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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Botany of Desire

Air Date: Week of June 1, 2001

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Host Steve Curwood talks with author Michael Pollan about his new book, “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.”

Transcript

CURWOOD: If you're a sci-fi junkie, you've probably seen the movie "Day of the Triffids" in which giant flesh-eating plants take over the world by preying on unsuspecting humans. It's the stuff of pure fantasy. But then again, perhaps not too far off the mark. That is, if you're looking from a plant's perspective. According to author Michael Pollan, plants use us as much as we use them, and they possess much more power over us than we may realize. These reciprocal relationships are chronicled in Michael Pollan's new book, "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World" and he joins me now. Welcome, sir.

POLLAN: Thank you. Thank you, nice to be here.

CURWOOD: So, what exactly is a plant's-eye view of the world?

POLLAN: Well, we don't know for sure, do we? (Laughs) But I'm doing my best to sort of figure it out. This book was born of a little epiphany in my garden when I tried to answer a question for myself. And that was, what do we have in common with the bumblebees, if anything? To answer that question, you really have to think, or try to think, like a plant. As a plant sees it, a bumblebee is a kind of credulous or gullible insect that has been tricked into moving the plant's genes around. From the bee's point of view, the bee is getting the better of the deal because he's breaking into the plant and taking the nectar and running off with it. But, of course, he only thinks that. That's a failure of his imagination. Now, much the same goes for us. Plants have induced us to do a lot of work for them.

CURWOOD: How are these plants using us?

POLLAN: Well, they basically use us in order to do what they can't do. And that is to move around, to adapt to new regions. I mean, the apple is a great example. Here is a plant that comes from Kazakhstan, and it has been evolving to basically move across the planet. And the way it has done this is with our help. For instance, when the colonists came to America, they brought apple seeds with them and apple trees. The trees did really poorly when they planted them because the New England winters were too brutal. But the colonists had been eating apples on the way over, and they saved those seeds and planted those. And by planting all those different seeds, the apple conducted this vast evolutionary experiment of trial and error until it hit upon the combination of qualities that would let it thrive in the New World. But the interesting thing is that, like us, the apple had to change itself on its way to becoming American. And by now, it has changed so much and has done so much to adapt to this continent that to say it's an alien is, you know, it's like saying any of us are aliens, also. I mean, it is as American as -- well, you know the rest of the sentence. (Curwood laughs) It's made itself American, just the way we have.

CURWOOD: Okay, Michael Pollan. Who's in control, the plants or us people?

POLLAN: Well, I think about that a lot. And, you know, it takes two to domesticate. There have been plenty of plants and animals who have simply refused that dance. The oak tree, for example. People have been trying to domesticate oak trees for thousands of years because the acorn is an incredibly nutritious nut. For some reason ,the oak tree has not wanted to play. It has never put out a mutation of a sweet acorn. Acorns are incredibly bitter. The oak tree doesn't need us, probably because it has a really good thing going with the squirrel. The squirrel very obligingly moves the acorns around to other forests, buries them, and then promptly forgets where it put enough of them for the oak to reproduce. Other plants, though, saw the opportunity. Here was this big, smart, mobile mammal, and if we enter into this arrangement with him, this mammal will help us. Not only that, we will change this mammal's life. We'll get this mammal to settle down, build cities, become farmers, and, best of all, cut down all the trees. Because if you are a grass, say -- you know, I'm thinking of wheat and corn and some of the early domesticated species -- what you really need to thrive on this planet is get rid of the trees, cut down the shade. (Curwood laughs) So, the invention of agriculture, which we take an awful lot of credit for, could just as easily be seen as something that the grasses came up with as a way to conquer the trees.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) So, the wheat gets together and says wait a second, we feed these humans and they'll like the way that we taste so they'll keep cutting down trees and keep planting more wheat, we'll take over the planet or at least the plains.

POLLAN: Well, as you well know, evolution really doesn't require much consciousness or planning. And what looks like -- you know, we always use the word "strategy " to talk about how something behaves in nature. And strategy implies intention. And evolution doesn't work that way. It's strictly trial and error.

