A Polymath in the Garden Contemplates Codependency

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World , by Michael Pollan. Random House, 271 pages, $24.95.

Michael Pollan is that rare being, a contemporary American garden essayist who is well-known and well-liked in Britain. Only Allen Lacy and Eric Grissell have come anywhere close in impressing us insular Old Worlders. So popular is Mr. Pollan that he was asked to give a lecture at the National Trust Gardens Conference in Bath in early May. There’s public acceptance for you.

Mr. Pollan’s substantial reputation in my country rests on only one book, Second Nature (1992), in which he wowed us with an intelligent and witty commentary on the battles we fight, and the complicities we enter into, with our gardens and the creatures that inhabit them. He did it with humor, lyricism and an ability to look beyond the usual and the commonplace and find some deeper meaning in the whole business.

In The Botany of Desire , Mr. Pollan is at it again, but this time he has raised his eyes from the garden (not to mention the pesky woodchucks) to muse on evolution and the nature of the relationship between plants and man. In each case, he uses one very particular example to illustrate the connection between a plant and a human desire: the apple (sweetness), the tulip (beauty), cannabis (intoxication) and the potato (control). “I call this book The Botany of Desire because it is as much about the human desires that connect us to these plants as it is about the plants themselves.”

In the first essay, Mr. Pollan goes behind the simple children’s story of Johnny Appleseed to examine how man has been a willing, if not always witting, agent of a plant’s survival and success. To a Briton, Johnny Appleseed is no more than a name, but I suspect that even to an American, Mr. Pollan’s investigations into the life of John Chapman, the weird religious maniac who disseminated apple trees all over the frontier in the early 19th century, will seem fresh and new-minted. I imagine that Johnny Appleseed is not normally called “the American Dionysus.” Mr. Pollan describes beautifully a journey in a canoe on the Mohican River with an Appleseed-enthusiast guide, visiting some of the places where Chapman visited: “The sun was not yet up over the trees when we put into the river a few miles above Perrysville …. The water, moving with surprising dispatch for the time of year, looked like a freshly black-topped road, except where snags flustered its surface, causing it to sparkle. In places, spooky mists rose from the surface, and the banks were so thickly lined with trees–giant cottonwoods leaning way out over the water, spectacularly contorted sycamores–that it wasn’t hard to pretend we were pushing through a wilderness.”

The essay on beauty seems to me the least successful of the four, probably because there has been a certain amount, both fact and fiction, published recently on the history of the tulip. Yet the idea that a plant virus could affect staid 17th-century Dutch burghers sufficiently for them to stake all their wealth on it is certainly an enduringly appealing one.

Mr. Pollan’s frank experiences of childhood gardening have a charming authenticity about them, which cannot be said about a lot of ex post facto writing on the subject, where the desire to appear always to have been enthralled sometimes causes writers to embroider the truth.

The chapter on marijuana describes the present state of play, at both the scientific and the daffy ends of this ambiguous, twilight world. It should intrigue and possibly also appeal to the educated and curious, who are the likely readers of this book–even if they discarded marijuana with their college scarves, and now feel vaguely guilty about their temporary brush with illegality. The inherent ambivalence of the subject does seem also to affect Mr. Pollan, for there is a faint whiff of Clintonian disingenuousness about his protestations that he smoked but mostly didn’t enjoy it much, so that’s okay. He also cannot resist the commonplace how-I-was-nearly-caught dope story, in which he recounts how he almost revealed to his local Officer Krupke the illegal denizens of an experimental border in his garden. That said, this essay is quite subversive for, intentionally or not, he makes cannabis–particularly in its modern, refined, human-influenced forms–sound most alluring. His prose is so intelligent and compelling that it takes a while before you think, “Wait a minute, shouldn’t you mention the stunting of brain growth recorded by neuroscientists amongst teenagers–who are the most enthusiastic embracers of the weed?”

All the same, I found fascinating the exploration of why plants might have developed properties that had the capacity to unlock chemical doors in our brains, how this could have occurred, and why man should want to have these doors opened.

The last section of the book concerns the potato, both its mind-bogglingly influential social history and the implications of its present openness to genetic modification. The latter, roving along less well-trodden paths, is the more interesting. Mr. Pollan describes his attitude to the genetically engineered, Monsanto-generated NewLeaf potatoes that he plants in the garden, and what reaction they inspire in him. There is an amusing story of how he decides to cook some potatoes for a Labor Day potluck supper and then loses his nerve, seeing the irony in exposing his neighbors to the unknown when he is not quite prepared to eat them himself.

It was inevitable, surely, that a journalist-gardener (Mr. Pollan is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine ) should turn his attention to genetically modified plants. Grappling with the ethical and practical consequences of this technological advance, in all its myriad forms, is one of the more pressing challenges of our time. Although he is careful to be fair to Monsanto and the potato farmers of Idaho (he visited both in the course of his research), there seems little doubt where he stands on the matter. It is all of a piece with his sense of awe for Nature that he should feel queasy when natural barriers are cleared with such ease–and with such ultimately unknowable consequences.

All four essays are concerned with how plants have influenced humankind for their evolutionary benefit. Just occasionally, Mr. Pollan departs from a rigorously dispassionate approach (in order, I suspect, to make the prose more lively) and indulges in the irritating literary conceit that plants have human characteristics, as in “The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans” and “A plant does not go to the expense of making … such a unique and complex molecule if it doesn’t do the plant some evolutionary good.”

The Botany of Desire is an immensely readable, thought-provoking and unusual–indeed, uncategorizable–book. To illustrate his themes, the author enlists the help of botany, genetics, politics, social commentary, history, literature, Greek mythology, Nietzsche, Darwin and a whole lot else. He is fortunate in benefiting from a lack of competition in the field he has chosen for himself, for most garden writers could not begin to write such a book. Perhaps, like the plants he describes, Michael Pollan has made his own luck. But in his case, it was conscious.

Ursula Buchan is the gardening columnist for The Spectator.

A Polymath in the Garden Contemplates Codependency