PBS has turned one of TGR’s favorite books into a good television documentary. The Botany of Desire is a compact, lucid eco-cultural history of four plants–the tulip, the potato, the apple, and cannabis–that have been intimate partners in human civilization for the past few thousand years. You could do the same thing with coffee or chocolate or any other plant humans take pleasure from; really, you could do it with any product that originates in nature (living or not), which is to say everything: the gas you put in your car, for example, wouldn’t exist without tiny prehistoric organisms that very, very slowly became oil. The charm of Pollan’s approach is that he balances a wonder at nature’s wild fecundity with a careful respect for human inventiveness, which is itself contained within nature (our big-ass brains are essentially a multi-million year response to environmental conditions and stimuli). And at the center of this is amazement–and a deep unease–at the increasing human ability to manipulate nature to our own ends:
“In the years since Darwin published The Origin of Species, the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred. Whereas once humankind exerted its will in the relatively small arena of artificial selection (the arena I think of, metaphorically, as a garden) and nature held sway everywhere else, today the force of our presence is felt everywhere. It has become much harder, in the past century, to tell where the garden leaves off and pure nature begins. . . . Partly by default, partly by design, all of nature is now in the process of being domesticated–of coming, or finding itself, under the (somewhat leaky) roof of civilization.”
(Botany of Desire, xxii-xxiii)
This has been dealt with more abstrusely by Heidegger, in “The Question Concerning Technology.” (Make sure to read the footnotes.)
Anyway, I watched the PBS version tonight, and it captures the original text quite well, mainly because the show is organized around narrative interviews with Pollan himself. It is also shot magnificently: lots of close-ups of tulip stipplings and the droplets of resin-goo on marijuana buds. Hurray for weed!
They will almost certainly replay the documentary soon. Check the site for listings. And if you want to read one of the many modern nature poets who are onto the same thing Pollan is, may I suggest the master himself? Go near the back and dig on “The Bouquet,” then flip a few pages more and try out “The Planet on the Table.” You will soon be fiending. Those of you who enjoy the non-fiction side of things, get a copy of Uncommon Ground, the best available collection of recent environmental history writing. All of the essays in there are well-written and clearly argued; delightful for the academic or the layperson, its theme is the state(s) of nature in modernity. Plastic flowers in Disneyland, to pink flamingoes, to the fight to preserve the last American wilderness areas, y’all.