Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Universal intoxication

Pollan M. The botany of desire. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.; 2001. 113-178p.

Terms of interest
Pyrrhic (p115): A metrical foot of two short or unaccented syllables
Animism (p125): Belief in the existence of a spiritual world, and of soul or spirit apart from matter; spiritualism as opposed to materialism
Panacea (p140): A remedy, cure, or medicine reputed to cure all diseases
Entheogen (p144): A psychoactive substance used for the purpose of inducing a mystical or spiritual experience
Banality (p168): Anything trite or trivial; a commonplace
Definition source: http://www.oed.com

Elementary school having just come to an end, summer on the horizon never looked so beautiful. I was aware that many other children slept on the idea of freedom, and woke charged at thoughts summers’ unaccountability. I was not one of these children. My father was on his way to pick my brother, a select friend, and myself up for the start of our tradition-like camping adventure.  Some of the fondest memories I have as child. Although I never made the connection at such an age, I remember the ever so particular focus upon my fathers’ eyes the day he picked us up. It was a look I was particular accustomed to on many of our big adventures. It was a look of exuberance. My father was high. To this day I have met few people so in love with nature, addicted to its mystery and beauty - Intoxicated.  By no means am I saying that I am for or against drugs, or that my father is some kind of “special” example that will change whatever opinion you have on the matter. I just know that I grew up knowing of many associations between plants and people that not every kid did.  As I grew up, and was completely aware of the many emerging realities woven into my adolescent years I had never been aware of, I was always safe. I was never in danger of becoming a “pot head”.  To be honest I never even thought of it as something kids did, I had no interest. It wasn’t until high school, as somewhat of a late bloomer, that I finally became tempted by what Micheal Pollan, calls “human desires”, in his book The Botany of Desire. With loving and caring parents, even when I learned of drugs in school, I never once viewed anyone in my life, which may have smoked marijuana, any different. Maybe some children could have been disappointed in their parents with their newly found, all knowing, opinions, but not me. I was too busy living a wondrous and lively childhood. Something I never could have experienced without a Father to encourage me to “stop looking at the lines in front of the vehicle while we drive”. I may have wasted many years learning to try and take in, and appreciate, the world we live in if it hadn’t been for him. No father is perfect but a father that loves his children is a good one.  I believe this is what Pollan is getting at in his chapter on Cannabis (marijuana). When you have an opinion independent of your government things may seem a little skewed.

The culture of North America likely has a distorted perception of marijuana. Our culture, what so many believe, is a reason to be against the use of marijuana. What we see now only represents a fraction of the history people have surrounding marijuana, it has been engrained in our past for thousands of years. One of the most interesting things about this fraction of history is that, as Pollan says on pg. 129, “For modern prohibition against marijuana led directly to a revolution in both genetics and the culture of the plant. It stands as one of the richer ironies of the drug war that the creation of a powerful new taboo against marijuana led directly to the creation of a powerful new plant”. The idea of a species adapting, and converging in synchrony to one another seems almost poetic, when ignoring the reality behind why such a movement may have occurred. I found it particularly strange, however marijuana and people converged to present day, that marijuana does not affect our spinal cords. A deleterious effect produced by an affected spinal cord would have been difficult to select for with people having a fondness for its sinsimella. Although it could have happened, it almost seems as if the plant made some kind of judgement call, “choosing” to work with us and not against us. The idea, however, is not that surprising after all Pollan describes, on pg. 139, a universal want to alters one’s experience of consciousness. How interesting it is to think that marijuana is rooted in the human desire for pleasure.

Although I found the entire read very enjoyable, on pg. 41, when Pollan describes transparent drugs, drugs that “leave the users space-time coordinates untouched”, I was exceptionally interested. I really began to understand that many of these alkaloid-based intoxicants were only dangerous at large doses. I realized that, aside from cultural associations, maybe all that distinguishes between drugs such as caffeine and cocaine are the relative dosages at which they are ingested. Despite being no less than oversimplification,  I began to wonder what effect cocaine would have on society if 0.05 of a gram was in every large cup of coffee getting pumped out of the worlds coffee corporations. Despite being an unconventional thought, and just a little bit ridiculous, I honestly don’t think coffee drinkers would act a whole lot different. We have all achieved that feeling of well-being from a morning coffee a size too big.

