intro to Michael Pollan’s “Botany of Desire”

Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire was the centerpiece of our class this semester. The intro follows (sorry the formatting is wonky). Here’s a link to a pdf: michaelpollan.com/wordpress/wp-content/…/botany_of_desire_excerpt.pdf

THE BOTANY OF DESIRE: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World
by MICHAEL POLLAN
2002 Random House Trade Paperback Edition
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Pollan
The seeds of this book were first planted in my garden—while I
was planting seeds, as a matter of fact. Sowing seed is pleasant,
desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space
left over for thinking about other things while you’re doing it.On
this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in
the neighborhood ofa flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrat-
ing with bees.And what I found myself thinking about was this:
What existential difference is there between the human being’s
role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?

If this sounds like a laughable comparison,consider what it was
I was doing in the garden that afternoon:disseminating the genes
ofone species and not another,in this case a fingerling potato in-
stead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such
choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space ofthis garden,
I tell myself,I alone determine which species will thrive and which
will disappear.I’m in charge here,in other words,and behind me
stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gar-
deners and botanists,plant breeders,and,these days,genetic engi-
neers who “selected,”“developed,”or “bred”the particular potato
that I decided to plant.Even our grammar makes the terms ofthis
relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I
harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects,
and here in the garden,as in nature generally,we humans are the
subjects.

But that afternoon in the garden I found myself wondering:
What if that grammar is all wrong? What if it’s really nothing
more than a self-serving conceit? A bumblebee would probably
also regard himself as a subject in the garden and the bloom he’s
plundering for its drop of nectar as an object. But we know that
this is just a failure ofhis imagination.The truth ofthe matter is
that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its
pollen from blossom to blossom.

The ancient relationship between bees and flowers is a classic
example of what is known as “coevolution.”In a coevolutionary
bargain like the one struck by the bee and the apple tree,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. Consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side,
and the traditional distinction between subject and object is
meaningless.

Matters between me and the spud I was planting, I realized,
really aren’t much different;we,too,are partners Continue reading