Valdosta Daily Times

February 19, 2014

Literary Guild learns ‘The Botany of Desire’


The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — The Rev. Chris Michael and his wife, Laura, were guests of the Valdosta Literary Guild at the February meeting.

Michael has been the pastor of Valdosta First Christian Church for the past seven years, and is a frequent reviewer for the Literary Guild. He quipped upon being introduced, “I have 472 other books, and I will be glad to review any one of them at any time.”  

The book chosen for February was “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World” by Michael Pollan. Divided into four sections, the premise of the book comes from an idea that came to Pollan one day as he watched honeybees busily visiting flowers as he worked in his garden. Do plants use humans as much as we use them? Every schoolchild learns about the mutually beneficial dance of the honeybee and flowers. The bee gathers nectar from the blossom to make honey, and in turn distributes the flower’s pollen so that growth with reproduction may occur.

In making his point that plants influence humans toward behavior that is beneficial to the plants, Pollan examines the relationships between humans and four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes.

The human desire for sweetness has led to the production of sweet apples. The story of Johnny Chapman (Appleseed) reveals a shrewd propagator of apples on America’s early frontier. Everywhere Chapman visited, he planted apples, then bought up adjoining land so that later settlers would have an edge on the requirement that every homeowner plant fruit trees in order to take title to the land. Apples were used to make cider, which was the preferred beverage of the American frontier. The apple had demanded and obtained an extended range.

Another desire, seemingly hard-wired in humans, is a yearning for beauty. Seventeenth century Holland provides the backdrop for an examination of the role played by the tulip in influencing human behavior. Wildly fluctuating prices were paid for single tulip bulbs of lovely blooms on the Dutch stock market. People lost fortunes and lives over beauty. Ironically, some of the more striking colors of the tulips had been caused by a fungus.

Yet another human weakness is to desire to alter the perception of reality. The use of a common weed, cannabis, had been found to distort reality and cause aberrant behavior. Earlier in the 20th century, the federal government waged war against the growing of marijuana. Driven indoors so their crops could not be discovered, growers began to experiment with varying the fertilizer, water and heat provided the plants for indoor culture, and came up with a much stronger plant. The marijuana being sold today has a much higher drug content, from 2 to 20 percent more potent and dangerous.  

A final example of human demand for a plant leading to over cultivation to its detriment is the potato which the Irish people came to depend upon so heavily, to the exclusion of other crops. When the potato developed a fungus which wiped out entire crops, whole areas suffered disastrous famines. Today, the potato has been genetically modified to yield the long, narrow strips of potato that fit well into fast-food fries containers.

Michael closed with a caveat: the more humans desire something, the more the plant is pressured to give humans what they want. Careful study needs to be made of the variations demanded of plants.

Susan Braun presided at the luncheon meeting held at Rainwater Conference Center. Chairman of the hostess committee Carleen Abend gave a short devotional based on strengthening others by encouragement, and introduced the speaker. Other members of the hostess committee were Lynn Cater, Sandra Dickson, and Glenda Whitman. The next meeting of the Guild will be held on March 15.