Botany of Desire
A plant's-eye view of the world
The NewsHour with Jim Leher, June 29, 2001
GWEN IFILL: The book is “The Botany of Desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world.” In it, author Michael Pollan explores human impulse and its connection to the life of plants””our desire for the apple’s sweetness, the tulip’s beauty, the intoxication of marijuana and our desire to control nature by producing the perfect genetically modified potato. Welcome, Mr. Pollan.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you very much, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: So as a gardener, which you admit to being, a backyard gardener of sorts in Connecticut, how did you make these connections between human impulse and the plant world?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, it all started with the bumblebee. I mean, the premise of the book is very, very simple. I… One day in the garden I was watching a bumblebee alongside me while I was sewing seeds and thought, “well, what do I have in common with a bee as a gardener?” and realized more than I realized. Like the bumblebee, I was disseminating the genes of one species, a potato instead of a leek, say, rather than another. And like the bumblebee, I thought these plants were here for my benefit, you know, all the plants in the garden I was growing. But in fact, I realized maybe they had induced me to help them, because, you know, the bumblebee breaks into the flower, finds the nectar, thinks he’s making off with the goods and thinks he’s getting the better of the deal with the flower. But, in fact, it’s the flower that has tricked the bumblebee into doing the work for him, to take his pollen from flower to flower to flower. And then I realized well, what if… So from the flower’s point of view, the bumblebee is this credulous gullible animal, and how would we look to our plants… from our plant’s point of view? And I realize we’re much the same; we’re more like the bumblebee than we think.
GWEN IFILL: Well, you tell… You talk about sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control. And sweetness you talk about the apple.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah.
GWEN IFILL: How does Johnny Appleseed figure into this?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, Johnny Appleseed, in a way, he’s kind of a pagan patron saint of the book. I didn’t even know when I started this that he was a real historical figure, by John Chapman. I thought he was one of those kindergarten folk heroes, you know, like Paul Bunyon, that’s made up. It turns out Johnny Appleseed, John Chapman, was a real historical figure who played a very important role in the frontier in the Northwest territory. And I also found out that the version of Johnny Appleseed I learned in kindergarten was completely wrong, had been Disney-fied, cleaned up and made very benign. He’s a much more interesting character. The way figured this out was I learned this one botanical fact about apples, which is, if you plant the seeds of an apple, like a red delicious or a golden delicious, the offspring will look nothing like the parent, will be a completely different variety and will be inedible. You cannot eat apples planted from seeds. They must be grafted, cloned.
GWEN IFILL: And they’re not American fruit.
MICHAEL POLLAN: They’re not, no. I learned it comes from Kazakhstan and has made its way here and changed a lot along the way. And so the fact that Johnny Appleseed was planting apples from seed, which he insisted on””he thought grafting was wicked””meant they were not edible apples, and it meant they were for hard cider because you can use any kind of apple for making cider. Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.
GWEN IFILL: Well, also, in talking about… You talk about the apple, but then you talk about the tulip, which is this icy, perfect, beautiful flower but yet drove people to madness in Holland.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, the story of the tulip is kind of amazing. I mean, this was the, tulip mania you’re referring to in Holland, and it was a… Which people are always comparing to the Internet mania, and there are a lot of interesting parallels. Although I’m more sympathetic to the Dutch than I am to the NASDAQ traders, because at least, you know, there was something beautiful here, something new, something… Something, not just a piece of paper. And they were… It was a new flower and they went absolutely mad for it. And its beauty was like we had never seen anything like it before, and…
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about beauty and the tulip and the sweetness of the apple, then you go to talk about the psychoactive properties of the marijuana, of the cannabis plant.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, in all cases, we’re talking about desires. The book is as much about our human desires that nature gratifies as it is about the plant. And I guess my premise is that by looking, you know, in the same way you look at a flower and you can learn something about what a bee thinks is beautiful and that a bee has a sweet tooth, if you look at marijuana, you can learn something about our minds and how our minds work and why we should be, like all cultures, you know, every human culture with one exception has had a psychoactive plant. The one exception is the Eskimos. And the only reason they didn’t is because nothing grew where they were. And as soon as they discovered alcohol, that became their psychoactive plant.
GWEN IFILL: You come a little bit close to making a political statement about legalization of marijuana in this book, but you step right up to it and don’t quite go there.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. I’m very sympathetic to the fact that this is a human… This is part of human nature, the desire to change consciousness. That doesn’t mean, though, because it’s natural that we should all be doing it all the time. I think the Greeks had a very sane attitude about it. They worshipped Dionysus, they used wine a lot, but they also created a lot of controls and rituals. There were only certain times that you took drugs certain times of the year. So I think that, you know, drugs and alcohol can be a scourge or it can be a blessing. And so I’m not sure “anything goes” is really the right answer.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about controls and rituals, that leads us to the talk of the potato, in this case the Monsanto potato, the genetically modified vegetable which you decided to plant a version of in your garden.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, you know, this is the new wrinkle in people’s relationship with plants. I mean, we’re really making a quantum change in our relationship to the plant world with genetic modification. And I thought the only way to really learn about this was to do it myself. So my garden lost its organic virginity and I planted these genetically modified potatoes I got from Monsanto that are bred to… They have pesticide in every cell, bacterial toxin. So they kill their own bugs, and that’s the idea. I really wanted to see, one, if they worked””and they did work””and also if they’re a good idea or not. And what I learned about them was kind of troubling. You know, one of the premises of the biotech industry is what they’re doing is really no different than selective breeding and they compare to it fermentation and cheese making; they call all these things biotechnology. But in fact what they’re doing is incredibly novel. We never before have been able to take genes from a flounder, say, and put them in a tomato or firefly and put them in tobacco. We are taking… You know, in nature, a million years of evolution, and flounders and tomatoes would never have sex and reproduce, and now they can, essentially, artificially. And this is something new. And I think whenever we do something radically new in nature, we have to proceed with great caution. And in the case of genetically engineered food, we’re not. I mean, they’re everywhere already.
GWEN IFILL: So you write in conclusion in this book that basically the plants are as much in the business of remaking us as we are in remaking the plant world. What do you mean by that?
MICHAEL POLLAN: Well, it’s called co-evolution. You know, we all have learned about Darwin and we know what co-evolution is, but we think it’s for other species out there. You know, there’s a web of life and then there’s us kind of tearing the web. But what I realized when you look at domesticated species, we are in that web. These species have changed us. The invention of agriculture, I think, is a very, kind of, self- centered phrase that implies that we did it, we’re the subjects acting on the passive objects. In fact, the invention of agriculture is also something plants did to us. They got us to settle down, start farming, cut down trees all over the world so they could have more habitat. It makes just as much sense to look at the adventure of agriculture as something that the grasses did to us as we to them. And I think it’s very… My concern here is that we understand that we are part of nature, we’re in the web, too, being acted on.
GWEN IFILL: Not them and us.
MICHAEL POLLAN: No, they domesticated us as much as we domesticated them.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Michael Pollan, and the name of the book is “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.” Thank you very much for joining us.
MICHAEL POLLAN: Thank you very much, Gwen.