Anyway, amongst the beautiful comparison of memes to genes and light jabs at religion, I more than enjoyed the read. I loved that Pollan was able to make me reevaluate the very foundations of which our culture, and government, currently has built on drugs. I think that it would do everyone a little good to read Pollans chapter on marijuana.  

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Nature’s pharmacy

Nabhan G. Gathering the desert. Arizona, AZ: University of Arizona Press; 2-19p.
Photo source: http://www.denimandtweed.com/2008_01_01_archive.html

Plant: Creosote bush (Larrea tridentate)

Not everything is, as it seems. Deserts may be limited to quantity, but not quality, of biodiversity. Gary Nabham, in “The Cresosote Bush Is Our Drugstore", seems to raise the question of why some plants have persisted as long as they have, while others have been lost, and why some people, of variable ethnicities, seem to be attracted to particular plants. The creosote bush history is unraveled. Explaining how a touch down in the Chihuan Desert, around 4500 years ago, could have led to the some 30 million hectares that the plant now covers in Mexico, and the 18 million hectares in the USA.

For this reason, six plants out of “the 2500 vascular plants in the Sonoran Desert”, although chosen arbitrarily, were to be studied because “each exemplifies either a symbolic or an ecological relationship which Sonoran Desert dwellers had with numerous plants”.  Nabhan and colleagues wanted to explore the possibility of a spiritual connection between plants and people, like those often found between people and other animals (something commonly associated with many first nations people).

Although I suppose I understand the want to find such a connection, I found it very interesting, on pg. 6, that Nabham soon after explains that “plants are used symbolically in ways which sometimes link people with their homeland and past, serving as a conservative element to slow change”. Ok, so we live in a world full of ever budding equality but why must we pretend as if all of life is served out equal? After all, life is not equal. Life is not fair. Although similarities exist because of similar environmental stressors (creating layers of cells for gas exchange like lungs etc.), there is something fundamentally different about a plant from an animal. Yes change is inevitable, and I do think it should be embraced, but some change seems a little bit ridiculous - needless. I guess in my opinion, I don’t want to pretend millions of years of divergent evolution has left plants a hand for me to hold because it hasn’t. I think that the fabric of our DNA has been woven to interpret this world in a biased manner. I truly think, for the most part, our interpretation of this world is skewed because of our want to see what we see in ourselves, as animals, in other species and in the environment.

“Anyway, I am getting sidetracked…”

I think our species relationship with plants, symbolically or ecologically, is true one, a natural one. This being said, I feel we should appreciate, perfect, and refine the relationship we have, and have had. I am in no disagreement that importance should further be put upon evaluating native desert plants as potential economic resources. I like that the idea that there is knowledge “waiting” to be discovered, that could have a positive impact on mankind. It's endearing.

“Anyway, one of the plants Nabham chose to study, the creosote bush, is actually really interesting”

It is hard to believe, on pg. 13, that whole plant populations of creosote bush may simply consist of clones, and that there is a “king clone” possibly older than “the most ancient bristlecone pine known to human kind”. Undoubtedly creosotes secondary metabolites are immense in number and have the potential for many useful applications. The plants seem very well adapted. Unfortunately, with little scientific research being done on the secondary metabolites, and even less proven to be beneficial, I see another biased opinion forming. I really would like to see more of a fight for doing things the right way, not the easiest. How are we going to ever understand our relationship with plants if we try to view them like we do animals? How are we going to progress as a species unless we let go of the many guidelines that exist simply because of tradition, and not necessity?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Ungovernable passions

Ungovernable passions

Pollan M. The botany of desire. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.; 2001. 3-58p.