CURWOOD: So, we have the various botany of desire. I'm wondering who the main botanists are of desire.

POLLAN: Well, I think Johnny Appleseed is a really key figure. He really had a different kind of point of view. He wasn't as anthropomorphic as most of us are. He did see himself as a bumblebee. He was someone who saw creation as holy, and was not going to impose his will on it. And he saw himself as working for the plants. So I think he was a great botanist of desire. I think today you have some underground botanists of desire. I think that there is an underground army of people who are doing a lot of work on cannabis, and I did a lot of research to find these people and visit their gardens and, you know, some of the best botanists of my generation are, I'm sorry to say, criminals. And they are taking this plant and changing it dramatically. And the plant in its turn is producing enormous gains in potency. If you think about the marijuana plant, given how strong the taboo is, this plant has thrived on this taboo, kind of in the way, you know, a certain kind of conifer would thrive in an acid soil. It has increased its price and forced people to do a lot of work on it. And in turn, the plant has turned around and shown that it can absorb all this light and fertilizer and attention and produce vast amounts of marijuana every two months on a plant that's only 18 inches tall. There is a kind of dubious botany of desire, but it's one of the most interesting and intense relationships between plants and people going on right now.

CURWOOD: Michael Pollan, there's a point in your book where you write about the forces that play in your own garden. Could you read a little from this?

POLLAN: I'd be happy to. (Reads) I hadn't been in the garden for a couple of weeks, and, as always is the case by the end of the summer, the place was an anarchy of rampant growth and ripe fruit. The pole beans had climbed clear to the tops of the sunflowers, which stood draped in their bulging green and yellow pods. The pumpkins had trailed halfway across the now unmowable lawn, and the squash leaves, big as pizzas, threw dark pools of shade in which the lettuces looked extremely happy. As, unfortunately, did the slugs who were dining on my chard in the squashy shade. The garden had come to this, had reached this pitch of green uproar in the few short weeks since May, when I'd set out seedlings in a considered pattern that I no longer could discern. The neat, freshly-hoed rows had once implied that I was in charge here, gardener in chief, but clearly this was no longer the case. My order had been overturned as the plants went blithely about their plant destinies. This they were doing with the avidity of all annuals, reaching for the sun, seizing ground from neighbors, fending off or exploiting one another whenever the opportunity arose, ripening the seeds that would bear their genes into the future, and generally making the most of the dwindling days till frost. For a while, every season, I do try to keep the whole thing under some semblance of control, pulling the weeds, clipping back the squash so that the chard might breathe, untangling the bean vines before they choke their frailer neighbors. But by the end of August I usually give it up, let the garden go its own way while I simply try to keep up with the abundance of the late summer harvest. By this point, what's going on in the garden is no longer my doing, even if it was I who got the whole thing rolling back in May. As much as I love the firm grasp and cerebral order of spring, there is a ripe, almost sensual pleasure in its August abandonment, too.

CURWOOD: Great. Thank you. You titled part of your book A" Plant's-Eye View of the World." But, Michael Pollan, what's your own view of the world and of your garden after writing this book?

POLLAN: Well, you know, since I've worked on this book and had that epiphany about me and the bumblebee, I look at the garden as a much more interesting place. I think that the garden is actually a very important place to look at our relationship with nature. You know, Americans have tended to go to the wilderness to really understand our relationship with nature. We have this whole tradition of Thoreau and John Muir and all the great nature writers. And they sit in the woods or on the mountains and they contemplate their place in the universe. And it's kind of a very passive and very religious experience, very transcendental. In the garden something else is going on. We are really engaged. We are really mixing it up with these other species. They are changing us; we're changing them, there is a lot of power going on. Evolution is still going on. And I think that, you know, at a time especially when we really despair of our place in nature, I think the garden proposes a very different kind of model.

CURWOOD: Michael Pollan is author of the book "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World." Mr. Pollan, thanks for being with us.

POLLAN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

 

 

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