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Plants and Humans Influence Each Other for Mutual Benefit!
on 10 May 2004
"What existential difference is there between the human being's role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebees?" "Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potato make me do it? With profound questions like these, Michael Pollan pollinates your mind with a new world view of our relationships with plants, one in which humans are not at the center. The book focuses on four primary examples of how plants provide benefits to humans that lead humans to benefit the plants (apples for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication, and the potato for control over nature's food supply). You will learn many new facts in the process that will fascinate you. The book's main value is that you will learn that we need to be more thoughtful in how we assist in the evolution of plant species.
The book builds on Darwin's original observations about how artificial evolution occurs (evolution directed by human efforts). So-called domesticated species thrive while the wild ones we admire often do not. Compare dogs to wolves as an example. Mr. Pollan challenges the mental separation we make between wild and domesticated species successfully in the book.
The apple section was my favorite. You will learn that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) was a rather odd fellow who was actually in the business of raising and selling apple trees. He planted a few seeds at the homes where he stayed overnight on his travels. Mr. Chapman had apple tree nurseries all over Ohio and Indiana, which he started 2-3 years before he expected an influx of settlers. Homesteading laws required these settlers to plant 50 apple or pears trees in order to take title to the land. And these apples were for making hard apple cider, not eating apples. He was the "American Dionysus" in Mr. Pollan's view. Apple trees need to be grafted to make good eating apples. Chapman's trees produced many genetic variations, which are good for the species. Apple trees became more narrow in their genes after other sources for alcohol and sweetness became available (from cane sugar). Now, the ancient genes of apple trees are being kept in living form from Kazakhstan, before they are lost due to economic development.
Tulips were the source of the famous Tulipmania in Holland. Rare colors occurred due to viruses. Those became extremely valuable during the tulip boom market in the 17th century. Now, growers try to keep the viruses out and we have much more dull, consistent species. We have probably lost much beauty in favor of order in the process.
The intoxicants in marijuana are probably caused by toxins that the plants make to kill off insects. Because the plant is a weed, it grows very rapidly. There is a hilarious story about the author's experiences in growing two plants that you will love. As the antidrug war progressed, marijuana became a hothouse plant and was bred and developed to grow much more rapidly under humid, high-light conditions indoors. You will read about modern commercial farms in Holland.
The potato story is the most complex. The Irish potato famine related to monoculture. The Incas had always planted a variety of potatoes to avoid the risk of disease. Now, biotechnology has added an insecticide to the leaves of potato plants, taking monoculture one step further. Interestingly, the insects are already becoming resistant to the insecticide. Are we building a new risk to famine with this approach? How will genetically altered potatoes affect humans? Is having consistent french fries at fast food places enough of an incentive to take this risk? These are the kinds of questions raised by this chapter.
Mr. Pollan has described a "dance of human and plant desire that left neither the plants nor the people . . . unchanged."
His key point is that we should be sure to include strong biodiversity in our approaches. Nature can create more variation faster than fledgling biotechnology industry can. Time has proven that biodiversity has many advantages for humans while monoculture has usually proven to have at least one major drawback. In reality, we can probably have both.
If you are like me, you will find Mr. Pollan's personal experiences with the plants and his investigations of the historical figures to be fascinating. He is a good story teller, and a fine writer.
After you read this book, take a walk through a park or a garden and think about Mr. Pollan's argument. Then consider how these principles can be applied to help ideas change, improve, and grow in more valuable ways.
Look at life from many different perspectives . . . and live more intelligently and beneficially!