Internal Illegalities?

Pollan, M. 2002. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House. New York, NY. pp.  113-179 (Ch. 3).

This chapter of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan explores yet another plant with a long history of human involvement, not for its beauty nor nutrition, but for its equally coveted and feared psychoactive effects- the cannabis plant. Through first-hand recounts, interviews with experts of various disciplines, excerpts from the works of great philosophers, and relevant historical facts, Pollan tells the long, ever-changing story of marijuana and mankind’s dysfunctional on-again-off-again relationship with it.

Pollan covers many topics in this chapter: he humourously recounts his early, albeit minuscule, attempts at marijuana growing, then goes on to explore the rises and falls of marijuana popularity in the West, the pointlessness and futility of America’s “War on Drugs,” marijuana’s connections with past and present religions, his observations of the sophisticated modern cultivation of marijuana plants, the reasons why humans (and other animals) are compelled to alter their perceptions of reality, and the possible biological origins of those alterations when propagated by the consumption of psychoactive drugs.

Marijuana has been on my mind a lot this week, having also done some of my own research on it for my Power Point presentation for lab, but I’ll have to take this time to gingerly admit that it is usually on my mind anyway, or at least usually in it. I don’t know if this is necessarily an appropriate place to admit it, but hey, it is my blog!

“Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present.”

This has been my absolute favourite reading of all this semester. This chapter, along with some of the reading I did for my presentation, has actually brought me some insight as to why – biologically, that is – I may enjoy indulging in the devil’s lettuce that I had never really considered previously. Pollan’s description of marijuana use being a way for humans to “forget” the mundane aspects of their everyday lives and be present in the moment is very accurate, for me at least. I can be an extremely anxious person with an often hypersensitive perception of the world around me and thoughts that are usually cycling between the “what-ifs” of past and present, and I am rarely fully, consciously present in the physical space that I occupy on Earth (while sober, I mean). I didn’t really think of it this way until after this reading, but I now know that is likely why I enjoy my time indulging so much. It brings me into a fully present state, a state in which I can appreciate myself and my immediate surroundings, without worry of things to come or what has already passed… and if it does that for me, it likely does for others. So I ask, should government and legality have the right to forbid us those profound feelings? It does, but it most definitely should not.

Aside from my personal reasons, I still agree entirely with the ideas Pollan brings forth in this chapter. The fact that a single plant, a weed!, has caused so much turmoil and terror and show of force in North America is absolutely stunning. The amount of people who are spending more time in prison for simple possession of a personal amount of marijuana than those who have committed violent crimes is so absolutely illogical that it makes my brain hurt (but pretty much anything concerning laws and government can make my brain hurt!). In addition, the mere fact that humans (and other animals) have receptors for cannabinoids and, in fact, produce our own versions of the compound producing similar effects, should be able to solve the long-standing question of “is it ‘bad‘ or not?” But unfortunately, for some reason that also hurts my brain to try to understand, science is still not a widely accepted form of reasoning (especially in the realms of law and government) in much of the world, so we must endure …

In my personal opinion, everyone should have the option to benefit from a little “cognitive dysfunction” now and then!

Capsaicin… So hot right now

Hanson, T. 2015.  The triumph of seeds.  Basic Books.  New York.  ch. 9.

This chapter from The Triumph of Seeds is, in usual Thor Hanson fashion, a smooth and delightful blend of history, biology, and storytelling. This particular chapter is regarding the history of chili peppers. First Hanson describes Columbus’ journey to Costa Rica in search of spices, and then, with some help from Noelle (the “mycobiolost who likes spicy foods”), he goes on to describe the botany of chilies and their spicy active ingredient, capsaicin.

Although I am no history buff, I am still a little embarrassed to admit that I was not actually aware that Columbus’ voyages were in search of spices and foods, and not just for the sake of finding new lands. After this reading, I learned that Columbus basically popularized chili peppers! And for that reason, and that reason alone, I have now become a fan of Christopher Columbus because I can’t say it enough: I LOVE HOT SAUCE!

I actually DID read all three assigned chapters, but I knew that I just had to write about this chapter because I am such a huge fan of spiciness (I’d give up coffee for hot sauce without question!) and I could not imagine enjoying (most) foods without it! I completely identified with Noelle the mycologist (and Josh, too!) as I have also always been one to stash a bottle of hot sauce at my work place or even go so far as to carry a small bottle in my bag when travelling. My boyfriend rolls his eyes at me every time we are at a restaurant and I end my order with, “And can I get some hot sauce on the side, please?”

