PBS Documentary based on Michael Pollan‘s book
Watching this was kind of a cheat. I feel like one of those people. (The ones who say they haven’t read the book, they only watched the movie). But, in my defense, I only had an hour or two. I despise folding laundry. Absolutely detest it. It is amazingly mind numbing. So I’m always trying to find ways to make it more exciting (as if!). Lately, I’ve been streaming various shows to my i-pad to occupy my mind while my hands are busy doing this most hated of tasks. So it was with pure pleasure that I recently streamed THE BOTANY OF DESIRE. Is that a great title or what?
THE BOTANY OF DESIRE focuses on four plants: the apple, the tulip, the potato, and marijuana and basically turns the study of their domestication on its ear by viewing it from the plants’ perspective. In other words, as Pollan says, “We always think that we cultivate plants, but what if they’re cultivating us?”
The first plant that Pollan examined was the apple, which was the one I was the most interested in. I think apples are a fascinating plant. There’s a lot of mythology, history, and symbolism behind them. The fruit seems to mean different things to different people. I love its irony — its associated with sin (as the forbidden fruit from the Bible) and yet it’s also associated with health, wholesomeness, and even patriotism. Who hasn’t heard the phrase “American as Apple Pie”?
So in between folding towels, jeans, and sports jerseys, I was happy to learn that the reason for the fruit’s often ironic and conflicting reputation may be simple survival. The fruit is quite adaptable. It comes in an amazing number of varieties. Most consumers today can only name a few, maybe a handful, of varieties off the top of their head (Red Delicious, Macintosh, possibly Granny Smith, Gala, and/or the Pink Lady). But there are literally thousands of apple varieties.
According to Pollan, however, the apple’s number one survival trait isn’t its adaptability, but its sweetness (aww, makes you want to find one and scratch it behind the ears). Apparently, there are a limited number of sources of true sweetness in nature. In fact, Pollan notes only two examples: ripe fruit and honey. Humans’ desire for sweetness makes sense when viewed from a dietary or biological perspective. Sweetness usually equals calories, which we need in order to survive. “Sweet” is also a taste that is easily distinguishable from “bitter,” which is what poisons usually taste like. (I would have loved to have gotten Pollan’s thoughts on the image of the poisoned apple, but alas, that wasn’t covered).
The Apple’s Origins
THE BOTANY OF DESIRE sketches out a brief history of the apple, whose genetic origins lie in the forests of Kazakhstan. The apples’ first BFF was the bear but it quickly traded up for humans and “insinuated itself into our culture, art, and religion.” Of course, the biblical tale of the Garden of Eden was mentioned, although, as Pollan points out, the Bible never actually says that an apple is the forbidden fruit. Pollan believes it was likely the pomegranate because apples “don’t do very well in the lands where the Bible is thought to have taken place.” (Well, double hmm… because if ever there was a fruit to rival the apple in terms of mythology, symbolism, art, and culture, it would probably be the pomegranate, right?)
I did NOT use Johnny Appleseed as inspiration for any of the Angel characters in my books but I was struck by some similarities. According to the movie, Johnny Appleseed was quite the entrepreneur. Traveling gypsy-like across the land, he planted orchards and educated farmers about apples. Arguably, he was one of the first naturalists, growing apples from seeds rather than by grafting and cloning. This resulted in apple orchards that were robust and not unlike Forest Gump’s box of chocolates.
Today and the Future of Apples
Since the documentary’s focus was on domestication from the plant’s POV, the movie did not go into great detail about today’s apple industry or its future. It briefly touched on the fact that modern day farmers tend to have monocultures, or orchards with only one endless variety, which leads to less resilient species. And there was a nice little bit with a New Hampshire farmer who grows apples for hard cider and whose love for the antique apple was evident even with limited screen time (Steven Wood of Poverty Lane Orchards).
In short, I enjoyed the movie and will probably check out the book. I mostly read commercial fiction, but every now and then I’ll read a non-fiction book that’s a real gem (GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL anyone?) There’s no doubt that extending our reading horizons makes us better writers and… that watching documentaries like THE BOTANY OF DESIRE makes folding laundry go that much faster!
So, how about you? Anyone else as fascinated as I am with apples? Have you seen or read THE BOTANY OF DESIRE? What did you think of the other segments on the tulip, potato, and marijuana? Do you think the apple is as iconic and beloved as Michael Pollan believes? Do you even like apples?!? Have any other tips on how to make laundry folding go faster? 😉