If the title makes you think of some cheap, Lady Chatterley’s Lover knock off, get your head out of the shrubbery! We’re back in the realm of non-fiction. However, The Botany of Desire is a book about relationships – humanity’s coevolutionary relationships with four different plants: the apple, the tulip, cannabis and the potato.
Rather than taking the well-trod approach that we have guided the evolution of these plants to suit our needs, Pollan instead explores the idea that perhaps these four ‘domesticated’ plants have identified and played on our desires (sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, respectively) to help further their lines, much in the way they seduce the humble bee into carrying their pollen.
From Johnny Appleseed taming the wild west with cider apples, the American drug war and the ‘clean’ potato fields of 21st century Idaho to the harrowing stories of how the humble spud and a diseased tulip brought nations to the point of ruin, Pollan likens our relationship with these key plants to a battle between Apollo and Dionysus – the tame and wild – and demonstrates why the latter must never be fully stomped out.
In this day and age, when you can walk into a supermarket and see hundreds of kilos of fruit and veg neatly stacked and packed or else processed into unrecognisable forms, it’s a bit of a jolt to be reminded that, in fact, we do not have complete control over the plants that grew them and that even the most highly engineered crops are exerting an influence on future farming, which is not necessarily in the industry’s favour. Our efforts to control one plant can upset nature’s delicate balance and backfire on us completely. I’m not just referring to the big corporations, either. While the book spans centuries of history, it starts and begins in Pollan’s own backyard and he speaks to his reader as a fellow gardener. This book is very much about common plants we take for granted and the miracle that it is they out of the myriad contenders that we have come to desire.
Meanwhile, in real life
I gardened. While I’d been inside writing about bacchanals in my thesis, Dionysus was literally having a ball in the backyard. When I finally emerged, pale and squinting at the shock of natural light, I found my neat rows of flowers and veggies tangled in browning snarls that towered above the knee-high grass.
Over three weekends I uprooted, mowed, clipped, planted, repotted watered and mulched the wilderness into something more manageable: an autumn garden. The tomatoes are gone and I’m experimenting with growing garlic for the first time. A collection of plants I’m ‘garden sitting’ for a friend are no longer in the disordered clump on my front verandah where I unloaded them from her car and left for two months. The front yard has stopped serving as an invitation to squatters. I’ve even cleared some space out back for two chairs and a makeshift milk crate table. It’s the high life, I tell you.
The inside of the house is finally coming together, too. We’ve been here since July and it’s always felt as though we never properly unpacked, but in the last few weeks we’ve swapped the bar fridge for a full sized fridge, bought a new washing machine, china cabinet and, most exciting of all, a matching sheet, pillow and quilt set. Huzzah!
None of this sounds like a massive deal, but it has big implications. And here it gets mooshy. The Bear and I are making a nest for our little family of two, one white good at a time. And while all these things are just objects, they symbolise a deepening commitment and future planning. So for the past few weeks I’ve been very happy spending some quality time at home.