cannabis-and why is it forbidden?” (PBS). Ironically, it was the legal crackdown on the plant which enabled its vigorous botanical specialization.
After the U.S. government determined cannabis schedule 1, cultivation moved indoors. As a result, “highly skilled gardeners had to learn how to tend their crops in delicately maintained artificial environments, cross-breeding it with other distant varieties and constantly selecting the strongest strains” (PBS). This has led to a revolution of the plant, increase in knowledge, and quality which may result in its total legalization.
This investigation has also supported a greater awareness of the nuances of the human brain, not only through its users, but through the scientists who sought to understand why it affects the brain how it does. As a result,
in their efforts to answer that question, they stumbled upon a whole new network of brain receptors we otherwise might never have discovered. The main psychoactive molecule in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, binds to these receptors. But so, it turns out, does a molecule our own brain produces—a discovery that is offering new insights into the workings of our memory, emotion and consciousness. (PBS)
This has led to feedback cycles of cultivation and investigation which has helped the plant become accepted and utilized in many positive ways.
“For great many species today, ‘fitness’ means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force.”6
In balance to the desire to intoxicate, Pollan finishes his book with a focus on the powerful and grounded potato. As opposed to the high flying world of intoxication via cannabis, potatoes bring botanists into intimate contact with the earth. Growing in dark pools of soil, this hardy plant provides a staple for many cultures, enabling them to better control their lives (Tantillo 126). However, the desire to control is often met with challenge, and the “story of the potato is the story of agriculture writ large—a tale not only of reliable harvests and orderly geometric fields that stretch far into the distance, but also of the plant’s innate unpredictability lurking just beneath the surface” (PBS). Control is never one sided, and relying too much on any one aspect of control is a sure way to lose it, as the Irish potato famine proved (Say).
Thus, this section is a strong warning against mono-farming, which much like the tulip lesson, humanity has yet to absorb (Entomological Society of America). Here Pollan emphasizes, “The introduction into American agriculture of genetically modified plants such as Monsanto's NewLeaf potato has radically altered the age-old relationship between plant and person, eradicating the boundary that had existed in nature” (PBS). This is a case of botany’s dark side, the scientist removed from nature, and working at the behest of profit in a mad dash to control nature. This is a fight of consciousness which should never be, for man and nature are one and the same (Pyramus 113).
The botany of desire is the impassioned tale of how beauty, desire, and necessity interact. Humanity could become master botanists through applying wisdom to the practice of what is cultivated, and honoring the why of cultivation. However, that has not yet been the case, and the lessons of history loom larger than ever. The increased specialization and polarization of the contemporary age belies our real interconnection as a species, which is ever present in the history of botany and desire.
1: Quote from Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.
2: Quote from Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.
3: Quote from Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.
4: Documentary nature film by Disney which extrapolates the evolution of the synergy between flowering plants and pollinators.
5: Quote from Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.
6: Quote from Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.
Bilger, Burkhard. “For the love of Potatoes.” The New York Times, 3 Jun. 2001. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/books/01/06/03/reviews/010603.03bilgert.html
Entomological Society of America. “Book Review - The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World.” Entsoc.org, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.entsoc.org/pubs/periodicals/AE/book%20reviews/botany_of_desire
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. New York: Random House, 2002. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=Woywyw8LlcgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+Botany+of+Desire.
PBS. “The Botany of Desire.” PBS, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/thebotanyofdesire/
Pyramus, Candolle Augustin de. Elements of the philosophy of plants: containing the principles of scientific botany. New York: Edinburgh, W. Blackwood, 1821. Retrieved from: https://archive.org/details/elementsofphilos00cand
Say, Rosa. “Book Review: The Botany of Desire.” Talking Story, 15 May 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.talkingstory.org/2011/05/botany-of-desire/
Tantillo, Astrida Orle. “Goethe’s Botany and His Philosophy of Gender.” Eighteenth-Century Life, 22.2(1998), pp. 123-138. Retrieved from: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/10459