I obviously really enjoyed this reading, not just because of the general topic but because I actually learned so much about something that I hold so near to my heart and just realized I was essentially clueless about. My absolute favourite part of this chapter was Hanson’s summary of how we taste (more like feel) capsaicin and its physiological effects. Our bodies literally translate capsaicin contact with actual cell-damaging heat. While this isn’t really surprising from a biological viewpoint, it still blows my mind and it will be something I think about with every spicy bite I take in the future.

I am serious about hot sauce and I must be excused now because I can’t stop daydreaming about how AWESOME it would be to be a part of something called the “Chili Team” and having the job of finding chilis in Bolivia! Some people have it allll figured out!

… before it’s too late

Pollan, M. 2002. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House. New York, NY. pp. 3 – 58 (Ch. 1).

In this chapter from The Botany of Desire, Pollan once again takes us on a journey of a specific seed. In this instance, it is the apple seed that we follow through the paths of history. As per usual, Pollan, in his beautiful style of writing, uses historical facts and figures and intriguing characters to tell the story of a historically significant plant that cannot speak for itself (in actual words, at least).

Pollan’s story of apples in America begins with the story of Johnny Appleseed, great American folk hero and distributor of both literal (apple) and figurative (divine word) seeds. Pollan uses the story of Appleseed as the foundation for this chapter, and he then follows the supposed paths Johnny (seeds in tow) took through America, ultimately in search of a tree grown from seeds that had been planted by Johnny himself. Pollan supplements this journey with delightfully described characters and utterly profound comparisons.

As a Canadian, I would consider myself to be very far from being well-versed in American history/folklore. I had obviously heard of Johnny Appleseed, but I had never taken into any consideration his historical significance, or even bothered to learn about why or how he got his name. To be completely honest, I didn’t even know he was an actual, living person at one point. I greatly appreciate that I got to learn of Johnny Appleseed through Pollan’s truthful words as opposed to any other (likely Christian-centric) way.  Pollan’s comparisons in this chapter were stuning, beautiful, and totally poetic: his “epiphany” of Johnny Appleseed being the American Dionysus, his description of the connotations of the word “sweet” historically compared to now, Phil Forsline being a modern-day Johnny, and his apple orchard in New York consisting of two of every variety of apple tree being like a “beached botanical ark.” I could go on and on raving about Pollan’s lyrical writing, it is just so pleasant!

But, unfortunately, after the beauty and lyricism, Pollan must get back to business with his main point: in yet another aspect of biological systems, humans are affecting the genetic makeup of populations and therefore the number of species that are/will be alive today and in the future. And once again, I feel the residual guilt as a result of the actions of our ancestors. When used in the context of biology, the phrase “before it’s too late” brings up an earthen anxiety in me like no other words can. When will it be too late? What can I do? And most of all, why does the rest of the general population not seem to care at all?

sCorn

Pollan, M. 2007. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York, NY. Penguin Books. pp. 15- 119.

This assigned reading consisted of Part I (Chapters 1 through 7) of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Part I essentially starts with a brief (-ish) history of the relationship between corn and humans and then Pollan proceeds to take us on an epic journey: The journey of corn, from the farm all the way to its ridiculous multitude of final destinations (including chicken nuggets!).

Pollan seamlessly blends many stunning (and frankly frightening) facts with some interviews from people he meets on corn’s journey, presented in a style which I have come to appreciate and expect from him. The economical, agricultural, environmental, and biological problems ultimately caused by the industrialization of corn production are explored in very great, and very disturbing, detail. We follow corn through to many places: the grain elevator, digestion in a cow, digestion in a machine (!!!), a top-secret cereal laboratory, the confined animal feeding operations, bottles of Coca-Cola, and beyond.

I enjoy Pollan’s writing. His analogy of the corn as a river branching off into tributaries and streams and creeks was perfect. The quotes he includes greatly increase the effectiveness and depth of his writing. He is so absolutely thorough but delivers in an easily digestible (pun intended) way.

Aside from that, though…

Mostly this book is making me feel stressed out, as I often feel when I learn of things happening in the world that I want to change but feel absolutely helpless about. I will admit, I sometimes do choose to simply avoid absorbing material such as this. While it is inherently important and I don’t want to not know, it just makes me feel apathetic and bitter. Our more recent ancestors have put us in a convoluted cycle of corn from which it is nearly impossible to escape without a drastic and deliberate change. But that is entirely unlikely at this point. The exact same can be said for many other that the government and corporations have managed to capitalize on (fossil fuels, pharmaceuticals, and food in general).

