… 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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