Chapter 1
Desire: Sweetness
Plant: The Apple (Malus domestica)

Terms of interest
Armada (p.4): a fleet of ships of war
Catamaran (p.4): a kind of raft or float
Pantheism (p.10): a belief or philosophical theory that God is immanent in or identical with the universe
Parable (p.12): able to be readily prepared, procured, or got; procurable
Prodigality (p.13): a wasteful expenditure of one’s resources
Saccharine (p.18): pertaining to or the nature of sugar
Defined at: http://www.oed.com

Chapter one, of The Botany of Desire, is sweet. It affords enjoyment and gratifies desire. By telling the story of John Chapman, and his role in the domestication of the apple in North America, Micheal Pollan raises the question of whether or not sweetness is the prototype of all desire. He retraces the path of Chapman, “Johnny Appleseed”, through pioneers and prohibition, and investigates the journey of the apple from its origin, Kazakhstan. As the chapter progresses, Pollan gives insight to the progression of his own opinion.  He becomes able accept strangeness, a characteristic of both apple and “Appleseed”. Pollan adapts, a theme present in the entirety of the chapter. Pollan provides the means for a new outlook on plants and people of today, by examining the rich tastes of, what sometimes seems, a bitter past.

Unfortunately, as a species, we seem to mask the beauty of many things. Our pasts often seem bitter because of mistakes made within them. With inequality budding from every stem of society a few hundred years ago, it’s not unreasonable to want to turn the other way. The only problem is that once our backs are turned, even if mistakes are out of mind, we lose more. We lose beauty. Thankfully, Pollan lessens this loss by enforcing equality, on pg. 4, when he says “the scene, for me, has the resonance of myth – a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot”. This thought, of equality, is reinforced by Pollan never letting the readers’ attention slip from where it should be. With the use of metaphors he is able to constantly maintain a sort of daydream he creates with his words.  He explains the “common lot” of plants and people, on pg. 5, saying “an emblem of marriage between people and plants, the design of Chapman’s peculiar craft strikes me as just right, implying as it does a relation of parity and reciprocal exchange between its two passengers” – he describes such a sense of strength in the relationship. Reminding us of a time when people had a greater connectivity with nature.

As always, I enjoyed that Pollan refrains from simply giving his opinion. Despite a focus on Johnny Appleseed, we were able to get some information on the history surrounding the legends and even some information on the origin of apples, its ancestors, and their home. Pollan allows us to understand that there is a reason we generally fail to see ourselves eye to eye with plants. Explaining, on pg. 5, “even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated” - I love that he always goes out of his way to let us see things his way, through his minds eye. It was from this guidance of opinion I really appreciated the apples side of the story. I saw Johnny Appleseed equally important as the apples he loved. 

I particularly found it interesting that time had distorted the reality, of whatever truth once existed, behind Johnny Appleseed. John Chapman did not only carry and plant apple seeds but also carried and planted a variety of other seeds, of what he thought were of medicinal value. I started to get the sense that Chapman was a lot more than just another man. He was a hybrid. Pollan described him as a hybrid between other worlds, such as between the realms of matter and spirit.

I was captivated by Pollans comparison of Chapman to Dionysus, on pg. 37, but felt as if it was a little forced. Yes, it is true that Dionysus brought wine as Chapman brought cider, and yes Dionysus is describe as somewhat of a hybrid but I just can’t buy it. In my own readings of Nietzsche I often recall Dionysus being described as the all is within each moment; an individual not subject to the constraints of others or by environments, thus having the capacity to live out each moment with the greatest of intensity and fullness. I do not recall ever reading Dionysus ridding himself of boots as punishment for stepping on a worm.

“Don’t worry Pollan you won me back with your reference to Nietzsche”

Anyway, through the investigation of the Greek god tangent, I realized John Chapman, at very least, seemed god-like because of his ability to be honest with people, and that this is likely why he was widely accepted. I am in no disagreement with the idea that he may have crossed worlds. Even the descriptions of his relationship with wildlife, such as him and the apple seeds traveling down the river as equals, portrayed a middleman between plants and animals. He was a bridge between kingdoms that truly seems to define the term hybrid vigor.

I can’t get over how very interesting it is that John Chapman could be the cause of the apples fame (and domestication) and the apple could be the cause of John Chapman’s fame. The two seemed to have a mutualistic, symbiotic relationship, maybe even obligate.
As Pollan begins to conclude the chapter, on pg. 56, and explains the diversity of apples (their color, taste, and shape), I began to think of all the wild and wondrous beauty life has to offer, and how so very few people ever take the time to see it like John Chapman did. I see people walk down streets with their heads down, looking at their phone, as if to the products of an environment were more important than the environment itself.

