The Botany of Desire
The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the New York Times bestselling author of Cooked and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most trusted food experts in America In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant—though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin? In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds’s most basic yearnings—and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom? Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature. From the Hardcover edition.
The curriculet is being added to your library
Watch the first two minutes of the video below. This is the film version of the book you are about to read and will give you an introduction to the book that is similar to the one you are about to read. (This annotation contains a video)
Michael Pollan is an author and journalist who studies and writes about food, science and "about the places where nature and culture intersect." Visit Pollan's website below to learn more about his work. (This annotation contains a link)
In the highlighted paragraph, how does Pollan use language to advance his point of view?
Many of Pollan's ideas may come as a surprise to you, but as you read, think about how he uses language to make claims such as the one in the highlighted section. You may not readily believe in the sophistication of plants or that they have undergone a much longer and more complex evolution than human beings, but Pollan's suggestion that plants possess some pretty powerful abilities that they have developed over centuries does make his readers stop and think about plants in a different light. As you continue reading, look for the ideas that Pollan introduces and consider the way his presentation of them, as well as his use of language, causes you to change your thinking.
Which of the following sets of words are used to support the idea that plants have evolved to use the animal world to support its propagation?
In this introduction, Pollan has laid out some basic structural information for his reader. Watch the video below on the use of structure. As you read, think about how Pollan's choices to structure the text in this way impact your understanding of the content. (This annotation contains a video)
Summarize, in three sentences or less, Pollan's goal as it has been laid out in this introduction. Be sure to use your own language in your response.
Johnny Appleseed is a beloved American icon. As you will learn in this book, John Chapman, may have been quite different in real life than he is in our stories and tales about him. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following details is included to suggest that human beings may be less the masters of domestication than we think?
Prohibition is the term used to refer to the time period in the early 1900's in which the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol was made illegal. Watch the video in the link below to learn more about Prohibition. (This annotation contains a link)
Explain, in your own words, the role of heterozygosity in the apple's survival.
This map from 1801 illustrates the perspective of white Americans who thought of civilization as "ending" beyond the Ohio river. Pollan points out that this same idea was "an error or a lie" to Native Americans. Consider how Pollan exposes point of view as being a product of culture or experience. How does this help support Pollan's own objectives? (This annotation contains an image)
Pollan's inclusion of the Chapman's statement that "God only can improve the apple" is an example of _________.
Pollan's anecdote about his son exposes a point of view that we might find hard to understand: the experience of first tasting sugar. While humorous, Pollan also uses this story to help the reader understand the relationship between humans and sugar.
Which detail does Pollan include to call into question the origin of our "universal" taste for sweetness?
Proof is a term used to express the alcohol content of a drink. The easiest way to understand what proof means is to divide the number in half. 66 proof would therefore be 33% alcohol. Considering that wine and beer are often in the 15-10% range, the applejack that was made during this time would have been fairly strong.
What is Pollan's purpose in including the highlighted information?
Visit the site below to learn more about the War of 1812 that Pollan references here. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following words could be used to replace zeal in the highlighted sentence?
Using contextual evidence, what is a merganser?
Even non-fiction writers use figurative language. Watch the video below to learn more about literal and figurative language. How does Pollan use figurative language in the highlighted section? (This annotation contains a video)
How does the image from the 1871 issue of Harper's New Monthly Magazine compare with Pollan's depiction of John Chapman? How does it compare with the more popular cartoonized version that might have fallen in line with Bill Jones's version of John Chapman?
Here is the image Pollan refers to in the text. Take a moment to compare the image to Pollan's description of it. (This annotation contains an image)
The image Pollan paints of Jon Chapman here is reminiscent of the common portrayal of Dionysus (whom you have learned is the Greek God of debauchery, revelry, wine and ecstasy). (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Pollan compare John Chapman to Dionysus?
Henry David Thoreau was a poet, philosopher, writer and activist from the early -mid 1800's. He is most well known for his publication of Walden, an account of his time living alone in a cabin surviving off his own efforts and enjoying nature. Thoreau is a famous transcendentalist writer who was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. (This annotation contains an image)
Visit the link below to read an excerpt from Thoreau's 'Wild Apples." http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/thoreau/henry_david/wild-apples/Scroll down to the section labeled "The Wild Apple." Consider Thoreau's comments about "the ungrafted tree." How would you compare Thoreau's assessment of the relationship between man and apple to Pollan's?
