Who is in Control?

Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world. New York : Random House, c2001. xiii-xxv

Diamond, J. M. (2003). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton, c1999.Chapter 7

The first passage I read was the introduction ‘The Human Bumblebee’ from The Botany of Desire, Pollan uses poetic language that captivates his readers. On the first page he asks a question that takes the whole book to answer, “What existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s?” (xiii) It took me a moment to think about this before continuing to read, I realized humans have had a huge role in determining what plants grow where through agriculture and our daily activities. Then when I continued to read, “The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.”(xiv) I thought this was a funny way of putting this fact, and made me think maybe the flower has done the same to us, just as he says, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes or did the potato make me do it?.” (xv)

Pollans book discusses four plants that relate to human desires, apples, tulips, potatoes and cannabis, related to sweetness, beauty, control and intoxication. (xviii) I like how he calls plants “nature’s alchemists” (xix), as we were evolving as humans, plants were evolving complex chemical reactions to convert light into food. I really like how Pollan talks from the plants perspective, “A group of angiosperms refined their basic put-the-animals to-work strategy to take advantage of one particular animal that had evolved not only to move freely around the earth, but to think and trade complicated thoughts.”(xx) I love this quote because it puts into perspective how smart it was for plants to evolve to please us because of how much we do for them in return.

I also loved Pollan’s interpretation of evolution, “Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.”(xi) All of these random mutations that have occurred throughout history, has brought us to a place where plants and people are so compatible it seems as though it was on purpose. Something Pollan discusses that really spoke to me is our disconnect to nature; we think it is something so separate from us when we just neglect to notice it. “It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and pure nature begins.”(xxii) We assume there will always be food available or plant-based materials, when really we have interfered so much with nature that even the weather has been modified. I look forward to reading the rest of this book to become more aware of the relationship we have with plants and the relationship they have with us.

Close to the end of the Pollan’s introduction he starts capitalizing Man and Nature, “These are the stories, the, about Man and Nature.” I think he does this to symbolize how both man and nature play ‘God’, we have created our own destinies by interfering with each other.

In Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel  I read chapter 7 ‘How to make an almond’. In this chapter he discusses the domestication of plants, and the ways in which this was either easy or difficult for ancient farmers. Diamond says there are certain traits that people prefer, therefore they became criteria for farmers, such as bitterness (undesirable), size (highest reward for the least energetic expenditure), fleshy or seedy fruit, oily seeds and longer fibres. Only those plants that fit these criteria would move onto the next generation, creating sweeter or larger/ more desirable offspring over the generations. The selection for these more desirable plants would have been done unconsciously, “The cycle of sow/grow/harvest/sow would have selected immediately and unconsciously  for the mutants.” (121) The mutants being ones that lack thick seed coats or other inhibitors of germination. He also discusses how we have taken evolution of plants to the opposite of its original function by creating seedless fruits.

I like how Diamond says, “Lettuce was selected for luxuriant leaves at the expense of seeds or fruit; wheat and sunflowers, for seeds at the expense of lease; and squash for fruit at the expense of leaves.” I like this quote because it shows the trade-offs, these plants have underdeveloped parts because we have artificially selected them to have over-developed the parts we desire. I like how Diamond relates back to ancient farmers, where agriculture and artificial selection originates. He talks about the stages these ancient farmers went through to develop the “ancient staples” (128) that are still staples today.

Pollan and Diamond discuss similar topics, such as how the immobility of plants has led them to evolve different tactics of dispersal, protection and sex. Pollan on page xx says “The same great existential fact of plant life explains why plants make chemicals to both repel and attract other species: immobility.” and Diamond on page 115 says “Young animals disperse by walking or flying, but plants don’t have that option so they must somehow hitchhike.” Although they touch on similar topics, they both have a different way of approaching these subjects. I think The Botany of Desire was easier and more enjoyable to read because Pollan has a more poetic and humorous way of delivering information from the plants perspective aswell as ours. Whereas Diamond has a more factual way of writing, discussing historical aspects and from more of a human perspective. Overall I did enjoy the content and writing style of The Botany of Desire more than Guns, Germs and Steel.


The Important Life of Seeds

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, 55-80

This book is unlike any other book I have read, it follows the journey of writer Thor Hansen, as he explains and collects information on the life and importance of seeds. His own personal journey in seeking knowledge is evident when he writes “And later I realized that Christopher Columbus and I did have one thing very much in common: we’d both come looking for seeds” on page 72. This journey is intertwined with his knowledge, being a scientist himself, and other primary sources, and the rich history we share with seed plants. The introduction starts with him trying to open an ‘indestructible’ almedro seed, then later explains how the seed has adapted to its environment in order to survive and disperse. But this indestructible seed can be easily split by the pressure of a growing sprout, this shows the power of plants that we don’t necessarily appreciate.