“I truly hope these are the same people that protest against factories, mines and the use of fossil fuels. The irony would be so great”

On a lighter note, maybe even now Johnny Appleseed is a bridge between two worlds, a bridge between our delusional present and our mysterious past. Maybe, after hearing his story, people will feel less of an inclination to ignore the world they walk within.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Plants create life out of thin air.

Pollan M. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Newyork, NY: Penguin books; 2006. 1-119p.

I remember holding my mothers hand, wanting nothing more than to explore a world of infinite smells, tastes, and colors. I remember being in a super market as a child. The speech troubles of my adolescence created a keen observer of a little boy, a little boy more readily interested in analyzing and evaluating those playing a game than playing the game itself. I learned to love the world around me. I learned to watch. Slightly frightening, maybe, but all children go though hardship. All children grow. These events in my life history, transformations, are supporting evidence for my dissociation with food. I, like many little children, thought food came from the supermarket.

Micheal Pollan understands this.  To explain the fundamental thoughts behind any child of today in a supermarket, Pollan invites the reader to come on a personal journey. He attempts to explain, on pg. 2, how “so violent a change in agricultures eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder”. This is what his book is about, the pleasures of eating. To explain our relationship with food, Micheal Pollan explains the story of corn. From the moment pollen meets carpel, to the products in our cupboards. Pollan goes on a journey to investigate the true story of corn in agriculture today. Explaining corns’ dominance in supermarkets and homes the same; explaining the rational behind the history that got us to present. Among other things, Pollan explores the idea of whether or not a given food is the sum of its parts. He touches on the disagreement of whether we should have the ability to own life, the ability to put a patent on living, breathing organism; Pollan explains the irrational decisions taking us to a gloom future.

Amidst feeling slight shame for my animal relatives, Pollan strengthened, my every increasing, respect for plants. Pollan credits us, on pg. 16, with the “Linnaeus-defying twinky” and plants, on pg. 4, as creating “life out of thin air”. A contrast that I couldn't ignore, after hearing we are processed corn walking people since 1492. It makes me contemplate who I should be ashamed of, the crop or the cultivator. Pollan increasingly gives more credit to plants as he explains how extraordinary the science behind the C-4 plants is. The thought of how a plant could be selective for an isotope for its selfish carbon needs is nearly incomprehensible. This is because of our perspective on plants.

We never see plants as having control. Or how they have led us to be dependant. Without our hands to rid it of its husks there would be no fecundity. And like it or not we share this truth with plants. Because of this integration between plants and people, when talking of the success story of corn, Pollan says we are also talking of coevolution. Saying that agriculture is plants “coevolutionary bargain with humans”. Pollan is able to describe the importance of “selfers” and hybridization in this relationship. Saying, “hybridization represents a far swifter and more efficient means of communication, or a feed back loop, between plants and humans”.

As I drove home Friday afternoon I found myself questioning ideas of dependence and its origin. I thought of how interesting it is that every human being is the product of sex, or at least the product of two gametes coming together. How everything in existence has an origin, and how as time passes, every origin seems to fade - Diminish. I thought of how likely it is every individual sees himself or herself as moving forward in the world around them. When really the world moves with each of us at exactly the same pace, time never plays favourites.

The beauty in such a daydream, of which I should have tired to avoid while driving, is something I constantly feel Pollan try to give to his readers. With his great use of comparisons and analogies, Pollan tries to connect with even the most environmentally distant people to agriculture. For example, on pg. 38, he describes modern corn to skyscrapers in a city, to “maximize real-estate values”. It is quite the experience to feel, and visualize, the environment change as Pollan describes Iowa’s shift into modern agriculture - It reminds me of the changing of a grape to a raison. If nutrients are equivalent to maximizing productivity, then on the level of a mathematic formula we needn’t get concerned. After all, everyone knows science has an answer. But don’t we represent something greater being the most intelligent organisms, thus far proven to exist? There is something other than water missing from the raison that makes it different from the grape. There is an absence of life.

