Pollan's 'Botany of Desire' on WFYI 

Michael Pollan's purpose in his 2001 book, The Botany of Desire, he says, is to inspire humans to realize they are "members of a biotic community... creating this wondrous web called life." The PBS visualization of his purpose does just that in its entertaining and faithful treatment.

Afterward, you might wonder why you spent almost two hours as a couch potato, instead of in your yard or neighborhood park, enjoying that web of life on your own. The truth is The Botany of Desire sharpens your eye and your nose - and your taste buds - especially if section three of the show is of particular interest to you.

Pollan's premise is that when we look at life "from the plant's point of view," we can surmise we are under the control of plants and flowers. By gratifying our desires, nature has been able to spread itself far and wide. Plants are just as sophisticated and advanced as humans, he maintains; they just have developed different tools.

Four plants illustrate his premise: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes.

Along the way, you learn a little science, a little history, a little politics. It's always been Pollan's way in his various books (Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food) to have fun with the subject of food. The seemingly ubiquitous Pollan (radio, film - Food, Inc., newspapers, web sites) is a delight to read - and to watch. He is so ubiquitous, one wonders if he has managed to graft or clone himself.

The story of apples is the journey from central Asia to what Pollan characterizes as "the universal fruit." All plants have the same existential predicament: they are stuck. So, how do they get themselves around, spread their genes. Sweetness was their ticket out, Pollan says.

Later, in the New World, they had a partner in the form of Johnny Appleseed. And while the myth of Appleseed is about wholesomeness, the truth, according to Pollan, is that he was planting apple trees for one reason: to grow apples to turn into hard cider.

Appleseed, in other words, brought alcohol to rural America.

The Botany of Desire, written and directed by Michael Schwarz and narrated by Frances McDormand (Fargo), is filled with such revelations. The section on tulips has a number of them, including the fascinating story of Holland in the 1700s and the "bubble" of the black tulip... etc.

But to this reviewer, the documentary takes a turn into the beguiling with the third section on marijuana. To see with one's eyes, the delicious, juicy buds of a female pot plant is enough to create a contact high from the television screen. Thank goodness I didn't watch it in high definition, as I might not have made it to section four about potatoes.

Here we get into a bit of Fast Food Nation deja vu as Pollan recites the story of how the Russet Burbank became the go-to po-tato - as McDonald's and other fast food entities began to serve the same-tasting food, no matter what the location of the restaurant.

A repeated theme in The Botany of Desire - the perils of monoculture - is most dramatically spotlighted with the story of the Irish potato blight and how 1 million Irish died of starvation, because the culture depended too heavily on the monoculture of potatoes.

Over and over again, we learn that monoculture is dangerous. It creates the need for poisonous pesticides, or untried genetic modifications. Better to diversify. One particular farmer is profiled who has had great success using natural pesticides (ladybugs) and plant diversity to avoid spraying.

Pollan laments toward the end that "we don't have a vocabulary to describe what other species do to us." By the end of The Botany of Desire, you'll begin to have one. You feel satisfied, titillated, your sense of the earth, of evolution, sharpened. For once, being a couch potato has lifted you out of your self.

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Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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