Notice Pollan's comparison of apples to people, particularly immigrants. Remember that Pollan's argument here is that plants (in this case apples) have had more of a hand in their own propagation than we might give them credit for. How does his comparison of plants to people help him achieve this goal?
Which of the following literary devices does Pollan make use of in the highlighted section?
The Great Potato Famine is one of the most significant events in Ireland's history. In the 1840's, a new form of potato blight destroyed crops and is said to have claimed the lives of 1 million people. Visit the website below to learn more about how this staple crop caused so much devastation. (This annotation contains a link)
Explain the significance of Pollan's final anecdote about planting the wild apple seed in his garden. Why does he choose to end his chapter on desire and apples in this way?
Section One Quiz
The image below pictures Triumph tulips. (This annotation contains an image)
What qualities does Pollan admire about tulips as a boy?
Notice how Pollan uses this detail about the fear of beauty and its ability to sway believers as a piece of evidence in his argument for the power of beauty.
Whose sentiments does the highlighted section parallel?
Visit the website in the link below to view an Ophryus Orchid called the bee orchid. Watch the brief video in the center of the page. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following does Pollan compare flowers to?
What is the effect of Pollan's language on his overall purpose in the highlighted section?
Both of these references (to Medusa and Odysseus) are called allusions. Pollan is counting on his reader being familiar with Medusa (the mythical creature with snakes for hair that turned onlookers into stone) and the Odyssey (Homer's epic chronicling Odysseus's famous journey home from war and all of the obstacles he faced along the way). Circe was a magical sorceress who could enchant anything with her powers. She turned Odysseus and his men into swine.
Watch the video below to learn more about how bees "see" flowers differently than us. (This annotation contains a video)
What can you infer is the meaning of anthropocentric?
Constantinople, located in Turkey, was once the center of the Roman, Byzantium, Latin and Ottoman empires. It is named for the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following set of words from the highlighted paragraph best contributes to the tone of the section?
A dowry is an amount of riches or wealth (in some form) that is given to accompany a bride in marriage to her new husband (almost an incentive to pass an unmarried girl from the possession of her father to the possession of another man). Pollan's inclusion of this information emphasizes just how important a tulip bulb could be in this culture.
Which of the following words best characterizes the relationship between the Dutch and their tulips?
Here is an image of a "broken" tulip. This drawing is actually of Sempre Augustus- the lost tulip of the Dutch golden age. (This annotation contains an image)
What is your impression of this explanation of the effect of the tulip virus on Pollan's overall argument? Does it support or undermine his claim about the agency of plants?
Watch the following video to learn about the literary terms synecdoche and metonomy (often confused). How does Pollan use the term in his sentence? (This annotation contains a video)
Explain what "tulipomania" was? What more modern craze can you compare to this "mania" the dutch experienced with the tulip?
Apollo and Dionysus were both sons of Zeus in Greek mythology. We are, by now, familiar with Dionysus, but what is this dichotomy mentioned here? While Dionysus was the god of wine and pleasure, Apollo was the god of the sun, of dreams and of reason. This famous set of opposing figures is being used here to illustrate the role of the tulip in the world of flowers.
Pollan's use of vivid, sexualized descriptions of flowers supports his argument that _________________.
Pollan's dream associating the tulip with theft and a Montblanc (which is a very expensive fountain pen) remind the reader of the imposed value of a tulip during tulipomania as well as the origin of the tulip's popularity lying in an act of theft.
Which of the following does Pollan compare to "capitalism in the throes of a speculative mania"?
This is another allusion to the Odessey. The sirens were mythical creatures that sang beautiful songs, luring men in to the dangerously rocky coast of their island only to shipwreck and be destroyed. (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following words from the highlighted paragraph best captures the Greek definition of beauty?
Visit the following website to learn more about the importance of flowering plants and angiosperms. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of Pollan's anecdotes or revelations in this chapter do you think is the strongest piece of evidence in supporting his claim in the highlighted sentence?
Pollan's introduction to this chapter gives us a view of plants as possessing magic powers, the ability to alter consciousness and reality, and the power to heal or kill. As you continue to read, consider how Pollan's examples support his premise that plants appeal to our desire for intoxication.
Why is it better for plants to possess the power to repel rather than the power to kill?
The video below shows cats enjoying catnip and explains how the plant affects their behavior. (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the context of the sentence, what does the word bowdlerized mean?
Pollan's use of language here, as well as quotation marks, is meant to convey a slight sense of mockery. Pollan admits his level of interest in marijuana and wants to highlight for the reader that he was not the typical California-surfer-pothead that he is making his sister's boyfriend out to be.
