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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the WorldThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It may sound like science fiction, but let me assure you... it's not.

Indeed, Pollan writes very well about the history and effects of four plants that have a huge impact on our lives... even if we may never have had two of them. His tone and his command of the various histories managed to make his writing both personal and wildly interesting.

I'm speaking of Apples, Tulips, Cannabis, and Potatoes, however.

I'll assume that everyone has had apples and potatoes, but I can also assume that everyone is at least AWARE of cannabis. As for tulips, they once caused rather fascinating Dionysian meltdown among the Dutch. Toppled a kingdom. That's pretty heavy. :)

The real history of Johnny Appleseed might very well have been about apple alcohol. Cider. But once upon a time, and thanks to the wildly diverse possibilities within the apple seed, the whole nation had thousands of different kinds of apples. People selected and bred the best and all of a sudden this nearly unique source of sweetness (sugar being either rare or distasteful thanks to the slave trade) made apples more than a huge market. Sweetness was the key, but when other foods replaced the apple's kingship of sweetness, by that time, the amazing variety had been reduced to a mere handful.

It was our desire for the apples that caused this domestication, but beyond that, the apple trees themselves found themselves in a paradise of genetic dispersion, so helped it along. Selective breeding programs have been a real thing for a long time.

Tulips, for their beauty and a sometimes erratic explosion of color (thanks to a virus that made it weaker) became a craze of economic speculation, driving the prices up until it bankrupted a kingdom.

Cannabis, also a victim or a happy co-author of selective breeding, has undergone massive changes as well. Maybe it was the prohibition against it that made it so coveted, but this is almost as crazy as the Tulip economic bubble.

Potatoes, the last chapter, is all about control. Monsanto. If you like to be freaked out and get the skinny on that debate (as of 2001, when this was published) I can promise you that it will do the job nicely. The kinds of things that are done today with pesticides, GMOs, and the forced termination of genes in order to force farmers to come back, repeatedly, to Monsanto, is a tragedy of epic proportions. And then there's the comparison of this mono-gene-culture to the one that starved a million people in the Potato Famine in Ireland, driving away half the population because they could no longer feed themselves.

Can something like that happen to us?

It's the big question. We're doing it to ourselves. Our need for perfect french fries may undo us all.

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