“We’re in the web of nature, not standing outside it. These plants are mirrors, in which we can see ourselves in a slightly different way. As much as this is a story about plants, it’s a story about human desire.”
~ Michael Pollan, author of “The Botany of Desire“
The PBS documentary “The Botany of Desire” is based on a non-fiction book of the same name by author Michael Pollan, exploring the effect human desire has had on certain plants and their development. The interesting twist Pollan suggests is the “plants-eye” view of the relationships between human domestication and furthering of the plants’ survival themselves. Pollan draws a similarity between humans and bees – just as bees spread pollen and facilitate the fertilization of the flowers, we choose plants we like and further their reach by growing them all over the world. Pollan states that each plant has been furthered in its development by humans because of their individual characteristics that meet certain desires of humans.
Here’s the trailer:
Apples satisfy our desire for sweetness. In nature, sweetness is very rare. Our ancestors recognized sweetness as calories needed for survival, but also that sweetness was very special – and at the dawn of agriculture they wanted to cultivate apples for their relatively large, portable, and of course, sweet characteristics. Apples originated in Kazakhstan, but their “ticket” out of the remote forests of Asia was their sweetness.
Tulips gratify our desire for beauty. The first wild tulips also grew in the mountains of central asia. They were discovered and brought around the world. Even though flowers have no value except for their beauty, they are bought and sold everywhere. The most notable example of this is the Tulip mania that ran rampant in Holland in the 1630’s. At one time the monies involved in the tulip trade were equivalent to six times more than the nation’s currency in circulation, and one very rare bulb could sell for more than ten years’ worth of a skilled craftsman’s wages.
Cannabis meets our desire for intoxication. For thousands of years, this [literal] weed was used as a painkiller. Later, it was used frequently in artistic circles – even famous Louis Armstrong felt it helped him to be more creative in his music. In the 60’s, use of it exploded, with much of the plants coming from Mexico, and Americans feared it was endangering the very fabric of society. The US convinced the Mexican government to spray their marijuana fields with pesticide, but what that in turn created was an American cannabis crop. When crops were discovered and raided in the western coastal states, the amount seized was roughly the same as previously thought existed in the United States in total. After these raids, the cannabis growers moved indoors, and in turn cannabis plants were reengineered to be shorter, shrubbier, and eventually US marijuana plants became a kind of super plant.
Potatoes have fed our desire for power – to nourish ourselves without hunting or gathering, to be able to bring that food source wherever we want to go and survive by planting more. Potatoes originated in Peru – the Incas had very sophisticated agriculture and grew many kinds of potatoes in their mountainous environment due to various growing conditions. Later, the potato found its way to Ireland where it helped its population reach the northernmost lands – a cold, damp region where other crops did not grow well. Unfortunately, due to monoculturing, or growing of only one or very few species of a crop, the Irish potato famine devastated an enormous amount of the population, one third of which depended entirely on potatoes for sustenance, when potato blight destroyed crops throughout Europe.
This was a beautiful and educational documentary, and it provides a fantastically different view of man’s relationship to nature, and how very symbiotic it really is. The film also shares a warning of sorts, that for all our intelligence and advancements, that humans cannot rule over everything absolutely – nature is a powerful force.