Which structural technique is Pollan employing to begin this chapter?
Watch the following video about situational irony. (This annotation contains a video)
Is the fact that the man delivering the cord of wood is the police chief an instance of irony in this story? Explain your reasoning using both information from the video and the text.
Visit the following site to read the Bill of Rights. As you read, consider how the War on Drugs may have come at the "expense of the Bill of Rights." (This annotation contains a link)
After reading the Bill of Rights and the footnotes to the text (available when you click on the blue icons in the text), explain how Pollan could argue that the War on Drugs has violated the Bill of Rights. Explain in your answer which Amendments you think have been violated.
Industrialized hemp production is becoming very popular around the world. Hemp (slightly different from the plant that produces intoxicating marijuana) is a sustainable crop and is being used for many purposes. Its production is still illegal in the US, largely as a result of the War on Drugs. (This annotation contains a video)
How does Pollan's tone characterize American pot growers (an profession which is illegal) as important players in a "great revolution" of cannabis?
Global warming (more accurately called climate change) refers to an increase in average global temperatures as a result of, primarily, green house gasses. Visit the website below to learn more about exactly what climate change is and what it means for our planet. (This annotation contains a link)
What do apples, tulips and marijuana all have in common when it comes to reproduction?
Pollan continues to explore the interplay between desire, mania, sexuality, nature and humanity by linking these ideas together through a study of the world of plant reproduction and the human part that is played in it. Notice how Pollan uses language to do this. One method that has been structurally effective has been to ask rhetorical questions. A rhetorical question is a question posed to a reader or listener that is not intended to be answered, but rather poses a dilemma or reveals the speaker's thoughts. What other choices does Pollan make in his writing that impact your enjoyment and understanding of the book?
Which of the following best supports the idea that humans are hard-wired to desire altered states of reality?
The Rig Veda is also counted as one of the sacred texts (The Vedas) of Hinduism. (This annotation contains an image)
What one thing does Pollan attribute the prosperity of entheogenic plants to?
Memes have now come to be synonymous with humorous text over images (like the one below). How does this more in-depth explanation of a what a meme really is alter your understanding of popular internet memes? (This annotation contains an image)
What, according to Pollan, has been the positive effect of the "mental errors" and "breaks in mental habit" that are often the effects of consciousness-altering plants?
Read the first few paragraphs of Ginsberg's Atlantic monthly article in the link below. Consider Ginserg's use of language as compared to Pollan's. (This annotation contains a link)
How does Pollan use language to shift the tone of this section. Consider the tone of the previous discussion about the nature of consciousness as well as the tone of Ginsberg's article that you read an excerpt from. Describe the tone of the next section (beginning with "In the mid-1960's") and how Pollan uses diction to influence the tone.
The fact that Mechoulam has discovered a receptor in our brains for THC becomes a big topic of discussion in this chapter. Pollan uses rhetorical questions again to clarify for the reader how surprising and confusing it is that a plant in nature would manufacture something our brains are fit to receive. This also makes the conversation about the taboos surrounding marijuana's use even more interesting. If our brain is set up to use THC, why has it become such a controversial thing?
Which of the following reasons for THC production best support Pollan's main argument in the book?
Consider how society characterizes forgetting. Memory-loss, "senior-moments", Alzheimer's disease, and the way we chide people who struggle to remember (in school, socially, in relationships) are all the things we use to inform our value-judgement of memory. Have you ever been prompted to think of forgetting as a good thing?
What is the purpose of Pollan' lengthy description of all of the sensory inputs of his view?
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher, writer and composer during the mid-late 1800's. As you learn more about him in Pollan's text, try to form a basic understanding of his main characteristics. How does Pollan use Nietzsche's thoughts and words to support his own claims? (This annotation contains an image)
Provide an objective summary of Nietzsche's ideas about memory, time and consciousness.
Carl Sagan was an American astronomer, author and astrophysicist who was very popular in the 1970's and 80's. He is credited with popularizing science with a modern audience. (This annotation contains an image)
In the highlighted sentence, what does the metaphor compare time and memory to?
What is a placebo?
Aldous Huxley was an English writer, famous for his books Brave New World and The Doors of Perception. You have already learned a little about the latter, but Brave New World was a dystopic account of a fictional future in which society is largely controlled by the use of genetic engineering and the use of mind altering sedatives called (interestingly) Soma. (This annotation contains an image)
After reading this section of the text and watching the video about Charlotte's Web, what is the difference between medicine and drugs? How does Pollan reveal information in this text that causes a reader to question his or her understanding of the difference?