It’s all just so horrible and I guess I feel as though if I don’t acknowledge all the details, then I will feel less personal responsibility. I am not sure how I can help to change the state of the world, which is definitely why I feel so sour after this reading!

But WHY?

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, NY. Chapters 4, 5, 6, & 8.

These four assigned chapters from Guns, Germs, and Steel make up the majority of Part II of the book, sensibly entitled The Rise and Spread of Food Production. And that is precisely what these chapters were regarding, with little to no stray from that. Aside from a quick little anecdotal story at the opening of Chapter 4 that was based upon Diamond’s teenage years working on a farm in Montana (which I enjoyed and thought was very important and fitting), Diamond remains rigidly adhered to presenting his information in a sequential, very essay-like format. Throughout each chapter, the author poses a question (or three), then proceeds to explain that he must ask and also answer another question (or three) before he can sufficiently answer the original question. It’s all about understanding!

Diamond covers a vast magnitude of material over the span of these four chapters. Chapter 4, as I already mentioned, begins with Diamond recalling a memory of his youth that, as is apparent, had a great effect on him. It was essentially a story of the first time he saw European colonization of the Americas and the displacement of the Natives to be something different from an amazing conquest. Diamond asks, “How did the farmers win out over the famous warriors?” This question sets the tone for subsequent chapters. As chapter 4 is essentially the opening chapter of Part II, the author uses it as an introductory summary for the rest of the second part. Diamond explores a multitude of questions regarding the origins of agriculture: What were the first plants (and animals) to be domesticated? Who exactly domesticated them? Why?  Was it ultimately the land or the people that facilitated farming? Were these the best plants for farming or did our ancestors miss out on the opportunity to domesticate some better lineage of ancestral flora? Why were some early humans farming millennia before others did? Why did some groups readily accept new crops and others did not? Is an agricultural society even that much better than a hunting and gathering one? Why? Why?

WHY?!

I was tempted to count how many times Diamond asked “Why?” and I will admit, I did find myself occasionally asking the same question to the little imaginary Lyn in my head forcing me to read on or else I will ultimately fail the course. Whyyyy?

I have many conflicting feelings about this book! A part of me dislikes it, but a larger part of me does not. Yes, it can be a little dry; an extremely long-winded, continuous information overload. And yes, the chapters are quite long and as a university student with no shortage of assigned readings, it did feel a little heavy. But on the other hand, I am in an academic awe of the amount of research that had to have been done by Diamond in order to write just this one part that makes up just a quarter of the book’s entirety! That in itself is a beautiful and often very underestimated feat and I feel that it makes this book more precious to behold. Diamond seamlessly blends a multitude of scientific disciplines into one holy grail of agricultural history. He expertly combines extensive historic and prehistoric archaeological data also with agricultural, anthropological, and plant and animal biological data. Who needs poetic language when there is an extremely organized plethora of information at my fingertips? I don’t think it is fair to compare and criticize this book against the other readings we have done for this course. There is absolutely no way to display this sheer amount of information in a fun, light-hearted way. Anything involving this much substantiated data needs to be orderly and concise. And this book is just that – because Jared Diamond is a scientist, not a poet.

Connections

Pollan, M. 2002. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House. New York, NY. pp. xiii-xxv.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. Norton. New York, NY. pp. 113-130.

Following the suggestion raised in class, I shall bring you into my evening through a descriptive narrative of my current situation:

I sit here on the couch in my dark living room at over an hour past a semi-decent bedtime. I’m balancing my laptop on my aching legs, weary from an 11-hour day trudging around the slushy campus. I’m eating SweeTarts, by the way, and I can feel the cavities forming. And I also sit here not quite alone, but with a newly-formed, very sore, throbbing red lump on my lower eyelid. It hurts. A lot. Every time I blink. A stye, perhaps? I don’t know because I haven’t even had the time to Google my symptoms just yet (writing this blog post won’t be the only thing cutting into my sleep time tonight!) But strangely enough, I have actually been able to (somewhat) ignore the pain and discomfort for the past hour or so, not only because I have to hold it together in order to get my homework done, but also because I am now seriously preoccupied with the total trip of the hypothesis that plants could be (are?) exhibiting forms of artificial selection upon US.

Okay, I hope I’ve set the scene adequately. I do feel better after a little whining… Okay, I’ll start.

Both of the assigned readings are on the same general topic: the details regarding natural and artificial selection in plants, with a lot more focus on the latter. While the two readings share content, the two pieces display that content in entirely opposite tones. Pollan’s writing is in first-person, is very descriptive, and really quite beautiful, while Diamond’s chapter reads sort of like a textbook. But a really fun and interesting textbook that I would actually want to read, if that makes sense? It even included a table! Diamond’s chapter was a nonstop rapid-fire of facts, though still conveyed in a logical, cohesive order. This contrasts nicely with Pollan’s poetic question-raising style.

These two readings are completely connected. They both emphasize the deep-rooted significance (pun intended) of the domestication of plants by our ancestors. I enjoyed Diamond’s chapter because it compressed a ton of facts into a relatively compact piece of writing (from seeds germinating in feces to exploding pea pods to native plants!). More than this, though, I feel my understanding of the ancientness (wow, spell-check says that is a word!) of the plants-people relationship is much deeper after this reading. Pollan’s piece also emphasizes our deep connection with what grows from the earth, stating that humans and plants are participants in the phenomena of “coevolution,” that we are, as humans and plants, driving the evolution of each other.

It is now exactly two hours past my bedtime so this will have to do! I am (perpetually) disappointed in my time management skills because I really would have liked to spend more time discussing my favourite readings that we have done so far. Yes, I know I have said this in the closing paragraph of my two previous blog posts on the last two readings (and I’ve meant it each time!), BUT I am quite pumped to read the rest of The Botany of Desire. Pollan’s writing is my personal favourite so far!

Goodnight.

 

True Knowledge

Hanson, T. 2015.  The triumph of seeds.  Basic Books. New York. (Intro – Ch. 5)

The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson is a beautifully written ode to glorious seeds! The novel is organized into sections that are each titled by one specific aspect of seeds. These sections are further divided into chapters with very specific titles that explain (but do not entirely give away) the content that follows. The author does jump around in time a little bit but the story remains easy to follow. Though written in present tense with, Hanson also reminisces on his past experiences in the field as well as his home and family life.

I am really enjoying this book so far! Hanson absolutely had me at avocado! There is just so much to love: Hanson’s humour, descriptive imagery, and his personification of seeds and plants are absolutely delightful (some of these literally gave me goosebumps as I read!)… Aside from these great qualities, though, there are two other components of this novel that resonate with me even more than the beauty and humour! My favourite aspects of this novel most definitely have to be the concise way in which the author presents the hard facts, but also how the author and his expert colleagues and other professionals he meets along his journey readily admit when they really do not know certain things for sure. I have always greatly respected when those who are considered “experts” acknowledge and fully embrace that which they do not know… as Confucius said, “To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.”

This novel is packed full of hard facts with their accompanying data, but the way Hanson displays this information is fun and simplistic. Quite literally every paragraph in The Triumph of Seeds contains some interesting bit of information presented in a way that a textbook never, EVER could. The facts are intertwined seamlessly in Hanson’s writing.

I was stunned when Hanson admitted, straight-up, that he “still didn’t really understand how seeds worked” (Ch. 1). But this trend continued throughout the assigned reading, and I found this so entirely refreshing since, being a student, I rarely get the chance to learn about concepts from anything other than a textbook or lecture medium. When discussing the seed of an avocado, Carol the master seed biologist, admits, “We know a little bit about what’s happening in there, but not everything” (Ch.1) To be involved in the free discussion of biology, to sort of have a glimpse of what scholars might discuss when they aren’t teaching students the hard facts, is quite a treat for someone who holds interest in those disciplines. The same occurs with Derek Bewley, “god” of seeds (Ch. 3). Hanson asks him about the possible reasons for why the coconut seed evolved to hold such a plethora of energy. Bewley states that none of his doctoral students have provided a reasonable explanation. Again, in Ch. 4, we meet another expert, Bill DiMichele, who, with open arms, accepts the unknown! His ideology is contagious to me, and he has some great quotes:

“I used to go to the field expecting certain things,” he told me, explaining how textbook knowledge can burden the mind with preconceived notions. “Now I go to the field looking. I’ve found it’s more productive to just dig a hole and see what I find.”

&

“Never argue with a fool—an onlooker can’t tell the difference.”

I want Bill to write a book, too!

In The Triumph of Seeds, the questions asked and the questions that are still left unanswered plant the seed (lol) of curiosity in my mind as a reader and invoke a true sense of wonder! Again, as with the last reading, I am genuinely excited to continue following Hanson’s seedy journey. But in the meantime, I’m going to attempt to germinate some avocado seeds!