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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan
Bloomsbury, 2003.

Michael Pollan is a writer for the New York Times Magazine as well as an author on nature and humanity. This book is the story of four plants: the apple, the tulip, cannabis, and the potato. 

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Michael Pollan is a United States writer on nature and the human relationship to nature, construction, and the place we carve out for ourselves in the world. The inspiration and original research for the book comes from his writing in the New York Times Magazine, where he explored marijuana growing and genetically modified potatoes for the newspaper’s audiences.

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan describes through the story of four plant species the human relationship with nature from a very different perspective to that which many of us currently assume. Often we think of ourselves as domesticating nature, of bringing the wilderness under our control and mastery. Pollan turns this on its head, suggesting that in many cases nature is also shaping us and our desires, as well as using human beings as a way to ensure continued life on Earth.

The book begins with the story of the apple. The humble apple likely began as a fruit species many centuries ago in a mountainous region in China, subject to a changing landscape and varied climatic conditions. Humans and other animals like bears then spread the seeds of the apple as they migrated, moving the species into new climates and new soils, which thereby created new varieties of apple. The best were chosen and saved, grafted to other trees so that their specific DNA would continue to produce the ideal fruit. The character of Johnny Appleseed ties Pollan’s narrative together with interesting stories of how we ended up with the species we now cultivate for consumption.

The second part is dedicated to the tulip, the third to the cannabis plant, and the final chapter to the potato. Perhaps most intriguing and alarming for any reader concerned about the ecological crisis is the chapter on the potato – and the extents to which companies are now modifying potato plant genes to create varieties that resist pests, and mean human beings are ingesting new compounds not previously part of our food system.

The book is an easy read, due to its narrative structure, and often discusses Pollan’s own thoughts and opinions throughout his journey in discovering the relationship between human beings and these four plants. Although at times we might not agree with his reactions or sentiments, Pollan seems to try to present both sides to the story, his investigative journalism background perhaps benefitting the nature of the research in the story.

Thoroughly recommended to anyone who wants to reconsider their place in nature, or who is looking for a book that will change the way we look at our natural world. Learning the history of our domestication of nature, or the history of nature’s domestication of us, allows us to better understand the workings of the natural world, and see more clearly just what our place might be here on Earth.

The Botany of Desire is available at Paper Plus NZ here, or check out your local bookshop to see if they have it in stock or can order it for you. 

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