A Plant’s-eye View of the World
Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh
We probably all have that list of books that we ought to have read, and planned to read, and just never quite got around to. The Botany of Desire is one of those books for me. It was published in 2001. It was a national best seller and a New York Times Notable Book, so I knew I should read it sometime. Well, that time is now. I may be one of the last three people in the Horticultural Society to read it, but for you other two, here’s my review.
It’s hard to know what to say about a book that has had so many rave reviews. The edition I read had three pages of excerpts from reviews, and I have to agree with all of them. This is a wonderful book. Pollan has a marvelous mind and an ability to synthesize information from many different fields to give us a new way of looking at something we thought we knew all about.
You may say that this book is erudite, as several of the reviewers do. It includes an index and a list of sources for further reading and even a few footnotes. But, I think, as easily as it would be possible to imagine Pollan standing in front of a classroom giving these chapters as lectures, it would also be possible to imagine sitting with him in the evening in your garden, sipping a glass of wine, and carrying on a conversation on this same topic. In so many places, I felt like saying, “Oh, yes, you’re right. I’ve seen that. I just never understood its significance.”
Besides his interesting ideas, Pollen’s writing style carried me along, making me want more. I especially enjoyed his telling of the story of Johnny Appleseed. I grew up with the cartoonish version of Johnny as a loveable crazy. Well, I certainly had a few things to learn, and Pollen taught me. It’s a fascinating story.
Pollan’s main idea in this book is that we think of ourselves as domesticating plants. We see ourselves as the actors and the plants as acted upon. He thinks that, in fact, domesticated plants act on us as much as we act on them. The plants have the ability to conform to our desires in order to use us to further their ends: the dispersal of their seeds and the increase in their numbers.
For example, he writes of the tulip:
. . . human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower
did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this
animal. . . . We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason,
moving their seeds around the planet . . . For the flower it was the same old story,
another grand co-evolutionary bargain [like that with the bees] with a willing,
slightly credulous animal.
The other examples he uses, besides the tulip, include the apple, marijuana, and the potato. He sees these plants as satisfying our desires for beauty, sweetness, intoxication, and control, respectively. In satisfying our desires, those plants have found a way to satisfy their own needs.
I highly recommend this book. I know that it’s one of the books I will keep to read again and again.