Botany of Desire

Started another book I need to read for class on Tuesday. I sense a trend. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire is a fun read so far. It’s a survey of four domestic plants: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. It begins with a rather Foucaultian pronouncement in the introduction:

Our grammar might divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject. That’s why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.

There are four primary desires associated with these plants: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. I’ve only finished the first chapter, but I really liked the excursion into pomology. I had no idea that “as American as Apple Pie” could be so far off. Apples originated in Kazakhstan. Something tells me Americans didn’t invent pie either.

The story of the apple is one of intoxication and sweetness, and to a certain extent, of control. Cane sugar was rare in America initially, and some wouldn’t buy it because of its origins in slavery. The apple was important for its sugar, and for its beverage uses. Johnny Appleseed is painted as the American Dionysus, planting orchards and moving on when civilization approached. His heritage is filled with myth and a controversy— he had his heart broken by a ten year old. The symbol of the vegetarian frontiersman is even more curious if yout think of him as a pedophile.

Most of Johnny’s apples made their way into cider, a cider given to children— the alcohol made it a safer beverage than water at the time. But now, the apple is in trouble. The apple gene-pool is shrinking due to man’s desire to proliferate them through cuttings, culled for their sweetness. But I was most taken with the description of the guardian angel of the Appleseed legend, Bill Jones:

Jones is a tall, courtly man with pale blue eyes and fine, parchmentlike skin. He give the impression of being a tightly stretched drum, devoid of any irony and, by his own lights, somewhat out of place in time. He’s dismayed by present-day America— the popular culture, the violence, the “lack of moral compass.” Ohio’s frontier past is vividly present to him, and old-timey expressions like “Cripes!,” “Gee whillikers!,” and “Darn tootin’” come often and unself-consciously to his lips.

Note to Self: Use “Gee whillikers” and “Darn tootin’” in conversation more frequently.

I find it also quite curious that Johnny Chapman [Mr. Appleseed] is described as a nearly androgynous man, nearly female in appearance, who was also a Swedenborgian. He died a rich man, due to his talent for land speculation— he would move into an area, buy land and plant trees— and then move on when civilization caught up with him. Now that’s as American as Apple pie.

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