Watch the video in the link below about Charlotte's Web- a strain of medical marijuana that helps children with epilepsy. As you watch, consider Pollan's revelation about Paracelsus and how the tinctures and drugs he made from plants have come to be known as medicine while others are not. (This annotation contains a link)
Which of the following best reveals Pollan's attitude toward the Judeo-Christian tradition?
Section Two Quiz
The highlighted sentence includes ______________.
An oxymoron is a figure of speech that brings two contradictory ideas together in one statement. For example "sweet sorrow" and "deafening silence" are oxymorons because sorrow is not sweet, nor can silence be so loud that it causes deafness. How is "Agricultural Sublime" an oxymoron then?
Pollan sets agriculture up as the opposite of nature. The garden may be more like nature, where everything depends on everything else, but farming and agriculture are human attempts to organize, order and control nature.
Why does Pollan characterize his garden experiments as "unscientific?"
What might be the goal in representing genetically engineered food crops as both revolutionary and "plain Jane"? Consider how Pollan interjects his ideas and questions about the integrity of genetically modified foods into even his descriptions of what they are.
What is the effect of the simile in the highlighted sentence?
The idea of monoculture will be an important one in this chapter. Mono means one (just as it does in the words monogamy and monotheistic). The idea here is that of an agricultural practice that values just one type of crop or one idea. Pollan will also stretch this idea to apply to societal demands for uniform practices.
What is the meaning of the word unwitting as it is used in the highlighted sentence?
Pollan posits here that, even compared to the other plants he has followed for this book, the potato is the only species that has "lost its evolutionary say" in its own progress. How does this example support or undermine Pollan's main argument in the book? Do you agree with this statement?
What can you infer about the relationship between England and Ireland from this section?
Pollan covers the differing ways in which some of the world's most powerful countries introduced potatoes into the agricultural climate. Notice the differences in the ways each leader convinces (or forced) his or her constituents to make the switch to growing potatoes over wheat. Why do you think, despite the growing popularity of potatoes and what seemed to be the proof that potatoes are superior to wheat as a crop, that England refused to make the change?
What finally sparked the potato debate in England?
Monsanto is one of the world's largest chemical and agricultural biotechnology corporations. (This annotation contains an image)
What is Pollan's tone in the highlighted section?
Potato flowers are pictured below. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the biggest problem with the use of genetically modified plants?
A linear machine metaphor is the opposite of the web-like way in which nature works. Pollan is trying to say that to attempt to control nature like we might control a machine or a human process is futile. Nature and evolution do not work in a linear fashion but, much like Pollan's garden, in a chaotic and compromising way.
According to classical Darwinism, what is likely to happen to bugs living around genetically modified crops? What does Monsanto offer as a solution to this problem?
Nematodes are worm-like, but they are not worms. They are microscopic creatures that feed on plants in a variety of places (the roots, leaves, stems) and can cause a lot of damage to crops.
Why, if monitor is such a dangerous chemical, do farmers continue to use it?
Which of the following best describes Mike Heath's farming philosophy?
This image illustrates the difference between healthy, dark, rich soil and dead, dry, chemical infused soil. Which would you want your food growing in? (This annotation contains an image)
Pollan's honest admittance of the role that each of us has in the problems that plague our agricultural system is seen by many as refreshing. He outlines here what would be the typical way to spin this story: evil Monsanto vs. the poor farmer and the everyday consumer. How does this characterization of the every-day consumer (you) change your understanding of the narrative at work here?
Which technique is Pollan using to exaggerate the value of the french fry?
Visit the website below to watch a video on the Black Death or Bubonic Plague that killed 25-50% of the European population in the 14th century. (This annotation contains a link)
How does Pollan relate the significance of Ireland's Great Potato Famine?
Industrialized farming techniques are becoming ever-more technology driven. How does this image of the American farm contrast with the wholesome, healthy vision of farmland that often comes to mind when we think about where our food comes from? (This annotation contains an image)
What is a scapegoat?
Notice how Pollan characterizes his garden as precisely not like the managed, controlled farms he has been describing. This type of garden is closer to the wild, balanced garden of nature.
Which of the following figures in the book does Pollan's advice on how to harvest potatoes most closely echo?
How has Pollan used this dichotomy of Apollo and Dionysus throughout the book to explore the need for balance in our understanding of the intersectionality of nature and culture?
Section Three Quiz