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Book Review: The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of theWorld by Michael Pollan

  • Subject: [cg] Book Review: The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of theWorld by Michael Pollan
  • From: Alliums <garlicgrower@snip.net>
  • Date: Tue, 03 Jul 2001 20:44:51 -0400

Hi, Folks!

Latest book review -- had to turn it around quickly for deadlines.  As
always, I retain copywrite -- if you want to recopy, send me a copy of
whatever it appears in!

Someday my fortune will equal my fame for these things! ;-D

Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden

A mission of 
St. John's United Church of Christ, 315 Gay Street, Phoenixville, PA  19460


The Botany of Desire:  A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan,
Random House, 2001.  ISBN:  0-375-50129-0, $24.95.

"I know this is a terrible time of year," the voice on the telephone says.
"But could you interrupt the garlic harvest to review a book for us?"

June's steady heat and humidity matured the garlic 10 days early.  The first
three of the 20 garlic varieties I'm trialing for USDA performed so poorly
that I'll never grow them again.  I'm not in a good mood.

"It's 'The Botany of Desire' by Michael Pollan," the voice continues
brightly.  "You know, the book where Pollan explains the history of apples,
tulips, cannabis and potatoes and how breeding plants like these affected us
as much as we affected them.  You're in Seed Savers Exchange - you'll love
this book!  Really!  Can't you just reshuffle your schedule?"

If there's anything an heirloom grower loves more than harvesting a crop,
it's reading about how others have journeyed together with their crops. 

"Send the book," I said.

So, I got up at 5 am, harvested the day's garlic, then sat out the heat of
the day, listening to Pollan spin his tales through historical time,
geological place and the experiences of generations of growers and could not
begrudge him one minute taken from the care of my signature crop.  For, as
Pollan writes, "the real reason I chose these plants [apple, tulip,
cannabis, potato] and not another four. . . :they have great stories to tell."

Pollan weaves botany, mythology, social history, and psychology just as
seamlessly and confidently as those college professors always told our
parents we'd become if we chose a liberal arts, rather than a technical,
education.  The prose glides into effortless poetry, concepts flowing as
bright and clear as running water.  This is a book to be savored by anyone
who loves plants and is committed to biodiversity.

Pollan's research is impressive with a helpful index and extensive Source
list for each chapter.  Surprisingly, Pollan makes no mention of either Seed
Savers Exchange  (SSE) <http://www.seedsavers.org/> or, in the Apple
chapter, of the North American Fruit Explorers  (NAFEX)
<http://www.nafex.org/> (whose Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter, the Back
Yard Fruit Growers, hosts one of the most useful sites
<http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~dailey/byfg.html> on fruit production on the
Web.).  This omission implies that biodiversity in "domesticated" crops is
more striated in North America than it really is. While Pollan decries the
difficulty in obtaining non-commercial varieties and rightly implies that
the USDA Plant Genetic Resources Unit should be better funded, he never
mentioned a variety I couldn't find within minutes from either SSE or NAFEX.
Referencing these organizations would help readers inspired to increase the
biodiversity of their own plantings find both the seeds and the mentors
needed to make the transition successfully.

However, simply add SSE and NAFEX to your bookmark file, then take the time
to seek out Pollan's book, whether you're a grower who won't have time to
read it until winter or a plant-lover who wants a interesting read during a
summer vacation.  You'll enjoy it no matter what season you finally have
time to open its covers.

Now, if you all will excuse me, I'm going to finish harvesting the garlic.
GERMAN EXTRA HARDY still outperforms everything else in Southeastern
Pennsylvania.

Reviewed by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
Phoenixville, PA


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