Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals. New York : Penguin Press, 2006. 186-273
Grass gets a bad wrap, we step on it, ignore it and under appreciate it; but what better than the grounding feeling of walking barefoot through the grass in the summer. This wasn’t my favorite passage we have read this semester, but I still learned a lot and enjoyed reading some parts. Pollan is great at doing hands on research, as we learn about all aspects of a diversified farm from ‘grass farmer’ Joel Salatin. Pollan takes on a position as a worker on Salatin’s farm, each chapter corresponds to a different day and different tasks in his week at the farm.
I never realized how important grass is to the function of an entire farm, “But getting it just right-grazing the optimal number of cattle at the optimal moment to exploit the blaze of growth- yields tremendous amounts of grass, all the while improving the quality of the land.” (Pg 191) This way of looking at animal farming is so much more sustainable and humane than over grazing land and leaving it barren, or as Pollan compares it to the factory farm he visited in Iowa. To be honest, I skimmed through the pages when he talks about factory farms and the slaughtering, my spirit couldn’t handle the despair. But as hard as it is to learn about this treatment of animals, it is important to not be ignorant about the facts.
Pollan explores the inter-relatedness of all the components of Salatin’s farm, like how the chickens eat grubs from the cows manure. Salatin says “I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.” (Pg 212) Everything is perfectly timed to utilize nature in the raising of animals for food. Even the forests surrounding the woods provide for the farm by holding moisture, preventing erosion and cooling the air. “We’re growing carbon in the woods for the rest of the farm- not just the firewood to keep us warm in the winter, but also the wood chips that go into making our compost.” (Pg 224) If only all farm’s were like this one, is sustainability and humane treatment too much to ask?
I agree with Pollan when he says, “It seemed to me not too much o ask of a meat eater, which i was then and still am, that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat eating depends.”(Pg 231) I think a lot of people who eat meat turn a blind eye to the uglier side of meat production, I don’t think people think about the animal that gave its life to sustain another. Maybe if people were involved in the uglier sides, they would give thought to the animal and hopefully thank it for its sacrifice. Pollan goes into vigorous detail at times that lost me a bit, like when he’s talking about the economics behind meat production. But it made me happy when he talks about how Salatin’s meat and eggs only make it to local consumers, this is the way things should be in my opinion, and in this case people were willing to come from all over for better quality food.
Something Pollan writes that really stuck to me, “But for local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons.” (Pg 253) I’m guilty of buying off season or exotic produce, that is definitely not local. But if I am going to support local food chains, I have to practice what I preach. This summer I plan on trying my hand at drying fruit, making preserves and pickling as many local fruits and veggies that I can. Pollan ends this section with another meal almost from all locally sourced food, chicken, corn and a souffle. Overall this section was difficult for me to read at times although I am glad I learned more on these subjects.
Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world. New York : Random House, c2001. Pg 131-196 (e-book)
I loved this chapter on cannabis by Pollan, again he seeks knowledge from professionals; growers in Amsterdam, researchers and experts on marijuana. He starts off this chapter, “Bust most remarkable of all, there are plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.” (Pg 134) What a beautiful way of saying some plants get you stoned. He goes on to talk about how we possibly learned of the psychoactive properties of plants by watching animals, as he witnessed his cat Frank frequenting the garden for a “happy hour nip” of catnip.
I agree with Pollan when he talks about gardeners; “Deep down I suspect that many gardeners regard themselves as small-time alchemists, transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substances of rare value and beauty and power.” (Pg 141) I relate to this since I often will take sprouted onions or potatoes and think ‘I could grow this’ and proceed to add to the collection of pots around my tiny apartment. I laughed when Pollan talked about his DIY cannabis growing fiasco, what a great story to be able to tell.
