The Potato Whisperer

Surprising wisdom from a greenish gardener.


Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, New York: Random House, 271 pages, $24.95

In Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan examines the coevolution of plants and human beings from what he acknowledges is "a somewhat unconventional angle: I take the plant's point of view seriously." The plants whose perspectives he adopts include apples, tulips, marijuana, and genetically engineered potatoes, all of which have been found in his own garden at one time or another.

Human beings tend to think of themselves as the uncontested rulers of the natural world, especially when lording it over subjects unlikely to fight back, such as fruits and vegetables. Pollan's central insight is that those plants aren't as passive as they seem. In fact, in their mindless way, they're every bit as selfish about the relationship as we are. Plants use various means to entice animals to do the work of spreading plant genes, whether the animals are human farmers or pollen-bearing honeybees. "In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree," Pollan writes, "the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes."

If you're a plant, offering such rewards as sweetness, nutritional value, or intoxication is a great way to get animals to plant your seeds, give you water, or destroy the weeds that surround you. Being domesticated further increases your odds of survival and your likelihood of having descendants. Just ask apples. Now we grow Newtown Pippins, Baldwins, Golden Russets, and Jonathans, all derived from the small, bitter, wild apples that originated in Kazakhstan.

Pollan notes that this perspective runs counter to both the usual scientific-industrial narrative about our relationship to nature, in which we take what we want from the world and thus improve it, and the usual environmentalist fable, in which we exploit a passive nature until it collapses, destroying ourselves in the process. In reality, it takes two to tango, and sometimes your partner is a potato.

Each of the four plants Pollan examines yields a fable about this dance, though Pollan presents his morals very gently and subtly. (One gets the impression that he would be perfectly happy if most readers came away remembering this as merely a pleasant, funny book about vegetables.) From apples, Pollan derives a lesson about how we conceal or mythologize the history of plants. Johnny Appleseed (whose real name, back in 1806, was John Chapman) is usually remembered as a saintly, peaceful figure spreading wholesome food across the American frontier. There's just one problem with the story: Two centuries ago, people didn't grow apples for food. They grew them to make hard cider. Johnny Appleseed's contemporaries loved him because he was bringing them a cheap means of getting drunk.

Pollan expresses this more elaborately, drawing on Greek mythology and a little Nietzsche for his metaphors. Johnny Appleseed, he writes, was "the American Dionysus," heir to the wild god who, in a mixed blessing, "brought civilization the gift of wine…the antithesis of Apollo, god of clear boundaries, order, and light, of man's firm control over nature."

From tulips, Pollan draws the lesson that while we go to great lengths to possess beauty—even creating unstable, speculative markets in ultra-expensive tulip bulbs, back in 17th-century Holland—flowers are quietly engaged in an evolutionary competition to catch the eye of creatures like us, often in order to announce that there is fruit to be eaten (and thus seeds to be scattered) nearby. The results can be downright embarrassing, as with Chinese gardeners' gradual development of peonies that look a bit too much like human female reproductive organs for comfort.

From marijuana, and from drugs in general, Pollan thinks we may learn far more than most straight-laced members of society are willing to admit. From opium to hashish to peyote, plants have given us access to altered and occasionally enlightening states of consciousness, thus increasing the odds that they will be cultivated. (Marijuana fans should be cheered by Pollan's suggestion that ever more potent strains of weed will continue to win the evolutionary race, no matter how hard the law struggles to eradicate them.) Pollan informs us that the noted pot smoker Carl Sagan wrote an essay, under the pseudonym Mr. X, defending the validity of those notorious drug-induced revelations that can't quite be articulated the next morning. (Sagan also wrote the revelation-themed novel Contact, though its casual references to legalized cannabis somehow never made it into the film version.)

Pollan even wonders if Plato's metaphysics might have been drug-induced, given that the Greeks used psychedelics and that Plato wrote, in terms that will sound familiar to pot-smoking readers everywhere, about focusing one's attention on an object with such intensity that it eventually seems to become the ideal, universal form of that object, not just an individual shoe, hand, chair, or roach clip. (Well, Plato didn't mention the roach clip.) The late novelist Iris Murdoch also wrote about the importance of seeing things accurately, with an artist's attention to detail, and about the importance of Plato's metaphysics as an approach to understanding God. It's a shame that she, Sagan, Plato, and Pollan never got stoned together and wrote a fascinating book about the experience.

Finally, from the potato, Pollan derives an even more politically charged lesson, noting that the risky new business of genetic engineering is not just the inevitable direction of progress but a side effect of society's demand for uniformity and predictability. Potatoes, which centuries ago were "thought to be causes of leprosy and immorality" and thus rarely grown in Europe, gradually came to be relied on to produce very predictable, easily grown crops. By expecting our McDonald's french fries and our potato chips to look the same time after time, notes Pollan, we consumers are unwittingly necessitating the type of agriculture that produces vast, uniform growing fields—monocultures—in which only one specific type of plant is grown, with as little variation as possible in its appearance and texture.

Genetic engineering, in Pollan's view, is just the latest attempt to impose man-made predictability on the wild and diverse plant world. Preferring a bit of chaos and variety, Pollan leans toward organic agriculture and, at the end of the book, decides that when he makes potato salad he won't use the genetically modified potatoes that he grew in his own garden.

At this point, Pollan's own philosophy becomes a bit more apparent, casting a new light on his use of Greek god imagery, his denunciation of greedy tulip speculation, and his fondness for marijuana. Suddenly, it all adds up to a subtle, stealthy promotion of the whole green agenda: paganism, anti-capitalism, hemp, and organic farming. A more paranoid reviewer might even detect a whiff of Gaia worship in this whole idea of looking at things from the plants' perspective.

Stereotypes aside, though, Pollan is a moderate green, with an appreciation for trade-offs and mutually beneficial exchanges. He even manages to sympathize a bit with the geneticists at the giant agro corporation Monsanto, respecting their accomplishments as his fellow "gardeners" and clearly enjoying his visit to the high-tech Monsanto labs. (More radical, and more typical, is an opinion espoused by a Maine organic farmer whom Pollan interviews: "If there's a source of evil in agriculture…its name is Monsanto.")

Pollan sometimes engages a bit too freely in metaphorical talk about plants planning and strategizing and "wanting" their genes spread. He knows—and states outright—that evolution is just a weeding-out process, the elimination of some organisms and the reproduction of others, not a conscious striving by species to win the Darwinian lottery. But we live in a world where most people are scientifically illiterate—where most religious people think the guiding hand of a Creator is necessary for evolution to occur (if they believe in the process at all), where most secularists think of evolution as having a purposive "direction" to it. Given that, Pollan should perhaps choose his words more carefully. Yet an author can't be expected to write his way around every possible misinterpretation of his book. Botany of Desire provides more than enough enlightenment to compensate for any minor drawbacks.