The Botany of Desire
A Plant's-Eye View of the World
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About the author
Michael Pollan is the author of seven books, including Cooked: The Natural History of Transformation, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world.
From the Hardcover edition.
The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America
In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant—though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin?
In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds’s most basic yearnings—and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom?
Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature.
From the Hardcover edition.
Plant: The Apple
If you happened to find yourself on the banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806—somewhere just to the north of Wheeling, West Virginia, say—you would probably have noticed a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river. At the time, this particular stretch of the Ohio, wide and brown and bounded on both sides by steep shoulders of land thick with oaks and hickories, fairly boiled with river traffic, as a ramshackle armada of keelboats and barges ferried settlers from the comparative civilization of Pennsylvania to the wilderness of the Northwest Territory.
The peculiar craft you’d have caught sight of that afternoon consisted of a pair of hollowed-out logs that had been lashed together to form a rough catamaran, a sort of canoe plus sidecar. In one of the dugouts lounged the figure of a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat. According to the man in Jefferson County who deemed the scene worth recording, the fellow in the canoe appeared to be snoozing without a care in the world, evidently trusting in the river to take him wherever it was he wanted to go. The other hull, his sidecar, was riding low in the water under the weight of a small mountain of seeds that had been carefully blanketed with moss and mud to keep them from drying out in the sun.
The fellow snoozing in the canoe was John Chapman, already well known to people in Ohio by his nickname: Johnny Appleseed. He was on his way to Marietta, where the Muskingum River pokes a big hole into the Ohio’s northern bank, pointing straight into the heart of the Northwest Territory. Chapman’s plan was to plant a tree nursery along one of that river’s as-yet-unsettled tributaries, which drain the fertile, thickly forested hills of central Ohio as far north as Mansfield. In all likelihood, Chapman was coming from Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, to which he returned each year to collect apple seeds, separating them out from the fragrant mounds of pomace that rose by the back door of every cider mill. A single bushel of apple seeds would have been enough to plant more than three hundred thousand trees; there’s no way of telling how many bushels of seed Chapman had in tow that day, but it’s safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness.
The image of John Chapman and his heap of apple seeds riding together down the Ohio has stayed with me since I first came across it a few years ago in an out-of-print biography. The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth—a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot.
Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “it is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man,” and much of the American chapter of that story can be teased out of Chapman’s story. It’s the story of how pioneers like him helped domesticate the frontier by seeding it with Old World plants. “Exotics,” we’re apt to call these species today in disparagement, yet without them the American wilderness might never have become a home. What did the apple get in return? A golden age: untold new varieties and half a world of new habitat.
As an emblem of the marriage between people and plants, the design of Chapman’s peculiar craft strikes me as just right, implying as it does a relation of parity and reciprocal exchange between its two passengers. More than most of us do, Chapman seems to have had a knack for looking at the world from the plants’ point of view—“pomocentrically,” you might say. He understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes likened himself to a bumblebee, and why he would rig up his boat the way he did. Instead of towing his shipment of seeds behind him, Chapman lashed the two hulls together so they would travel down the river side by side.
We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species. Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated. It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat. Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel—which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter’s)—that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.
The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans, and perhaps nowhere more so than in America. Like generations of other immigrants before and after, the apple has made itself at home here. In fact, the apple did such a convincing job of this that most of us wrongly assume the plant is a native. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who knew a thing or two about natural history, called it “the American fruit.”) Yet there is a sense—a biological, not just metaphorical sense—in which this is, or has become, true, for the apple transformed itself when it came to America. Bringing boatloads of seed onto the frontier, Johnny Appleseed had a lot to do with that process, but so did the apple itself. No mere passenger or dependent, the apple is the hero of its own story.
In the press
"I find this book to be inspirational — curiosity and gentleness of spirit forming genius."
— Richard Ford
"Michael Pollan is a sensualist and a wonderful, funny storyteller. He is so engaging that his profound environmental messages are effortlessly communicated. He makes you fall in love with Nature."
— Alice Waters
“This book is as crisp as an October apple, as juicy as an August tomato, as long-awaited as the first flower of spring,. Michael Pollan has conceived a new and powerful understanding of who we are, and how we stand in relation to everything else—and the stories he tells to prove the point make the world seem a richer place.”
— Bill McKibben, author of Long Distance and The End of Nature
“No one else writes about the human environment quite like Michael Pollan: we can be grateful indeed that one of our wittiest writers about nature is also one of our wisest. In The Botany of Desire, Pollan makes a persuasive case that the plants we might be tempted to see as having been most domesticated by humanity are in fact also those that have been most effective in domesticating us. It is a stunning insight, and no one will come away from this book without having their ideas of nature stretched and challenged.”
— William Cronon, editor of Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
"A fascinating and disturbing account of man's strange relationship with plants and plant science. Michael Pollan inspires one to rethink basic attitudes. Beautifully written, it is as compelling as a detective thriller."
— Penelope Hobhouse, author of On Gardening
"Like Tracy Kidder, Michael Pollan is a writer to immerse in. He's informed and amusing, with a natural sort of voice that spools on inventively beyond expectations into a controlled but productive and intriguing obsessiveness (whether on Johnny Appleseed or marijuana). A fine book."
— Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points
"Anyone who has ever made personal contact with an apple, spud, tulip, or marijuana bud should read this book and be astonished at the eternal tango of men and plants, choreographed with wit, daring, and humanity by this botanist of desire who knows equally the power of plants and of words."
— Betty Fussell, author of My Kitchen Wars
"Not since Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch have I been held so spellbound by a book. Using only four plants, The Botany of Desire succeeds in illuminating the radiant force of evolution. Remarkable."
— Daniel J. Hinkley, author of The Explorer's Garden
"It is a rare pleasure to read a book of ideas so graceful and witty that it makes you smile—at times even laugh out loud—with delight as it challenges you to rethink important issues."
— Mark Kurlansky, author of The Basque History of the World