Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Botany of Desire

by Michael Pollan

Are we selecting the plants we want to grow, or is it the plants who make us to spread their genes far and wide? Michael Pollan invites us to take the plants’ point of view. He is telling the stories of four plant species: the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato, with an emphasis on their co-evolution with Homo sapiens.

At times, Pollan’s writing gets too florid for my taste, but it is the fascinating read all the same, no doubt helped by the author’s first-hand experience of (mostly successfully) growing the protagonists in his garden.

The magic plants were, and remain, a gravitational force pulling us back to Earth, to matter, away from the there and then of Christian salvation and back to the here and now. Indeed, what these plants do to time is perhaps the most dangerous thing about them — dangerous, that is, from the perspective of a civilization organized on the lines of Christianity and, more recently, capitalism.

Christianity and capitalism are both probably right to detest a plant like cannabis. Both faiths bid us to set our sights on the future; both reject the pleasures of the moment and the senses in favor of the expectation of a fulfillment yet to come — whether by earning salvation or by getting and spending. More even than most plants drugs, cannabis, by immersing us in the present and offering something like fulfillment here and now, short-circuits the metaphysics of desire on which Christianity and capitalism (and so much else in our civilization) depend.

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