I really enjoyed reading these passages from this novel, Hansen’s writing made it easy to read, there weren’t many large biological terms that readers wouldn’t understand without having a PhD in botany. He incorporates many aspects, talking to colleagues about their research and knowledge, history of seeds with certain regions, and his own personal experiences. From his writing I think I can conclude that he is a patient, adventurous and maybe religious person. He starts each chapter with either a passage from the bible, part of a song or poem or other quotes. The adventurous part can be attributed to his studies conducted in Costa Rica and Nicaragua where the snake encounters are common, and patient for the ‘monotonous’ tasks that come with being a scientist.

There was some really interesting history that Hansen discusses that I never would have realized; seeds have had a huge impact on human history. He says on page 17 that the spread of the black death can  be traced back to the adaptation of flea larvae (fleas on rats carried the disease) to eat grain. This caused the black death to be able to spread much further and faster than rats because of the grain trade. He also touches on how the French and Russian revolutions were sparked by wheat and bread shortages. Who knew seeds were so devious!

My favourite topics Hansen discusses are seed storage and seed defense. Seed storage, discussed on page 58, is a vital part of keeping diversity and preventing issues. He says that if there is trouble with a certain strain of plant, scientists can scan similar species in seed storage to find seeds that will resist the issue and it is resolved. However, I really like the quote from page 59, “As impressive and necessary as seed backs have become, they are in many ways an elaborate fix to a problem of our own making”. I totally agree with this statement, there are many instances that we have to come up with solutions to problems that humans have created, such as climate change. I love the quote on seed defense, “Once mothers began packing lunches for their babies, everything from dinosaurs to fungi wanted a taste, and the evolution of seed defenses became inevitable”. It makes sense that such a nutritious little package would be so desirable to every living species, an easy source of high proteins for ‘little’ effort, that became more effort as plants coevolved to protect their babies.

Throughout this reading I found myself wanting to write down facts I encountered that I could share later over a beer, such as the rodent that shorted out a switch board at the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2013, that nearly caused another disaster. This could only occur because of the coevolution between harder seeds and rodents with bigger and stronger teeth.

Overall, I really liked reading this book, I think Hansen is a great writer that made an informative book less like a textbook and more like a story.


Eating Local

Smith, A. D., & MacKinnon, J. B. (2007). The 100 mile diet : a year of local eating. Toronto : Random House Canada, c2007.

The memoir of a couple determined to obtain all of their food from within a 100 mile radius for a year, The 100-Mile Diet, is written in alternating views of James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith. They are both journalists with a very descriptive style of writing that made me feel as if I could see and taste all that they were. Their idea to do this challenge came from a night spent at their cabin, where there was no food left to make dinner. Them and their guests foraged for their dinner and it turned out better than they had all expected. The memoir outlines the struggles they face in staying within a 100 mile radius from Vancouver, as well as the interesting characters they meet along the way in search of fresh, local food.

Although I have only read up to October, about halfway through their journey, there are many aspects of the novel that I love. The creative meals that James creates sound great, using ingredients I have never heard of before in a trial and error cooking method that I often use myself. My favourite recipe from the book thus far is the squash flower soup on page 86, I never realized that flowers can be used as a basis for a meal. The meals they create are described throughout the novel and there are recipes with directions at the beginning of each chapter that I am tempted to try.

There isn’t much that I dislike about this novel so far, but I did get a little lost in the history portions such as on page 91. However I do see the importance of knowing the history of the land, I think I was just more interested  in their current story and struggles.

I really enjoyed reading about the people they meet along their food searching journeys. The meeting of characters such as Ray the hermit living in the wilderness most of his life and the stories he told on page 116, and their honey suppliers ‘The Cameron’s’ on page 60, brought warmth and friendship to obtaining food. Very different from the cold, fluorescent mega-stores where so many of us obtain what we eat.

It gives a more personal connection to the food we are eating if we meet and get to know the people who are actually growing our food. Alisa talks about the disconnect we have with what we eat on page 132 “…the gap we have constructed between our food and ourselves.” I completely agree with this, I did not realize how mindlessly I walk through the grocery store picking out what I need; not necessarily thinking about where it was made, who made it, and what it took to get here. After reading the first half of this book I went to Old Town Farmers Market and only got vegetables that were grown in BC, even though I had never cooked with some of it before.

I think the awareness this book is creating is amazing, I believe the first step in changing the way things are; is to be aware of the problems. I agree with what Alisa and James are trying to achieve and I am happy they wrote this book in the process, I know I will definitely be more aware of what I purchase and the consequences some purchases have.