"Ok that was a bit much. I will lighten up..."

The more I keep reading of the direction the world took to get where it is today, the more I feel concerned for the future. I feel like we are driving our world in an off course direction. I don’t want to be responsible for the grape becoming a raison. Why can’t we get a measure of our actions from the fact that, thus far, we have never truly turned a raison back into a grape? I wonder if a bigger better soybean exists?

When plants are a source of capital, there is too little accountability for the deleterious affects to the environment that come as a product, in obtaining the capital. We bring ourselves to the age-old question of whether or not the end justifies the means. There is no longer a strong connection between the earth, which grows food, and the man, who cultivates it. I say “man” for an added strength in my writing, less concerned with whether or not it is politically correct.

“Ouch that hurts”

I jut realized the pitfall of homologous genes. I am tempted to think like those before me, the very people that let one advantage take precedence over many disadvantages; like the creature behind Monsanto. Maybe if I keep reading, trying to consciously keep away from such dangerous carelessness, and eating my “nutritional” foods I will cause enough epigenetic change to clear future generations of the weakness in my genes. In hopes that one-day, I foster a descendent capable of thinking things through, different from myself, different from those before me. 

"I thought I told you to lighten up Travis..."

Monday, 6 February 2012

Sponges to evolution, like Fertile Crescent to agriculture?

Diamond J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human Societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.; 1999. 84-113, 131-156.

Poignantly: affectingly: in a poignant or touching manner

Breadbasket: an agricultural area that provides large amounts of food, especially grain, to other areas

Chufa: an african plant of the sedge family

Piecemeal: one piece at a time, gradually

Teosinte: a tall grass of Mexico and Central America, related to corn

Ethnobiology: the study of plants and people being treated or used by different human cultures

Husks: the dry external covering of certain fruits or seeds, found in corn

This weeks reading, chapters 4-7 and 8 of Guns, germs, and steel, fell under the larger of heading of “the rise and spread of food production” – Jared Diamond couldn’t have described these chapters better. As we progress through the chapters, we progress through Diamonds explanations of the rise and spread of food production.  He provides a keen sense of detail in his explanations and allows us, the reader, to understand the uncertainty in much of the scientific method used. Although Diamond raises many questions, overall he seems to focus on why food production spread the way it did, or at least the way it seems to have. Diamond continually reminds us of this questions importance by stating the many areas in the world, other than the Fertile Crescent, which had fertile ground and domestically-able plants and animals but failed take action; He believes this is of particular importance as many of these geographical areas are now the richest centers of agriculture and herding today.  Although Diamonds explanations are only hypothetical, food production having started so long ago, he is able to cultivate our minds. In giving us the relevant information that exists he prepares us, giving us the chance to grow and have an opinion of our own. He seems careful not to take a definitive stance in the matter – something I truly appreciate.

Considering my opinion after the last assigned reading by Diamond, I am surprised that I enjoyed this reading as much as I did. My opinion began to change when, two pages into chapter 4, he tells of exactly what the chapter, and the coming chapters, will entail. However, it wasn’t until chapter 5 when he said “much of human history has consisted of unequal conflicts between the haves and the have-nots: between people with farmer power and those without it, or between those who acquired it at different times” was I able to consider giving his writings a second chance. Then again, I have always been a sucker for a great use of contrasts.

Unlike the previous reading, it is not hard to notice Diamond goes to great lengths to provide detail in whatever he is discussing. For example, on pg. 95, when he explains the theory behind radiocarbon dating and how isotopes decay, he explains the advantages and pitfalls of such a method too – something thus far I have appreciated in Micheal Pollans writing. I found it very interesting to hear how crops may have developed independently, and my interest persisted as Diamond talked of how food production could be traced back to five areas, the basal most being the Fertile Crescent. I enjoyed hearing “what arrived in to launch food production in Egypt was foreign crops and animals, not foreign peoples”, especially after my childhood of Hollywood movies suggested otherwise.

