Pollan, Michael. 2002. The Botany of Desire. pg. xiii-xxv. Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.
My mother was well known on the street I grew up on as the lady with plants that grew to abnormally large sizes. Our front yard, shaded by our house, was ordained with beautifully gigantic Hostas, deeply purple Lugaria with radiant yellow flowers, colossal ostrich ferns and a an unknown small herbaceous forb that eventually took over our yard quite effortlessly. The front of our yard was blessed with more sunlight than the shaded perimeter around our house. In the sunlight, bleeding hearts bloomed in early spring but quickly retired back to the earth. They were succeeded by a robust peony shrub bearing alluring fuschia flowers and a variety of Papaver that I have never seen again since we left that home for our farm life. Even at a very young age, my mother let me help in the garden. I spent countless hours helping her weed and plant the annuals in spring. Today, I attribute much of my love of plants to my mother, who inspired my interest in the foreign world of Earth’s flora.
As a child, I was captivated by how simply magical and unfathomable the life of a plant is. As animals, it’s very simple to comprehend that we consume tangible products (food) to create a different tangible result (growth). However, plants gain mass not by consuming something we can touch. They do not consume something with a shape, smell, or taste. They consume starlight. Plants use sunlight as they energy source, and unlike the photosynthetic microbes of the world, plants make up more than 90% of the world’s biomass. They simultaneously bestow this world with some of the largest organisms in the world, and some of the most beautiful, ornate structures across all the domains of life. During my time in the garden, this concept was fascinating. Plants seemed like wizards; they literally seemed to make something from nothing, and did so with such efficiency that it left me equally befuddled and awestruck.
In Pollan’s writing about the relationships plants have established with other creatures in The Botany of Desire, he emphasizes how drastically plants and animals have influenced each other’s evolution. His writing describes a viewpoint very similar to my own that roots itself back to the first time I had ever become familiar with the word “photosynthesis.” Pollan argues that plants have been artificially selected by humans to curb many desires that we possess. After some time of observing plants, I would say I share this viewpoint now. Flowering plants exhibit this relationship the most strongly, advertising themselves with gorgeous inflorescences and tempting fruits. The formation of these intricate, complex structures is a colossal energy investment, and as such the plant must be benefiting from it in some way. I think as humans, we often forget that Earth was not created for us or “with us in mind.” Coffee doesn’t produce caffeine so we can wake up in the morning no more than Papaver somniferum produces the precursors to morphine so we can advance our medical abilities. These occurrences are simply a consequence of the plant’s defenses or biochemistry it has developed. Pollan addresses this misconception concisely and elegantly: “Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose” (pg. xxi). As a species that feels disconnected from the natural world, so much so that we hardly consider ourselves a part of it, we can often lose sight of the fact that creatures evolve for themselves, not to benefit others. However, as Pollan states, these developments can appear to be nothing short of miracles; the modified leaves of Nepenthes or the bladders of Utricularia are truly spectacular products of this process.
Pollan emphasizes the importance of understanding that we share this world with plants. Plants are alien to us, they function completely differently and have been subject to selective pressures which have changed their body forms in ways incomparable to animals. It is challenging, nigh impossible, to place yourself in the metaphorical “shoes” of the plant, but I would say trying to put those shoes on is what was truly enticing to me in exploring the botanical world.
Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs and Steel. Pg 116-130. Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing, United States of America.
Human perspective standpoint is a peculiar one. We often assume an authoritative role above the other life we share this earth with, while in reality this authority is simply a perspective we believe in. We often believe that we are the ones that manipulate other life, and that our Earth was “made” for us, even if we don’t actually believe it consciously. Many individuals will walk through their life not thinking twice about how nature has changed us as a species, and how, while our environment is a very different one, we have not been disconnected from nature. Diamond discusses this topic, making a point of how domestication is simply a hypothetical standpoint that we believe is our control over the subject. But if we are thereby increasing the success of that “domesticated” organism by breeding them and continuing their species, then who is truly the manipulative one?
Corn forms the crux of many human societies, with wheat and rice followed shortly behind. Though many of understand we use these plants extensively, Diamond argues that we have been changed during this domestication process, and that we have inadvertently changed to accommodate this food source. This standpoint is not at all outlandish, we have been using corn and other plant products for years, and plants have been enslaving animals to do their sex and dispersal of their progeny for much longer.
We aren’t the first animals to succumb to the seductive prizes the plant kingdom has deceptively offered us.
In many ways, the evolution of plants (flowering plants in particular) is built on the foundation of many coevolutionary relationships, but we always view the plants as changing to suit others, but from the plant’s perspective the story is very different. Plants have changed over the years to facilitate their survival like any other living thing. The success of common crop plants today is not an accident; we have been seduced by their influence and benefits they give to us. Diamond discusses this matter in how we have subconsciously selected for the plants that yielded us the greatest benefit which has changed the species of interest considerably from their wild counterparts. Though this is by a means we call “artificial selection” or domestication, many of us fail to understand that this is a blanket or authority we cover the process with. Plants are selecting us to breed them as much as we are selecting them for their delicious fruits, beautiful flowers, or indispensible materials. Diamond spends considerable time discussing the almonds for this purpose; while almonds (and many other seeds) are inherently too bitter and poisonous to eat; a single gene mutation removes that. In the wild, it’s beneficial to possess seeds that no one wants to consume, but for us, the mutation of sweet almonds is beneficial to the almond trees as it gives us incentive to breed them en masse.
Perspective is important. Life lives in a stuttering harmony, but the individuals in that harmony affect each other substantially. No relationship between two or more individuals has only one story.