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Lunch » Tags » Untagged » The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World » User review

Comfortable, conversational and informative

  • Mar 13, 2013
The co-evolution of plants and mankind seems designed to be viewed from the perspective of the seven deadly sins, but Michael Pollan takes a nicely squared-off look at the topic through just four plants. Sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana) and control (the potato) form the human basis of this tale of mutable and mutating flora and fauna. Combining familiar stories (including Johnny Appleseed), history (including the Irish potato famine),botany, genetics and more in a pleasingly readable text, the author successfully challenges social assumptions (insect-free harvesting is good for example) without digressing into radical condemnation. A very human curiosity invites the reader to ponder and wonder delightfully, while enjoying a text rich with fascinating digressions and just deep enough to impart the odd lesson in science, myth and history.
Yes, I know that plants don’t “care,” and the author knows it too. But the image of plants manipulating us, rather than us enjoying the imagined power of manipulating ourselves, is certainly one that awakens the mind and inspires the reader to stop and think a bit. Next time I see a field of potatoes I might ponder on how we harvest sheep as well, and wonder if they too might be vulnerable to the great unknown that can suddenly wipe out a monocultured crop.
I’d like to see the TV series, but I’m reviewing this from the point of view of someone who hasn’t. I enjoyed the smooth writing, the self-deprecating tone, and the gentle lessons imparted. I’m still not an expert, but I am at least a slightly more interested and educated amateur in this fascinating world of co-evolution.
Disclosure: Our book group chose to read this book and I enjoyed it. I’m hoping I might enjoy the discussion too.

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March 18, 2013
Thanks for sharing!
About the reviewer
Sheila Deeth ()
Ranked #41
Sheila Deeth's first novel, Divide by Zero, has just been released in print and ebook formats. Find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, etc. Her spiritual speculative novellas can be found at … more
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Working in his garden one day, Michael Pollan hit pay dirt in the form of an idea: do plants, he wondered, use humans as much as we use them? While the question is not entirely original, the way Pollan examines this complex coevolution by looking at the natural world from the perspective of plants is unique. The result is a fascinating and engaging look at the true nature of domestication.

In making his point, Pollan focuses on the relationship between humans and four specific plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. He uses the history of John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) to illustrate how both the apple's sweetness and its role in the production of alcoholic cider made it appealing to settlers moving west, thus greatly expanding the plant's range. He also explains how human manipulation of the plant has weakened it, so that "modern apples require more pesticide than any other food crop." The tulipomania of 17th-century Holland is a backdrop for his examination of the role the tulip's beauty played in wildly influencing human behavior to both the benefit and detriment of the plant (the markings that made the tulip so attractive to the Dutch were actually caused by a virus). His excellent discussion of the potato combines a history of the plant with a prime example of how biotechnology is changing our relationship to nature. As part of his research, Pollan visited the Monsanto company headquarters and planted some of their NewLeaf brand potatoes in his garden--seeds ...

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