I’ve decided Michael Pollan is the most interesting man in America today. He’s the man who’s making us take a closer look at our place in the food chain. If you haven’t read his two most famous books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you may have seen him in the documentary Food, Inc. That’s the polemic against big agribusiness that had Sonoma near revolution this summer.
I haven’t read his earlier work, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Now I don’t have to. Because I’ve just seen the excellent documentary version of it. And I think Michael Pollan is even more thought provoking to see and hear than he is to read (and he’s a pretty good read.) In short, The Botany of Desire looks at the world from the viewpoint of plants, specifically four very successful plants: apples, tulips, Marijuana and potatoes. The conceit is to examine the symbiotic relationship between these plants and humans. But consider that relationship as you would the symbiosis between, say shark and lamprey. Each animal is an active participant in the exchange, each giving and taking to make the symbiosis mutually beneficial. So the premise is: think about what these four plants have ACTIVELY done to force us to nurture and spread them. For instance, consider the apple. It was a bitter fruit growing wild in a small area of Kazakhstan. What did the apple do, in its own evolution, to become so attractive to humans that we spread it across the globe to become, arguably, the most successful, widespread and popular fruit in the world? And how about Marijuana? It has evolved to mimic a human brain chemical that is linked with blissful, relaxing forgetting. Something so attractive to us that we’ve made it a rival for the apple as world’s most successful plant. It’s a fascinating point of view, backed up with lots of science and some spectacular cinematography. Along the way, Pollan also makes us think about how we change ecologies and the destiny of plants by our choices.
I bring this all up by way of saying I certainly know Pollan’s theories well. I’ve been workin’ for the plant since I got to Sonoma. With a few blunders along the way (we’ll gloss over that mustard we mistakenly planted in the vineyard) most of our “landscaping” has been weeding out invasive non-native plants to let our native species reestablish themselves. In fact, at this point, our plants have a whole crew working for them, including me and John the Baptist. I haven’t yet determined when their end of the symbiotic relationship kicks in. We do have Miner’s Lettuce coming up, which is edible, and millions of mushrooms, which are probably not. All I probably should ask, as in Pollan’s case of the tulip, is that they provide beauty. However, the many pest eating birds and insects they seem to be attracting are worth their weight in the Monsanto chemicals we don’t need to buy. From vineyard to vegetable garden, we haven’t had a pest to contend with and no significant loss of any part of any crop.
Well, that’s not exactly true. While my plants are working hard for the money, certain critters seem to be taking more than fair advantage of this symbiosis we’re supposed to be having here. Any bulbs or large seeds I plant are dug up and chomped down overnight. I’m blaming some ground squirrels and foxes I’ve seen lurking around the vegetable patch. I’m a little bitter about the foxes, especially since we’ve thrown more than a few culled grape clusters on the ground for them. It’s not really fair for them to go after my melons and cucumbers as dessert. If I only had evidence that the foxes were cleaning out some of the ground squirrels, I’d happily set aside melons for them. But, no, the foxes don’t seem to be holding up their end of our symbiosis.
So I’ve called in reinforcements.
They can eat their weight in garden varmints every day. Now that’s the symbiosis Michael Pollan and I are talkin’ about!
End note: Check out the website for the documentary here. Then put this one in your Netflix queue immediately.