Above all, I enjoyed that Diamond was able to go above and beyond simply presenting “facts”. He was able to paint a picture. By using words like nuclear, when describing the radiation of plant domestication on pg. 103, he was able to portray a sense of movement in his words. I could see the plants moving. Diamond speaks in an almost poetic fashion as he describes how those with food production had an advantage over others. Saying that, the advantage started the “long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history”. He continued on with beautiful abstract-like descriptions, in ch. 6, saying “…food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made with-out awareness of their consequences”. Furthermore, on pg. 107, I felt he was poetic in saying “human and animal foragers are constantly prioritizing and making effort-allocation decisions, even if only unconsciously”. Explaining that animals go for preferred foods, likely with the greatest payoff, and thereafter, if those foods no longer exist, they shift to less preferred foods. Unfortunately I think that Diamond diminished some of the liveliness of his writing with the use of question marks.

“Stay cool Travis, keep you mind where it should be Travis. This is for school and you are in a cool, calm place. Take a deep breath in..."

Ok, I am going to end this here. I disliked the question marks. I thought they were unnecessary and at the best of times redundant. It was a great read though, and because of it I want to read more – I hoped this would happen. 


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Plant or Patent?

Plant or Patent?

Pollan M. The botany of desire. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.; 2001. 183-238p.
Chapter 4
Desire: Control
Plant: The Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Terms of interest
Allée: a walk or passage between evenly planted trees
Hubris: excessive pride or self-confidence
Modus operandi: mode of operation
Debonair: confident, stylish, and charming
Laconic: (of a person, speech, or style of writing) Using very few words

Chapter four, of The Botany of Desire, plants the seeds for change in agriculture. Michael Pollan beautifully compares a city to green vegetable seedlings, organized in his garden.  He describes the sublime of nature having her way with us, making us feel small as we awe at her power. As the chapter progresses, Pollan often refers to the fact that mankind has a need for power.  Something often associated with oversimplification and the formation of new problems, problems that often outweigh the original. The evolution of the potato is explained with the integration of historical facts. Uncertainty is focused upon along the way. Pollan provides a gate way for insight into the science behind commercial potatoes of today, bringing humor to the often humorless field of study. Pollan provides the means for a new perspective on genetically modified organisms (GMO’s).

As Pollan described the sublime of feeling small and in awe by nature, I felt moved on a personal level.  This sublime is something I have always been fond of, something I have always craved, appreciated, and embraced since I was a child. Being somewhat of a free spirit, my father was my greatest influence in this.

It is here, in having the capacity to not only work toward but to obtain power, I think our appreciation for nature stems. This is something that has caused problems in all facets of life across history, especially agriculture.  In agriculture, as power increases “…every new step in the direction of simplification-toward monoculture, say, or genetically identical plants-leads to unimagined new complexities” (pg. 185). In self-interest, possible repercussions are often not weighed. Immediate benefits are all that are taken into consideration. On the scale of an individual, Pollan describes personal sacrifices for power when he admits to using his tomatillos, planted near his potatoes, as scapegoats for beetles. He reminds us of the commonality our species has for power, even if seemingly, at first glance, non-existent.

Through small details like this, I am reminded of why I see the authors (Pollan and Diamond) contrast so greatly. Pollan brings in dates and explanations of historical events instead of just spewing “facts”. He explains that Solanum tuberosum was first domesticated by the Incas 7000 years ago. He is careful to prevent doubt in the minds of his readers - I respect the consideration.  Despite the contrast in, what I consider, relevant details, my poor first impression of Diamond is lifted by Pollan touching on many of the same points. For example, they both consistently touch on our role in co-evolving with plants.

Back to what matters…

In a nutshell, on pg.186, Pollan describes the course of our relationship with plants saying “…together, the people and the plants embarked on a series of experiments in co-evolution that would change them both forever”. Throughout the chapter, we get the impression that people are not the only things with a strong relationship to plants. Things, such as beetles, seem to be dependent on plants for many of the same reasons we are, using plants for protection, food, etc. On this note, I find it particularly interesting that companies like Monsanto are so willing to produce insecticidal vegetables when they affect more than just the target species, such as the case with monarch butterflies. With such uncertainty in the effects of a plant, not knowing what species it will affect in a given ecosystem and how those affects will play out in the long run, I am more than surprised to hear of how widespread GMO’s are, especially when more conventional farms still exist.