Pollen discusses how marijuana has been perfected over the years, “To succeed in North America, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment.” (Pg 149) Cannabis has definitely succeeded in both of these, increased THC content and it’s wondrous effects on our consciousness, and hybrids making them able to grow in almost any climate; have led them to be rich from a plant’s view. I like how Pollan also talks about other drugs and entheogens such as peyote and opium, and the importance of these (especially opium) for famous poets, writers and philanthropists. Pollan also discusses some of the science behind THC, the human cannabinoid (anandamide), and the possible reasons cannabis plants produce THC.
When exploring the short term memory loss that comes with cannabis use, “For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.” (Pg 181) I thought this was a lovely way of describing the beauty of forgetting everything but the present moment and truly appreciating it; this is why, in my opinion, cannabis is excellent for stress and PTSD relief. However there are still existing taboos surrounding cannabis that originated from the Christian church fearful of “pagans, Africans and hippies” and their use of cannabis. Luckily things are changing, “What a re-enchantment of the world that would be, to look around and see that the plants and the trees of knowledge grow in the garden still.” (Pg 196) I love how he ended off the chapter with this statement, and maybe with changes occurring in Canada this will be a reality.
Hanson, Thor. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. (2015) ISBN 9780465055999 pg xii-18, 161-177
As I read this deadly chapter by Thor Hansen on a dreary Vancouver-like morning, eating my smoothie riddled with berry seeds; I am amazed such tiny ‘seemingly’ harmless part of a plant could be a cold stone assassin.
I love the way Hansen starts off the chapter with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’, it is almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later.”(Pg 161) He relates to this quote later on when he talks about the philosopher Nietzsche, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” (Pg 168) Some of the most poisonous seeds in small doses can be used for the treatment of diseases such as cancer, “The challenge, of course is twofold: finding the right dosage, and making sure the poisons don’t diffuse to other parts of the body.”(Pg 169) It’s pretty incredible that something so harmful can also be medicine.
I loved this reading from Hansen as he provides me with another conversation starter: the great umbrella assassination of the Cold War. He describes the mystery of what exactly killed Georgi Markov, who was poked with an umbrella on the fateful day of his death, “Only one group of poisons could have caused Markov’s deadly combination of symptoms so quickly: the poisons found in seeds.”(Pg 165) I thought this was a powerful sentence, the only poison strong enough to kill someone so quickly in such a small dose is not synthetic but from nature! It was discovered to be one of the most deadly seeds, the castor bean which is often used in the oil industry, it contains ricin, “Dispersed through the bloodstream, ricin sets off a wave of cell death so unstoppable that even scientific journals describe it with something like awe: ‘one of the most lethal substances known,’ ‘one of the most fascinating poisons,’ or simply ‘exquisitely toxic.'” (Pg 166) I have never even heard of this compound before, and as Hansen describes how easily it is obtained, it is a little unsettling. “People still grow them, [castor plants] for their oil and as an ornamental, and the plant has become a common roadside weed throughout the tropics.” (Pg 168) It’s even more disturbing how easy it is to extract the deadly ricin, with just an everyday coffee grinder.
Hansen guides us through his task of learning more about these dangerous seeds, talking to experts such as Dave Newman, Derek Bewley and Noelle Machnicki. We learn more about Hansen’s personal life when his close friend and coauthor dies from cancer, “In the end, no prescription was enough-Steve died a few short weeks before I defended my dissertation.” (Pg 172) He describes the irony of seed toxins being used for cancer treatment in the form of Warfarin.
Finally, Hansen discusses the question of how plants get their seeds dispersed if they are toxic to any seed dispersing animals, “After all, what better way to protect your seeds than to kill anything that tries to eat them?” (Pg 173) It’s great that the seeds are protected but how do they get dispersed? “…no matter how toxic they may have become, the plant must have also invented some way to disperse them.” (Pg 174) So most of these toxic seed bearing plants have special mechanisms to disperse them, such as the castor bean pods that pop open and seeds are flung into new spaces. Overall, I learned a lot from this chapter and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the great mysteries of toxic seeds.