The Unassuming Necessity

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. 4-59.  Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.

Botanically, a fruit is no more than a maturing, fleshy ovary that encapsulates the seeds of a flowering plant.  Just as the flower is defined as a bisexual organ of the anthophyta, this definition does little to truly capture both the beauty and innate captivating ability these structures have on the animal kingdom.  The botanical definitions provide insight on what these structures are from the reproductive point of view, but the reality of how these structures truly influence us as animals is very different.  Pollan discusses this at length, and his first chapter uses the apple as his example.  It’s attractive colour, enticing fragrance and a crisp sweetness that is truly of unmatched desire.

Pollan has broken down “The Botany of Desire” into key points, indicating how each plant’s features has acted on our psyche at a conscious and subconscious level.  When discussing the apple, Pollan states the apple has historically acted on our senses of desire profoundly.  However, he does note earlier in the book that the apple is not alone, many botanical specimens have actively seduced us into a relentless pull of desire.  His example, the apple, is one such example of a particularly attractive fruit.  Pollan states that when the apple was a new, revolutionary crop that was coveted heavily, sweetness had a much different connotation.  “Like a shimmering equal sign, the word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire: it stood for fulfilment” (p. 17).  Pollan describes that the advent of such a remarkable fruit was so influential because its sweetness was so infatuating.  He discusses that “sweetness” had a “noble” quality to it, and as such, we extrapolated that quality onto the apple.  Whether we knew it or not, we likely looked up to the apple; its crisp sweetness was unparalleled.  Though it may seem absurd, in some way we had an incredible appreciation for this gift that is so delicately wrapped in a radiant, shimmering skin.

Though we have been seduced and now actively cultivate countless plants for numerous reasons, it would be ignorant to suggest that the apple (and other fruits) had been dragged into this.  In many ways, flowering plants gift wrap their offspring for animals to take.  It’s a hard life for a seed, and most seeds aren’t terribly attractive, so instead, plants have actively preyed on our senses: our desire to consume and control what we need or love.  I have personally fallen victim to this countless times.  I used to cook with my mother frequently when I was younger, and I would often comment on how pretty the vegetables and fruits we used were.  I think the first time I saw an eggplant was the moment the plant kingdom seduced me so successfully.  It’s a fruit with such a unique colour, a mesmerizing deep purple.  It’s a firm fruit, but soft enough to the touch to really make you wonder what it tastes like.  Eggplants from the grocery store are often curved slightly, something unique to eggplant as far as the fruits we consume go, and the sepals gently hug the proximal end of the fruit.  It really is a magnificent structure.  Its shape, colour, and form are tremendously unique.  The eggplant quickly sucked me in; it was a marvel of nature to my younger self and something truly unique.

Though I’ve had this in mind for awhile, it’s hard to look at a fruit or flower now without thinking about how much this plant has fooled and seduced us animals into breeding them.  Plants are likely natures greatest artists, but they are an organism without the eyes to appreciate their creations.

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Almighty Corn Overlords

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 15-119.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

Image credit: http://grow.ars-informatica.ca/plant.php?L=674&nm=Zea%20mays

We as humans like to believe the world bends to us, and that we have formed the society of present on the wills and desires on human beings alone.

This belief is misguided and short-sighted.

Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma discusses the impact and tremendous authority the unassuming Zea mays has over our civilization.  We use corn in a tremendous amount of ways, from eating corn on the cob itself, high-fructose corn syrup or corn starch.  An overwhelming amount of our food source is completely dependent on corn itself.  Pollan discusses this with an enticing set of examples, extrapolating the necessity of corn to not only our plant-based products but to our animal products as well.  As we are now, most livestock are fed on corn exclusively (which has nutritional issues, which must be supplemented) and as such, Pollan calls us “corn people,” due to our heavy reliance on the authoritative corn plant.  It’s not an exaggeration to state that almost everything you eat in a day is made possible by this plant.

When we consider what we have done to corn, we often assume that we have changed corn forever, but we often ignore what corn has done to us.  In selecting for corn, we have increased its fitness by allowing it to reproduce so successfully.  Corn’s wild ancestor, Teosinte, was a grass with markedly different morphological and developmental attributes compared to other grasses (Poaceae).  We have selected it to become a plant that is entirely dependent on us as its nitrogen demands are unrealistic, and it’s flower form offers questionable benefits, being wrapped in a stubborn husk with unnecessary seed density.  Pollan discusses that modern Zea mays cobs offer very little benefit in the wild, where their seeds sprout in dense clusters which cause needless competition where all the seeds end up dying.  It’s an interesting relationship we have developed with corn; though we believe we have made it a plant completely dependent on use, we often fail to realize that that dependence is not one-sided.  Pollan addresses this by stating: “Corn is the hero of its own story; and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest we have been calling the shots or acting always in our best interests.  Indeed, there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us” (Pg. 23).  Pollan isn’t afraid to boldly state how influential corn has been on our society, referring to its success as “world domination,” and it isn’t far from the truth.

Pollan’s writing style here seems noticeably different than the tone of “Botany of Desire.”  He writes here with a fairly commanding voice, strongly advocating this coevolutionary dependence that humans and corn have developed with each other.  He particularly emphasizes the necessity of both humans facilitating the production of corn, while corn has cleverly changed itself to become the ideal cereal for human utilization.  Though we commonly state that we have harnessed and controlled plants like corn for decades, perhaps we should be acknowledging our supreme overlords; Zea mays.