Saturday, April 11, 2009

Guest Book Review

My son wrote this book review for his Science class. I too found this non-fiction book fascinating -- so with Wolf's permission, here's his essay:

The book The Botany of Desire is separated into four parts: Apple, Tulip, Marijuana, and Potato. Each portion was dedicated to the history of the plant and a philosophical exploration of its relationship with humans. The author Michael Pollan made many references to Apollo: the god of healing and medicine, and Dionysus: the Greek god of wine and the inducer of such emotions as ecstasy.

Michael Pollan began his book with a narrative about John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) riding down the river on a canoe with a sack of black apple seeds at his side. His plan was to plant a tree nursery by each settlement that he passed. The fruit from those trees were not grown for eating; rather, they were destined for the production of hard apple cider. These small, bitter apples were known as “spitters”. The selective breeding of sweet apples did not start until much later. These farmers used a special technique known as grafting. The farmer would cut a twig from a desired tree and remove a small, wedged-shaped chunk of wood from another tree. Then he/she would place the twig into the other and bind it with twine. With the new branch attached, the tree would flourish and produce the desired apples.

The second section of The Botany of Desire was about the beautiful, vibrant tulip. The tulip was first cultivated in Persia. During the Middle Ages the Dutch incorporated the tulip into their culture. They grew a wide variety of tall, short, pink, maroon, and black. The most prized tulips in those times though, were striped. A virus known as Myzus persicae caused the rare pattern on striped tulips. The tulip actually consists of two colors: a base color and an added color (known as the Anthocyanin). Myzus persicae prevented the Anthocyanin from blending with the base color, resulting in the majestic striped tulip.

At the height of the tulip craze, some tulips (such as the “Semper Augustus” or the “Queen of Night”) cost as much as 1,800 guilders. In 1637, the “speculative bubble” burst: the tulip became worthless. The bottom fell out of the tulip market, and the once great flower that captivated the Dutch diminished to become the plain, ordinary flower that we call the tulip today.

The next chapter of The Botany of Desire was about Cannabis (Marijuana). The effect on humans of consuming this plant is a form of intoxication. THC is the active compound that causes this. THC specifically affects the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The purpose of cannabinoids is not well understood, but it is theorized that cannabinoids filter the human perception of reality. Everything you sense every second of every day is not necessarily consciously processed. All that you are sensing is what you wish to sense, or require to sense in order to survive. The THC in cannabis is thought to imitate the cannabinoids in the human brain. This may actually be an evolutionary advantage. Cannabinoids may block out severe pain, unneeded memories, or useless sensory information.

From an ecological standpoint, why would a plant produce such a chemical? It is possible that, in the beginning, this chemical was used to ward off consumers such as insects or large animals. It is also possible that these plants have developed this chemical in order to attract growers. It has long been known that humans have had a desire to alter their perceptions of reality (such as young children spinning around in circles, alcoholic beverages, or illegally drugs.) And because of our craving for this, plants such as Marijuana may consider it in their interest to exchange the psychological effects of THC for the care and nurturing of humans.

The final chapter of The Botany of Desire was about the potato. This section of the book began with Michael Pollan contemplating the merits of his newly purchased genetically modified “NewLeaf”. This potato variety contains a gene borrowed from Bacillus thuringiensis (or “Bt” for short), which protects the plant from insects without the help of pesticides. The Bt gene is inserted into the potato either by injecting the plant with Agrobacterium, or literally shooting it with a small caliber rifle (the stainless steel bullets are dipped in a DNA solution). When Michael Pollan bought the NewLeaf potatoes he was specifically told not to plant new potatoes from the resulting crops; they were the intellectual property of Monsanto.

When Europeans discovered America, the potato was not valued. In fact, bringing the potato back to Europe may have even been a mistake. Either way, the potato arrived in Ireland and the rest of Europe in the 1500’s. Most Europeans did not like the potato even though the climate and soil proved able to sustain the plants quite well. The potato was frowned upon because it was foreign. It was thought that potatoes caused leprosy and immortality. But, because the subsistence farmers in Ireland could not grow many crops, they embraced the potato soon after its introduction. The poor Irish farmer discovered that with just a few acres of potato crops grown, they could feed a family. The population of these poor Irish increased until 1845, when the famous potato blight (Phytophthora Infestans) hit Ireland. The windborne fungus spores demolished the crops in only a few days. Even the potatoes in storage rotted. There was so little variety of potatoes, and no other crops to fall back on, that the disease was able to wipe out all the potato fields. The economic status of Ireland was so poor that the population was cut in half within a decade.

I liked most every aspect of The Botany of Desire. There were a few portions that were filled with tough vocabulary and complex philosophical ideas. I enjoyed the fresh new ideas that Michael Pollan presented and the way he presented them. The thought that flowers could have so much power over man or the immense consequences of potato monoculture are purely fascinating. This book was great to read because it answered many very deep questions and unveiled even more.

So is the long thought theory that we—humankind—are in control of nature? Are we truly in control of our apple trees, tulip gardens, Marijuana plants, or Potato crops? It would seem that since the discovery of farming we have never been in true control of plants. Rather, that they have been in control of us…


Kitchen Sister said...

Nice work bro! Maybe I should read the book. Did people think that potatoes caused immortality or immorality? I thought conquistadors searched far and wide for the spring that promised immortality...

Naturelady said...

Immorality is what Europeans were afraid of -- funny typo!

honeypiehorse said...

Wowee zowee. How old is Wolfi? A+!

Naturelady said...

Wolf's a freshman, 1 month shy of 15.

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