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.