The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Gardening has become my new favorite hobby. I’ve had a lot of resistance to gardening, but on an acre and a half in the country, especially with the added threat of wildfires nearly year round, I’ve had to pay more attention to my landsaping than ever and have finally, after a ton of work, relaxed into it and started to enjoy it. As Pollan discusses in Second Nature, his first of many excellent books relating to plants, a dislike of gardening is usually rooted in childhood experiences.

Many were the afternoons in the 1970s when as a pre-teen child I was given a cheap, serrated steak knife and pushed into the back yard to weed the crab crass from the “flower beds.” My Mom taught me to love reading and nature but was very negligent in teaching me about skin care, so I was sent out, gloveless and sans sunscreen. I resentfully dug and pulled at the long running strands of relentless crabgrass. Since the “flower beds” were also where we haphazardly buried the dog poop, I dug into many smelly, disgusting areas that put me off doing any kind of yard work for years.

Another yard work horror story: my parents owned only a dull-bladed push mower to handle the crabgrass swaths they called front and back lawns. This chore was always tedious and exhausting but after my first really bad high school drunk (vodka chased with diet Sunkist soda) my mother punished me by forcing me out of my hangover bed and into the front yard to mow. I laid down in agony next to the mower on an outdoor bed of nails–which is what the stiff brown blades of grass felt like.

My grandmother loved to garden and grew up on a farm, but her little garden plot behind her 1940s house was a hard-packed, unyielding, infertile rectangle. The only thing that thrived there were a few rows of intensely flavored and sweet blackberries. Anything else she tried to grow took an enormous amount of effort and fertilizer. She was blessed with terrific fruit trees, however. I took her huge and fantastic apricot tree for granted and disregarded her prolific Gravenstein apple tree, the fruit of which was turned into applesauce and pies.

The first time I had a yard of my own worth working in was from 2000-2005, during the early years of my marriage to a rancher in Alturas, California. Alturas has a high desert climate and a 4500 feet elevation, so the growing season is pretty short, but I managed to persuade some vegetables to produce a couple of those years. My husband and his mother were avid gardeners. He was a laissez faire type that enjoyed planting flowers and herbs in a random, intuitive manner and although he was responsive to the plants’ watering needs, he neglected things like weeding, raking and general tidying activities. His mother was a gardener in the sense that she took a lot of gardening classes, purchased a lot of plants, and hired people to do the labor and experts to oversee it. I was jealous–why was I always the burr-covered clean-up yard worker and never the chic woman wearing white linen and gold jewelry who chose the plants at the nursery?

I got really excited about landscaping and gardening for the first time when we bought a small house with a big acre-plus yard in Calistoga, California, where I still live. The previous owners had been three pack a day smokers, and the husband had been a golfer, so at first picking up cigarette butts and digging out golf balls was like a depressing adult Easter egg hunt. Finally though, our improvements started to take hold and the yard began to look cleaner and more open–we could at last enjoy an incredible view of the Palisades Mountains for one thing.

But around 2017 as the marriage was nearing its end, I got turned off to gardening again when I pulled a weed. A weed to me is any plant in the wrong place. This particular plant was a true weed, albeit a flowering one, in the middle of a decomposed granite walkway we had just installed.”What are you doing, that’s a flower!” my ex husband screamed, reacting as if I’d amputated his right arm while he was sleeping. I didn’t really venture into the yard to work again until the summer he left, about two years later. Since then I have spent countless hours working and shaping the property into a half-manicured, half wild haven.

I’ve had Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, for years. But I wanted to start with a more general book on gardening. With $20 credit at a local used bookstore and a couple of hours to kill, I perused the shelf for a gardening book, but most were too complicated for this beginner and I could feel my brain start to cramp. When I saw Pollan’s first book, Second Nature, I knew I had a good one for where I’m at with gardening. Something literary and readable, information told through stories and history. I learned that I’ve already intuitively been doing things “right” in the yard to make it more of what Pollan calls a garden. I’ve taken down hedges and fences to “leap the fence,”–expand the vista into the neighboring vineyards and state park, making the property look huge and giving the garden the look of a mini-resort. I’ve put in hardscape–so necessary for minimizing the intense maintenance the property requires as well as fire protection. I’ve had trees pruned to ensure the health of the many very large walnuts, oaks and mimosas that are some of the most desirable features of the place.

My ex husband, an ag major and farmer, should have known better but he planted mint and comfrey in one of the raised beds and it got so out of control that both plants tried to “leap the bed” into the next raised bed. For the longest time, the mint would choke out anything I tried to plant near it. Finally after years of pulling and digging, I have gotten the mint down to an occasional leaf here and there. Still, the bed it was planted in is rotted and splitting from the force of its vigor and I have to have it rebuilt.

Back to the book: Pollan does a great job of drawing from history and science to make Second Nature as educational as it is entertaining. I am not a fan of roses, but his chapter on roses and the catalogs that sell them was one of my favorites. Just listing the crazy names of some of the roses created vivid mental images that will stay with me–Gina Lollobrigida, Cuisse de Nymph, Madame Hardy.

Second Nature, read during this anxious time in history, when more bad news from every pocket of the globe is poured into our ears like poison, is a ray of hope. Pollan writes that when we panic about the environment we are thinking of the earth as closed loop when in fact the earth is receiving energy from an infinite source, the sun. “All we could ever need is given,” he writes. Gardening is a way to reconnect to this essential, almost religious, truth. It’s why community and school gardens have such wide ranging positive influence. When I am at a loss for what to do, where to put my energy or feeling panicked, working in the yard is the activity that feels most right. Spending time outdoors, tending soil and plants, always feels productive.

The Botany of Desire focuses on four plant success stories: apples, tulips, cannabis, and the humble potato. Pollan tells the story of the evolution of each and how the plants used humans to spread themselves around and evolve into edibles, objects of beauty and intoxicants to ensure humans will continue to desire and so protect.

It’s a classic book, but like Malcolm Gladwell, another of my favorite super brilliant New Yorker writers, Pollan has a schtick. In Pollan’s case, he takes one example from his theory (plants use humans for their own ends), explores it in great depth and inserts himself into the story (he tries planting something, or building something or follows the path of someone) before arriving at some conclusions. I get tired of this style after a while. If you don’t really care about tulips, it’s tedious to read such a tremendous amount of history and detail about them.

I thought the section on marijuana would be my favorite, but I actually liked the section on the potato better. I’d forgotten what a devil Pollan had (rightly in my opinion) made of Monsanto and their profit seeking counter parts. It was also very interesting to revisit the origins of the potato in Europe and why the potato blight caused such horrible suffering and starvation in Ireland. It reminded me to never, ever buy non-organic potatoes again.

I’m glad I reread The Botany of Desire but I’m especially glad I picked up Second Nature, the book Pollan wrote when he was younger and wasn’t so entrenched in his writing formula.

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