Apple of My Eye

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Toronto: Random House. p. 3-58.

Pollan, M. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Toronto: Penguin Group. p. 23.

“…in wildness is the preservation of the world” – Henry D. Thoreau

This week we had a choice for which chapter of The Botany of Desire we would like to blog about. I notice that the first chapter is about the apple, and am instantly intrigued. My Grandma grew up near the coast, and had many farmers as neighbours. She would tell me about the vast number of apple varieties there were when she was young, and how amazingly delicious they were. “No apple in the store today compares to the Gravensteins I used to pick – boy were they ever good!” I found myself then wondering ‘Why aren’t apples as tasty as they once were?’ I hoped that after reading this chapter I would be provided with some answers – so the chapter Plant: The Apple, Desire: Sweetness it was.

Pollan sets the scene by immersing the reader onto the “banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806,” where you would then notice “a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river,” (p.3). I’m in, hook line and sinker. We are introduced to a man by the name of John Chapman, although you may know him as Johnny Appleseed.

This tin pot hat-wearing fella was a real guy? Huh. 


Pollan describes Chapman as a man who viewed the world “pomocentrically“(p.5), through the eyes of the apple tree. Chapman has been portrayed in numerous different ways throughout the years; depending on who one speaks to, Chapman could be described as either a “bumblebee on the frontier, bringer of both the seeds and the word of God,” (p.27), or as a man who brought “the gift of alcohol to the frontier,“(p.9). The stories and myths behind John Chapman’s life were interesting, and at times just plain odd – the whole ‘child bride’ story made me cringe a little bit. I felt a bit uncomfortable at times reading about Bill Jones – I feel as though Pollan portrayed him as a super-fan of Johnny Appleseed, and nothing else. When he asks Pollan “could you invent a better role model for our children?“(p.24) all I was thinking was ‘that yes, I could – and they I don’t think they would be wearing a tin-pot on their head and a burlap coffee sack for a shirt’. Overall, I  felt a bit turned off by how Jones told the story of Appleseed through rose coloured glasses. In his eyes, John Chapman was an “protoenvironmentalist, philanthropist, friend to children and animals and Indians,“(p.31). I very much related to the Old Guy on page 31, who says “So, does he ever get around to the applejack?“(p.31) during Jones’ presentation on Appleseed.

Rant aside, I really enjoyed learning about the history of the apple, specifically how wild apples were originally used strictly to produce hard ciders; I never knew that “… the fruit of seedling apples [are] almost always inedible,” (p.9) due to their extremely tart qualities. Pollan also speaks of the ancestor of the domesticated apples we all know well today, Malus sieversii. This ancestor apple tree can found growing in the mountains of Kazakhstan and produces “applelike fruits ranging in size from marbles to softballs, in colour from yellow and green to red and purple,” (p.11). I love how Pollan incorporated these facts into this chapter, as it sparks the question, ‘If the apples we know today were derived from Kazakhstan, what are the origins of the other foods I consume?’

Overall, I felt as though this chapter had a very similar theme to that of a previous reading (also written by Pollan). In The Botany of Desire he states that “the apple is the hero of its own story,“(p. 6), and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma he says the same thing about corn, “corn is the hero of its own story,“(p.23). Pollan draws in the concept of domestication in this book by stating that “the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point where the species’ fitness for life in nature has been dangerously compromised,“(p.52). I believe that we have done the same thing with corn, as the fields we farm today depend on the human race for their survival. Pollan describes it perfectly by saying “the human quest to control nature’s wildness can go too far,” (p.56); I believe that we have gone to far already. The sweetness that my Grandma tasted in the Gravenstein didn’t involve genetically modified traits for taste, colour, and size – it was a true sweetness. Today, what I taste is an artificial sweetness – tainted with pesticides and herbicides, and modified to satisfy this sweetness in which we now so desire. I now only dream of tasting the sweetness contained in the Gravensteins my Grandma picked, not so long ago.



2 thoughts on “Apple of My Eye

  1. Reading through your post, I found myself agreeing with many of your concepts and disagreeing with others. I also read Michael Pollan’s chapter on apples in his book, “The Botany of Desire”. Firstly, I’d like to compliment you on your writing. I found it particularly impressive how you are able to so gracefully and almost unnoticeably incorporate Michael Pollan’s quotes into your own writing. In other blogs I have read, the quotes are incorporated as their own sentences, but I find your blended phrases to be quite refreshing and a tool I will likely try to attempt for myself in the near future. “Pollan sets the scene by immersing the reader onto the ‘banks of the Ohio River on a particular afternoon in the spring of 1806,’ where you would then notice ‘a strange makeshift craft drifting lazily down the river,’.”

    I’d also like to say how much I enjoyed just reading your blog post. The way you incorporate your own opinions and thoughts into your writing creates a more conversation-like read. “This tin pot hat-wearing fella was a real guy? Huh.” These simple sentences you included really gave me the impression I was talking to you as you described your true feelings and thought process throughout the chapter.

    Furthermore, these personal sentences allowed you to include humour into your post which I enjoyed very much. I found myself agreeing with you when you mentioned how you were a little creeped out by the thought of the child-bride. I also was a little turned off of Johnny Appleseed when I read about this fun-fact. Having grown up singing about this joyful and caring appleseed planter, it was difficult for me to picture him as a fully grown man destined to marry a child.

    I was very impressed that you were able to incorporate information from Michael Pollan’s other books, more specifically, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. I found it pretty hilarious how you were able to find the exact same quote in his two books referring to two different crops. ” ‘In The Botany of Desire he states that “the apple is the hero of its own story,“(p. 6), and in The Omnivore’s Dilemma he says the same thing about corn, “corn is the hero of its own story,'(p.23).” Poor guy probably thought no one would ever notice such a small details, heck, I doubt he even knows he wrote the same sentence for the two different plants! Nevertheless, I congratulate you on your attention to detail.

    The one aspect you mention which I cannot totally agree on is your opinion about the sweetness we taste today. “The sweetness that my Grandma tasted in the Gravenstein didn’t involve genetically modified traits for taste, colour, and size – it was a true sweetness.” I personally cannot say what an apple tasted like back when your grandmother was young, however, I don’t know that the sweetness we taste today isn’t ‘true’. I believe, as a society, humans have been able to develop so many new artificial flavours that we consume everyday. I personally think that it is the artificial tastes and flavours that alter out opinion of sweetness, and not the true sweetness of the apples today. Yes, I do agree that apples have changed and been genetically modified over time, as mentioned by Michael Pollan in his chapter, but I think it is the artificial tastes that are overtaking the grocery stores today that are the main reason we have changed our definition of ‘sweetness’.

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts and opinions on this chapter of Michael Pollan’s book, “The Botany of Desire”. I also liked the photos you included which added another fun element to your post. I look forward to reading more of your posts as you continue along your ‘Plants and People’ adventure.

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