I love that Pollan is willing to acknowledge the uncertainty science is composed of, something often overlooked by many new, or not actively involved, in the field of study. Unfortunately, however, it is sometimes overlooked by those that should know better (Monsanto). With respect to power, Pollan says that ideally he wishes to control for every variable but one, and that unfortunately the reality is that everything affects everything, no matter what scale. The uncertainty within the roots of science is made clear when the gene gun, and the genetic methods associated with it, are described as nothing more than a gun shooting rounds coated in DNA (pg. 207). It was disheartening to hear Pollan say, on pg. 210, that he believes “uncertainty is the theme that unifies most of the questions now being raised about agricultural biotechnology by environmentalists and scientists”. Maybe it is for this very reason that Pollan often refers to our actions as to those of either the God Apollo or Dionysus, to diffuse accountability. Aside from obvious pitfalls of a unifying theme like uncertainty in agriculture, I found the whole topic very interesting.

I was particularly interested to hear, on pg. 209, Pollans reaction to such a reality when he says “I was struck by the uncertainty surrounding the process, how this technology is at the same time both astoundingly sophisticated yet still a shot in the dark”. There seemed to be a transition of Pollans opinion, across the chapter, as he continually investigates GMO’s. Beginning to feel increasingly active in science myself, I am beginning to understand that the reality of front-line science seems to be dependent on whether you are proximal or distal to the field of study - I saw this too in hearing Pollans perspective. The further away (distal), the more precise and definite science seems to be. Whether from media or other second hand sources, science always seems to bring reassurance to people as a dependable, factual entity. I think this is something we should be ashamed of, as the essence of life itself is dependent on uncertainty. A false sense of security prevents us from the beauty life has to offer.

Philosophy aside, Pollan continues to avoid conventional thoughts on “factual” science by describing one of the head scientists at Monsanto as a “senior potato person”. With many farmers only netting $50 per acre of crops, laughter might be exactly what we need. No one needs brain damage from a buildup of cortisol in addition to being broke. Good for you Monsanto, you got two birds with one stone. I would say two potatoes with one seed but that would be violating the terms of your “intellectual property”.

Although I feel as if I want to rant and let the world (who all read my blog) know of my newfound distaste in GMO’s, I can’t bring myself to say too much. Simply put, I have an opinion but much as Pollan took the time to understand both sides of the story, I feel I must do the same. I want to hear what Percy Schmeiser has to say; I want to hear first hand the voice of the farmers.  I don’t want to be left in the dark in the face of revolutionary change. I want to grow. How did we go from a time where Charles Darwin once said, “man does not actually produce variability” to a time where man thinks he can patent it?

I think this question is the take home message from Pollan, and is the essence of the chapter.

I wish I had an answer to it but I just don’t understand.
Links of interest


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Domestication is a funny word

Domestication is a funny word

 Pollan M. The botany of desire. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.; 2001. xiii-xxvp.

In the introduction of The botany of desire, pg. xiii-xxv, Michael Pollan introduces the book as a means of investigating, and exploring, our (mankind’s) view on nature from an upside-down perspective. In other words, he aims to tell a story in an unconventional fashion from the plants perspective. As Pollan puts it, on pg. xxiii, the book delves into “four of the worlds success stories”, the apple, tulip, cannabis, and potato. These are exceptional stories to tell as they represent the successes of a fruit, flower, drug, and a staple food, respectively. Through the perspectives of these plants, which are so carefully woven into the history and future of our own species, Pollan hopes to achieve a change in our own perspectives, to see plants as a little less alien.

Let’s get to where I give you my opinion. Not having heard of Pollan, or his novel, my expectations were low. By no means am I trying to indirectly say that I am the guru of all books worthwhile or that I think Lyn has poor taste, I just made an assumption, based on the 3 at the beginning of the course number, that I would be reading something no more stimulating than a dictionary – was I ever wrong. I should have known that, being in science, making an assumption was a poor judgment call. In testing my assumption, or hypothesis in this case, I read a little. By the time I reached the end of the second paragraph, I knew I was in for something a little more stimulating than what science generally has to offer, something of substance, something lacking mass compilations of “facts”.

