Monday, February 11, 2013

Botany of Desire

by Drew Martin
I saw a good documentary this weekend called Botany of Desire, which covers the origin and the evolution of apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes. This is a really well-produced and interesting film, with a great narrative of interviews from people invested in these plants and Michael Pollan, author of Botany of Desire. Pollan proposes that we look at our relationship to plants from the plants’ point of view, whose propagation is dependent on our interest in them.

Apples and tulips started their journey in the hills of Kazakhstan and were spread throughout the world by humans. The legend of Johnny Appleseed is validated but the truth behind his history is not so flattering. He is said to have been a "seedy" character and because of the way he established orchards (from seed and not from grafting), there were not many edible apples, which thereby fueled the production of hard cider and an intoxicated period in American history.

The tulip section explores the bubble economy created around this flower in Holland in the 17th century, in which one of the most precious bulbs could sell for the value of the nicest homes in Amsterdam. Ironically, the color variations that were the most exotic were caused by a disease. This documentary shows the flower auction in Aalsmeer, Holland, which is a facility the size of 200 football fields and where 19 million flowers from around the world change hands every day.

"It is like a sea of flowers. It is almost like watching paint being mixed on a palette. You watch this line of Yellow sunflowers snaking its way through an ocean of red tulips."

There are many aesthetic comments like this in the film. One of the most interesting is about the coincidence that we share similar values of beauty with a bug, the bee, who is attracted to pretty flowers and symmetry.

The section on marijuana points out that a plant must have a specialty to attract us. This can be sweetness, beauty, sustenance or, in the case of cannabis, a chemical that we can get high from. It is said that only one culture we know of did not have a botanical vice; the Inuit, because it was too cold to grow anything in their climate. Although pot had been a historic drug, it was not until the latter part of the 20th century that scientists understood how it worked in the brain. It turns out that it affects the same receptor responsible for allowing us to forget, so we are not overwhelmed by the retention of information and events.

The potato section explains how this South American tuber made its way to Europe and fueled growth in previously famished areas, but that banking on one type of potato led to a total crop failure in Ireland during the potato famine.

The message of the film is that monoculture is bad, and biodiversity is good. This is not a bad metaphor for society, the workplace, and our own personal diversity of the food we eat, what we read, and how we occupy out time.

Click here to watch the trailer.