Botany lessons, new and ancient


It’s wonderful to have friends and relatives to visit in Portland, because that’s where Powell’s Books is located. This behemoth of a bookstore doesn’t just have a shelf of books about gardening; it has an aisle – a very long, very tall and very luscious aisle. It might make you wish to be accidentally locked in the store overnight. Failing that – or lacking reasons to visit Portland – Powell’s has an equally expansive website, filled with the books about gardening and the natural world that make January bearable.

One of those books is The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, published in 2001. Pollan has written bestsellers about food, agriculture, the natural world, and psychedelic plants. Though I’ve read his work in the New York Times, I’m over 20 years late in reading this book. I have no good excuse for that, but there’s better than even odds that I’m not alone.

From the very first page, Pollan upends conventional wisdom about who is in charge in our gardens. Bees and apple trees “trade favors,” as he puts it; the tree providing nectar to the bee, and the bee providing pollinating services to the apple tree. Each supports the ability of the other to survive and multiply, which is the evolutionary goal of all life. As Pollan is planting fingerling potatoes, he realizes that he and the potato are engaged in the same bargain: the potato provides him with food; he provides the potato with the opportunity to multiply.

Pollan wonders: “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potatoes make me do it? In fact, both statements are true. I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its knobby charms in the pages of a seed catalogue. I think it was the tasty-sounding ‘buttery yellow flesh’ that did it. This was a trivial, semiconscious event; it never occurred to me that our catalog encounter was of any evolutionary consequence whatsoever. Yet evolution consists of an infinitude of trivial, unconscious events, and in the evolution of the potato my reading of a particular seed catalogue on a particular January evening counts as one of them.”

He realize that “All these plants, which I’ve always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do themselves.”

That eureka moment led to a book that examines the reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world – a book that takes “the plant’s point of view.” Pollan explores how the success of “domesticated species” such as potatoes, dogs, grains and corn have engaged in a “clever evolutionary strategy for advancing their own interests.”

Pollan acknowledges that “Partly by default, partly by design, all of nature is now in the process of being domesticated – of coming, or finding itself, under the (somewhat leaky) roof of civilization. Indeed, even the wild now depends on civilization for its survival.”

These are intriguing ideas to roll around in your mind.  As I was turning these ideas over and poking at them, a bell rang: I was reminded of a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer that comes to similar conclusions from a radically different perspective.

Kimmerer is a botany professor and member of the Potawatomi Nation who seeks to combine Western science and the traditional knowledge of her Native culture. She regards the symbiosis between people and plants that Pollan describes not as a new idea, but as ancient wisdom.

Under her supervision, for instance, one of her students conducted a scientific experiment that showed that a patch of sweetgrass that was harvested regularly by tribal members grew more vigorously than a patch that was left alone. That was not a surprise to Kimmerer, but a validation of traditional knowledge.

Here in Thurston County, there is a similar example of reciprocal relationships between tribal people and the plants they relied on: local tribal communities managed controlled burns that kept trees from overwhelming prairie lands, so that camas and other food plants flourished.

These are relationships that are less than full domestication, and yet less than completely wild. (Though heaven knows there was plenty of wild around.) So Kimmerer’s ideas are not quite the same as Pollan’s, but they rhyme.

One hopes that Pollan’s insight might mean that non-Indian people have finally been on this continent long enough to start seeing the wisdom the natural world is always trying to teach us – the wisdom that many native societies learned over thousands of years before we or our ancestors showed up. A long overdue cultural convergence may be underway.

We can begin the New Year with that hope. And a good book.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers, and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com 


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  • PegGerdes

    Excellent! Thank you for the recommendation for Braiding Sweetgrass (now in my library queue), and how it dovetails with Botany of Desire. Perfect for closing 2022 and opening 2023!

    Saturday, December 31, 2022 Report this