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A Non-Review by J. Stefan-Cole
I thought Michael Pollan's, The Botany Of Desire, Random House, 2001, would be a good August read: summer, desire, botany. What could be better? But really what appealed to me was the botany part. I'm an urban gardener in miniature, in need of acreage to expand my jungle repertoire. My plot is about twelve by nine feet, complete with sun, birds, trees insects, fungi and a mangled view of the East River. It's also in the sky, on a small roof extension, and all the plants are grown in containers. The coup de grace is a fifty foot white pine, well, potentially fifty foot. None of which, it turned out, has anything to do with the book at hand

On the cover of Botany Of Desire is an apple placed in such a way that you are looking at what would be the fruit's anus, if fruits had the equivalent, while the 'umbilical' end with an attendant leaf floats into infinity. The orange/red apple is big, grainy and textured, though not pimply, and the erotic intent is clear. My expectations were aroused by the implied metaphor, but the cover is ultimately a tease, and by page four I found myself loathing the book.

That changed, fortunately, but it took two less than fascinating sections--the book is divided into four--reflecting four areas of desire: sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana) and control (the potato). The first two sections contain factoids of interest, but Pollan stretches his points to introduce a leitmotif: the ordered world of Apollo vs. the disordered one of Dionysus in the context of the garden. But also in the context of civil society vs. society in the wild.

About the apple; he casts John Chapman, AKA Johnny Appleseed, as an early American Dionysus spreading wild seeds into the frontier, which at the time went only so far as Ohio. We learn that apple seeds do not reliably reproduce; an apple tree must be grafted to ensure continuance of an apple type, a McCoun, say or an Ida Red. By planting the seeds alone, Chapman guaranteed acres of not edible, but bitter, small wild apples that were good for one thing: cider. Not the kind you feed to kids, but fermented cider; intoxicating, high-getting cider which was about the only alcoholic drink a pioneer farmer had. Also, the apple provided the only sugary taste available. Wine was not grown, sugar was not here yet, cafes were unheard of and 7 Eleven's didn't dot the dirt highway West. So, hooch and sweetness came mostly from Johnny's wild seeds, no small service.

There is a hint of Johnny having a Lewis Carroll type relation to a nine year old girl he planned to marry when she came of age, but the rumor claims he never did. Instead, he wandered solo wearing peculiar clothing, preaching the good word (his own version), sampling cider and a talking up the farmers (usually while imbibing cider). A self-made Christian in the land of Puritans, an eccentric on a mission. Okay, but I didn't buy the American Dionysus concept. As far as the little girl thing, it's unsubstantiated and felt forced. The apple itself--which, by the way, is not mentioned in the Garden of Eden, Pollan points out, is interesting enough without the gimmickry.

On to part two: Tulipomania. A phenomenon that struck Holland around 1635. I should mention that Darwinian theories of coevolution of species, and Michael Pollan's own theory that flowers have forced our behavior as much as we believe we have conquered theirs, are two themes that run through the book. We've been conned by flowers, Pollan suggests, to spread their pollen, clear their paths, cultivate their possibilities and service their survival. "Natural selection has designed flowers to communicate with other species, deploying an astonishing array of devices--visual, olfactory, and tactile--to get the attention of specific insects and birds and even certain mammals. In order to achieve their objectives, many flowers rely not just on simple chemical signals, but on signs, sometimes even on a kind of symbolism."

But the tulip craze went beyond appreciation and poetry to create a whole new market. A prized tulip is a "broken" tulip, where an odd color change unpredictably breaks out in a grouping of identical flowers. The breaks, it turned out via modern science, are caused by a virus. The Dutch wildly speculating on tulip bulbs, though, had no way to know that. They were bidding everything they had, fortunes, homes, businesses, tools, their futures on possessing a prized bulb that might break.

So here were the normally staid Dutch, the very germ of the bourgeoisie, madly speculating to the point of ruin on chancy bulbs that they hoped would produce a hit. Pollan points out that the dotcom speculation of the nineteen-nineties was very much the same thing, only it was cyberspace for sale instead of a tulip. The spirit of Dionysus had taken hold in what Pollan calls a carnival atmosphere. A rigid society gone temporarily amok. It's something, he suggests, that can happen at anytime in tight, Appollonian-ordered civilization.

Okay, that was fun, now on to part three, pot. Here Mr. Pollan really warms up to his topic. Not just for the obvious titillation, the forbidden weed. Before reading part three, I was on the fence regarding legalization of cannabis. I'm off it now, squarely in favor. Prior to President Reagan taking the reins of power, pot was more or less tolerated. It was a kind of goofy drug, glamorized by people like Robert Michum going to jail for toking up, or the Beats--Ginsberg and company, and, of course, hippies. But suddenly Reagan came in and war was declared. He had a knee jerk conservative reaction against what pot had come to stand for: "Whatever the case, it's hard to believe such a powerful new taboo against marijuana would have stuck if the plant hadn't already been a powerful symbol. Certainly marijuana's close identification with the counterculture made it an attractive target to a drug war that, whatever else it may have been, was part of a political and cultural reaction against the sixties."

