The Way We Live Now: Pollinator

For a while there, it looked as if this might be the year it never happened, but the gardening season has arrived at last. Last week the peas went in, finally, and today I’ll plant potatoes. Nights are still way too cold to put out the tender vegetables—tomatoes and the like—but on my windowsills their seedlings are already pressing against the pane, leaning into the strengthening sun and the traffic of bees building outside. Am I the only gardener who, especially at this time of year, identifies with these bees? I doubt it. Sooner or later, most gardeners begin to look at things from the perspective of their plants—and from a plant’s point of view, there’s really not a whole lot of difference between a human being and a bumblebee.

We humans like to think we call all the shots in our gardens; like local forces of natural selection, we decide which species survive and which disappear. Even our grammar makes the terms of the relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants; I harvest the crops. It’s a world of subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we are the sovereign subjects.

But the longer I garden, and watch the bees at work beside me, the more I think that that grammar is completely wrong. No doubt the bee, too, thinks he’s got the better of the blossom, but the truth is that the flower has cleverly manipulated him into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom. This is the classic example of what scientists call coevolution. In a coevolutionary bargain like the one struck by the bees and the flowers, the two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors: food for the bee, gene-transport for the plants.

Matters between me and the potatoes I’m planting really aren’t any different. We, too, are partners in a coevolutionary relationship, as we have been since the birth of agriculture. Like the flower, whose form and scent and color have been selected by bees over countless generations, the size and taste of the potato have been selected over generations by us—by Incas and Irishmen and McDonald’s customers. Bees and humans alike have their criteria for selection: symmetry and sweetness for the bee, heft and nutritional value for the human.

The fact that one of us has evolved to become intermittently aware of these desires makes no difference whatsoever to the flower or the potato. All the plants care about is what every organism cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error, these plant species have discovered that the best way to accomplish that is to induce animals—bees, people—to spread their genes far and wide. How? By playing on those animals’ desires, conscious and otherwise. The flowers and spuds that do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.

So did I choose to plant “my” potatoes or did the spuds make me do it? Both. I can remember the exact moment the fingerlings seduced me, showing off their knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalog. The tasty-sounding “buttery yellow flesh” sealed it. A trivial, semiconscious event, it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter had any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. But evolution consists of countless trivial, unconscious events, and in the continuing evolution of the potato, my perusal of that catalog is one of them.

As soon as you start looking at things this way, the garden appears before you in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offers to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these foods and flowers, which we’re accustomed to regarding as merely the objects of our desire, are also, you realize, acting on us, getting us to do things for them they can’t do for themselves. So who’s really domesticating whom?

I find something heartening in this upside-down perspective. For centuries now, we humans have overestimated our power over nature, with the result that we’ve lost the knack of imagining ourselves in nature, as one species existing in a web of other species—which is, of course, what we still are and will always be. Even the “invention of agriculture”—perhaps the most far-reaching change to this planet we’ve wrought—is something we could never have pulled off without the active participation of other species, the ones that seized the new evolutionary opportunity when it presented itself. So the grasses and cows, the apples and the poppies began to evolve in the direction of our desires—for nutrition, for sweetness, even for intoxication. And we in turn remade the earth (and ourselves) to accommodate them, plowing the soil, chopping down trees and turning into farmers.

The wonder is that we don’t look upon domesticated species—the grasses, the cows, the apples, the dogs—with more respect for their evolutionary cleverness. Why is it the wolf wins our admiration, when it is the dog at our feet that’s natural history’s big winner? So this afternoon when you’re out mowing the lawn, blithely assuming you’ve got all those crew-cut blades marching crisply to your orders, consider all that the grasses have achieved. I’d always assumed that the weekly mowing does the grasses no favor, is strictly for our benefit, but of course mowing’s ecological point is to keep the forest at bay. Along with the fields of wheat and the meadows, lawns are something the grasses have done to us, a most ingenious strategy for conquering the trees.