I enjoyed that Pollan didn’t just shove his opinion up into my face from the get go. Or maybe better said, I enjoyed that Pollan was able to convince me he was on my side before he gave me his opinion – this made me want to listen to him. I don’t think the world will ever be ready for another arrogant man trying to turn the world in his favor before any thought is invested in the possible repercussions of the actions needed to do so. Anyway, I don’t think this is the case with this author. After having established a baseline for how many people perceive the world around them, Pollan caught my attention when describing the role of consciousness between animal and plant saying, on pg. xiv, “consciousness needn’t enter into it on either side, and the traditional distinction between subject and object is meaningless”. I particularly like when Pollan sums up a human emotion by saying, on pg. xxi, that “our desires are simply more grist for evolutions mill, no different from a change in weather: a peril for some species, an opportunity for others”. Through statements as such in the introduction, I feel as if old perspectives begin to be up-rooted as the seeds for a new perspective, regarding our (animal) relationship with plants, begins to be planted.

Overall, Pollan introduces many new ideas regarding evolution (including co-evolution) and our role in nature that stimulate the imagination – he is no stranger to proper use of imagery. For this reason, I had no real dislikes and nothing nasty to say. I very much agree with his seeming want for reform of the many narrow-minded perspectives the people of this world currently hold. With many continually pressing environmental issues, of which we are causation and continue to ignore, I can’t say with certainty that a new approach to thinking is something we don’t need.

On a lighter and final note, I must say that I think there is way too much irony in the fact that the author of a book, revolving around vectors and the interaction of “subjects and objects”, has a name like Pollan – holy jeez.


Diamond J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human Societies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.; 1999. 114-130p.

In chapter seven, of Guns, germs, and steel, Jared Diamond writes of the integrated history between plants and people. Diamond explains the traits early farmers might have been looking for, whether consciously or unconsciously, that may have been involved in the elementary stages of agriculture. He discusses the origin of many fruits and why some eluded to be domesticated. The chapter concludes with a subtle transition to artificial selection, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Honestly, I felt as if Diamond never seemed to get to the point. Things got boring fast. He seemed to be beating around the bush during his passes to make a point. His walking in circles nearly put me to sleep. Maybe he could have defined words like “agronomist”? Not that, after breaking the word down, I couldn’t get an idea of the words meaning in the context provided, but it just felt like an unnecessary term to use. I mean, even the built in dictionary in iMacs version of Microsoft Word couldn’t give me a definition. I think that says something about the author’s choice of diction. In my opinion, Diamond seemed to make more than a few poor choices in his writing.

I did not think that Diamonds analogy of spittoons, garbage dumps, and latrines being the research laboratories for primitive man was fitting, especially without the addition of any factual information. This trend of making statements without addition of factual information is carried throughout the chapter. For example, on pg. 120, Diamond says with seeming confidence “…once humans began to bring wild peas home to eat, there was immediate selection for that single-gene mutant”. I understand the logic, and am willing to agree with it, but need a more concrete explanation to be fully convinced. In his final paragraph of the chapter, the one pertaining to Darwin, you seem to get a better idea of where things were supposed to be going but I simply felt I had lost interest by this time.

However, Diamond was able to provide some kind of useful information in the chapter. I enjoyed the addition of, the sparse, more factual information such as, on pg. 118, where he says “… flax is one of our oldest crops (domesticated by around 7000 B.C.)”. I prefer to hear a sense of uncertainty in writing when referring to an era we know very little about. On a similar note, I also enjoyed his explanation as to why apples, pears, plums, and cherries were not domesticated until more recent times; it is well established that some plants have a need for cross-pollination and others do not.

Overall, after reading a single chapter, I am in no rush to read more. However, I don’t feel as if a dislike for one chapter warrants not reading more, especially when required in a course I am currently enjoying. I do not think having a history should prevent us from questioning uncertainty. But Diamonds book was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, so I will try to remain optimistic for the chapters to come.