This ongoing war, Pollan points out, has threatened fourth, first, and sixth amendment rights. Think of it, not one person has ever died of the effects of smoking pot. Alcohol, heroin, cocaine kill. Grass? Benign by comparison, yet more users are prosecuted, if not persecuted, for weed than for all the others. Why? Did you know if you grow cannabis on your land, the land can be seized for being guilty of growing cannabis? Huh?

Here Pollan puts some point to his blade: The old capitalist-based Protestant religions that shaped our nation. What does marijuana do? Takes you out, makes you more in the moment, encourages an exploration of consciousness, expands the horizon of thought (or minute details into a new horizon), causes short term memory loss, takes a bite out of constant material concerns and yearnings, and, worst of all, like sex, or meditation or (ha, ha) art, disrupts the need to control the ever-numbing future tense/past tense fear that precludes the here and now in a bath of perpetual worry.

Bring on the Judeo-Christian concept of monotheism. Pot tends to open up to pantheism, even paganism; a Blakeian universe in a grain of sand vs. the promise of heaven to come (or hell to pay). Apollo vs. Dionysus once again. Where do the work ethic and reward-later concepts fit, the capitalist approach, into the grain of sand view? It doesn't, and there is the conflict. It boils down, too, to the Freudian (here anti-) pleasure principle: "More even than most plant drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering something like fulfillment here and now, short-circuits the metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so much else in our civilization) depend."

But for Pollan, a gardener, the main thrust is that the garden, here intoxicating, reflects a place both earthbound and transcendent. God thrust Adam and Eve out of Eden because they ate of the tree of knowledge, and they had then to toil in pain far away from generous, pleasurable nature. It's been a rough climb for the case of nature and pleasure ever since. "...for civilization seems bent on breaking or at least forgetting our connection to the earth." It's no accident that they paved paradise to put up a bank.

Part four, desire: control. Specifically, Monsanto Corporation and the genetically altered NewLeaf potato. NewLeaf's been shot up with Bt, a bacteria that occurs naturally in soil. Placed into the genes of the NewLeaf, it acts as a potent internal pesticide against the Colorado potato beetle whose digestive tract shreds after one bite of a NewLeaf leaf. If the section on apples was informative, the one on the tulip absurd and the marijuana section frightening (for the sake of civil liberty if nothing else), the section on genetically modified food is deeply scary in that no one, not even the corporation that wants to industrialize and control the world's food chain, knows where it will lead, or end.

Worrying over what you are eating in a tomato crossed with a fish is the least of it. Monoculture is a sci-fi nightmare in real time. It is what destroyed the Lumper potato in nineteenth century Ireland. One million people starved to death when a fungus whipped through the single spud crop upon which the poor depended. Monoculture is the concept of growing a single type of vegetable or fruit exclusively, to the detriment of the soil through overuse, chemical pesticide additives and artificial fertilizer. You get a perfect French fry from MacDonalds only if thousands of acres are devoted to the Russet Burbank year after year after year. The price is chemical warfare. Here comes Monsanto again (first with the pesticides, then with the solution to them once they've obliterated every organism within miles) to rid the ground of chemicals by genetically engineering a bug resistant potato.

Here's the catch, the bugs eventually resist the resistance and invent themselves anew. A corporate potato field can produce billions of identical crops, but the potato is LOADED WITH PESTICIDES IN EVERY SINGLE CELL. (MacDonalds, by the way, tried switching to Monsanto NewLeafs, but there was a public outcry, so now, presumably, they are back to serving the cocktail potato, pesticide-rich, Russet Burbanks.) (I for one am off MacDonalds' fries for life.) Biodiversity is the earth-friendly way to grow food, but it's more labor intensive and mass production of a single crop won't work.

Worst of all in this corporate management approach to agriculture is the control factor. You don't have to be a romantic to wonder about factory farms. But, then again, how do we feed an over-populated world? Corporations are trying to do that--at a profit, all of it if possible--to be sure, but at what price? How far is the stretch from factory food to factory psyches? This hits right up against Michael Pollan's Apollo vs. Dionysus polemic.

Corporate food modifiers go around in lab coats and play with petri-dishes and DNA. The farmers that come to depend upon them for gene enhanced seeds or pesticides use computers, handle biohazards and touch the land as little as possible (it's too toxic). Not your tractor-riding Old MacDonald. Eei, eei. Oh!

An organic farm is more like a garden, just the basics: seeds, weather, manure and the farmer. Okay, the odd pesticide. Even non-organic, non-corporate farms are more personal, or Dionysian, with a little unpredictability in the mix. If a Monsanto driven farm (using the term broadly) has a problem, the engineers will come in with a fix. They can, to be sure, still be wiped our by storms or drought, but the drugs will fight the bugs and the artificial food will punch up size and production. And we all eat. Until we have to up the ante once again.

Pollan makes the case for man and nature coexisting. Some chaos, some order, some yin, some yang, some Apollo, some Dionysus. But his is a small voice in a world where corporations, more and more, rule.

©July 2001 J Stefan Cole


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