Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2020

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Posted by nliakos on January 16, 2020

by Michael Pollan ( Random House 2001, 2002)

I have really enjoyed Michael Pollan’s books about eating, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food , and I try to follow his food rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, with their corollaries such as Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients. (See the post for In Defense of Food for all the details.) I’ve been intending to read this one for years, and I got my chance when my sister gave it to me for Christmas. Thanks, Sis!

Like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is divided into four parts, each of which corresponds to a meal, The Botany of Desire‘s four chapters focus on four human desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control) and four plants which fulfill them (the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato). The over-arching idea echoes a concept Pollan expressed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma–that plants use people, like bees, to spread their genes. In that book, it was corn that has somehow gotten humans to rid most of the American Midwest of all other competing species to its own advantage, with the result that we grow so much of it that we are forced to invent new markets for it (ubiquitous sweetener of other foods, automotive fuel…). In the present book, Pollan describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes have taken over whole landscapes far from their places of origin. In so doing, he educates the reader with interesting facts. For instance, all commercially available apples are grafted clones; apples do not come true from seed. In fact, tulips are similar in this respect: “Tulips are prone to . . . chance mutations, color breaks,  and instances of ‘thievery’ (the tendency of certain flowers to revert to their parents’ appearance).” and “A tulip that falls out of favor soon goes extinct, since the bulbs don’t reliably come back every year. . . . Tulips, in other words, are mortal.” And the apples planted by John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman were used not for eating but for making (hard) cider, which stood in for most other alcoholic beverages in the American Midwest.  of his time.

Throughout, Pollan ruminates on the contrasting myths of Apollo (analytical, linear, controlling, rational. . .) and Dionysus (natural, chaotic, untamed, violent, sexual. . .):  “Johnny Appleseed”, a kind of gentle Dionysus. . . .  Marijuana, providing a Dionysian intoxication (“nature overpowering mind”). . . . “Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.” This occasionally seems a little far-fetched, but adds an intriguing perspective.

In the final chapter, Pollan shines a bright light on the issues raised by genetic engineering, such as the inadvertent spreading of the doctored genes through the natural dispersal of pollen; the privatization of natural resources such as the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt); the evolution of pests to resist Bt and other insecticides (a question not of if, but of when); and the control of farmers by agribusinesses such as Monsanto. He describes the dead soil in which most of our food grows, compared to the living multi-cultural living soil on organic farms: “. . . the typical potato grower stands in the middle of a bright green circle of plants that have been doused with so much pesticide that their leaves wear a dull white chemical bloom and the soil they’re rooted in is a lifeless gray powder. Farmers call this a ‘clean field,’ since, ideally, it has been cleansed of all weeds and insects and disease–of all life, that is, with the sole exception of the potato plant.” In contrast, the organic farmer’s soil “looked completely different from the other Magic Valley soils I’d fingered that day: instead of the uniform grayish powder I’d assumed was normal for the area, Heath’s soil was dark brown and crumbly. The difference . . . was that this soil was alive.” For the first time, I understood deeply why we should prefer organic produce over the cheaper alternative.

As always, Pollan does not disappoint.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2020

by Joan Maloof (Univ. of Georgia Press 2005)

I loved, loved, loved this book! It’s a collection of essays about trees, forests, and the other things that live in, on, under, and among them, written by a forest ecologist and emeritus professor of biology and environmental studies at Salisbury University, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore (the part of the state that lies east of the Chesapeake Bay on the great Delmarva Peninsula). The essays mostly focus on the trees in this part of the world, and since I live on the other side of the bay (estuary, actually), most of the trees discussed are also to be found near my home (except the Bald Cypress): the tulip poplar, sycamore, pine (though maybe not the loblolly pine Maloof writes about), various oaks, maple, holly, and sweet gum–not sure about the black locust, redcedar, or beech (but having checked these out online, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are probably here, just unrecognized by me). But I felt as I read that Maloof was writing about my trees, my forests, my environment. It felt very personal. She writes about trees with love and respect for these incredible life forms, and includes the tiny animals that feed and shelter in the forest, like weevils, beetles, gnats, luna moths, borers, midges and leaf miners and wasps and more. She describes her efforts and those of others to protect trees from the crush of man’s embrace (from Laurie Lewis’ “The Wood Thrush’s Song”). Successes are rare, but somehow, she holds on to hope, and accordingly, so do I. To think about trees is to hold the long view of life on earth. Maloof points out that homeowners on the Eastern Shore sometimes go to a lot of trouble to plant trees on their newly acquired properties, when all they need to do is wait a few years for a young forest to propagate itself on its own because the land there naturally reverts to forest if left to its own devices. That’s a comforting thought.

Gorgeous 200-year-old illustrations by artist/naturalist John Abbot are interspersed throughout the pages of the book. They appear without captions, forcing the reader who does not immediately recognize the leaves in the image to look back at the list of illustrations which follows the table of contents. I was tempted to pencil in the species’ names on the facing pages, but I decided that would encourage laziness. If I leave them unlabeled, perhaps I will learn to recognize the leaves I don’t already know. I’ve long wished I could identify more trees.

One of the illustrations is of the chestnut oak. This tree grows in the state park adjacent to my neighborhood, where my husband and I often walk. I’ve wondered about those leaves: shaped like large teardrops with multiple indentations along the edges (what Wikipedia calls coarsely crenately toothed leaves). But I was unsure of my identification until I read Teaching the Trees. An added benefit!

Now that I’ve finished the book (I devoured it like a mystery), I kind of want to reread it from the beginning. I’ve already begun to forget all the neat things I learned! For example: Maryland has about 8,000,000,000 trees, 95% of which are less than five inches in diameter; only 2% are as wide as a woman’s shoulders.

Posted in Biology and environmental science, Science | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »