… 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?

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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!