Pollan, M. 2002. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, NY. pg. 3-58.
I chose to read the first chapter of Pollan’s book because I was interested to see what he had to say about apples. I love reading Pollan’s work, and I wasn’t disappointed when I read the chapter.
One thing that he gets into right off the bat is John Chapman, or “Johnny Appleseed”. He essentially describes his legend and contributions to the domestication and rise of the many different apple varieties, and does so by laying out his life and his story for us to read. Pollan states that “John Chapman’s millions of seeds and thousands of miles changed the apple, and the apple changed America” (pg. 43). It was intriguing to read how apples made their way to our land with the help of humans, again bringing up the profound relationship between plants and people.
Pollan goes on to describe Chapman as “the American Dionysus” (pg. 36). I really liked how he did this; he explained who Dionysus was and his contributions, and compared him to Chapman. By comparing Chapman to a Greek god, the god of wine and winemaking at that, gave a much better sense of who Chapman was and how influential he was in the domestication and utilization of apples.
Another thing I enjoyed reading was the history of apples, and Pollan did an excellent job at doing so. I discovered many things I was not aware of previously, such as “every seed in an apple…contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree” (pg. 10) and that “wherever the apple tree goes, its offspring propose so many different variations on what it means to be an apple that a couple of these novelties are almost bound to have whatever qualities it takes to prosper in the tree’s adopted home” (pg. 11). This is an amazing thing, how a plant can contain so many different genes for variation in its seeds that the chance of it surviving in a new habitat is pretty high. Of course, this is a result of sexual reproduction and hybridization with other apple trees. However, I still find that absolutely breathtaking – evolution at its finest. Pollan also points out how universal apples are: “cultures vary enormously in their liking for bitter, sour, and salty flavors, but taste for sweetness appears to be universal” (pg. 19). This is just another thing I did not think about previously, and now that I think more about it, he is absolutely true.
If I hadn’t read this chapter about the history of the apple, I never would have known that apples were first used as a source of alcohol. In fact, the flesh of apples weren’t eaten for the longest time. Pollan mentions how “every homestead in America had an orchard from which literally thousands of gallons of cider were made every year” (pg. 22). It’s insane to think how popular apples as alcohol were back then, and how much it has changed. These days, apples are mainly eaten for their flesh, and rarely made for cider. I would also have never known that the domestication of the apple has gone too far, to the point that their fitness in nature has been compromised; because we wanted a ‘perfect’ apple for ourselves, we have basically messed around with their genes so much that they may not have a chance of surviving on their own in the wild. Definitely sad to think that we’re having that much of an impact by domesticating them.
Of course, Pollan’s main concept throughout this chapter once again is who is really domesticating who? Sure, the apples depend on us for a lot of what they need, but we also depend on them for what we need as well, and we have been domesticating them to satisfy these needs. Like always, Pollan is changing my perspective on plants, and I thank him for that. Without him and his writing, I would never really truly understand the marriage between plants and people.