Sweetness and Light

Plants and People Blog

Entry #6 The Botany of Desire (chapter 1)

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s – Eye View of the World. New York (NY): Random House, Inc. 3-58P.

As a society, we live in a world of sugar. From the refined sugar we put in our morning coffee to the sugar filled cereal we eat for breakfast and even the high fructose corn syrup that is in our soft drinks.  We are constantly surrounded by sugar that we have learned to rely on it to make unsavory foods more appetizing. I am as guilty of this as anyone by dousing my grapefruit in sugar or adding a few sugar cubes to coffee because I can’t stand the bitter taste. Since sugar is so abundant today, I have never stopped to think about what the world would be like without the taste of sweetness or how people throughout history dealt without sweetness in their lives. Sweetness isn’t just about refined sugar, it’s the sweetness you get from a ripe peach on a warm summer evening as the juice runs down your chin. I only thought about this because I read the first chapter of Michael Pollan’s book: The Botany of Desire, where takes our desire for sweetness and explains it with the story of the apple. He travels back in time with the story of John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) who introduced apples to a portion of the United States. He tries to track Johnny Appleseed and uncover his real story since it has been so convoluted throughout history. He eventually finds his way to the Geneva orchards and tries odd varieties of apples.

I have a very mixed opinion on this week’s reading, I love Michael Pollan as an author but the story of Johnny Appleseed was not interesting to me.  Johnny Appleseed is an American Pioneer, but as a Canadian his story was never something I learned or cared about.  Maybe if his story was nostalgic for me, maybe I would have been more interested to learn about it and understand the origin of his story but that wasn’t the case.

There were elements of the story that I did enjoy like learning that he also brought hard cider to the frontier and by planting seeds he unknowingly created new apple varieties. I found the character of William Jones very odd yet charming, he reminded me of a crazy fan girl who dresses up like their favorite character and knows every fact about their existence.  Jones carried around multiple pairs of gloves because he was certain that Chapman had delicate hands. Pollan defiantly paints Jones as very passionate yet a little obsessed over Chapman, which I find very endearing. I find it very odd how Chapman had delicate hands but never wore shoes and “… would entertain the boys by pressing needles or hot coals into the soles of his feet…. (pg.28) My favorite part of the chapter was when Pollan when to the Geneva Orchards and saw the strangest variety of apples, that he tasted only to be surprised at their awful taste. This passage explains it perfectly “… I picked big, shiny red fruits that looked just like apples, of all things, though their taste… their taste was something else again. Imagine sinking your teeth into a tart potato or a slightly mushy Brazil nut covered in leather.” (pg.55) This defiantly paints a picture and my imagination is so strong that it’s as if I can taste this “apple” when I read that passage. I also enjoyed the parts where he talked about the desire of sweetness and the apples themselves. Pollan had us imagine what a life without sweetness would be like and then how amazing it would be to taste it for the first time. He uses his son’s first experience with sugar as an example of this because children see the world with innocent eyes and the simplest things are earth shattering to them. I think that’s a perfect way to explain an individual’s first taste of sweetness: earth shattering. The desire for sweetness is so prominent in many species that many plants (including the apple) used this to their advantage. These plants have manipulated humans and animals into dispersing their seed by wrapping them in a deliciously sweet pericarp, so we couldn’t resist grabbing and consuming them. I find that fascinating. During the course of the chapter Pollan switches the perspective to a plants point of view. An excellent example of this is one that I illustrated above, when Pollan talks about how plants have exploited the desire for sweetness to their own advantage.

As always, Pollan’s work never fails to disappoint, it is so lyrical and descriptive you can’t help but get sucked into the story. He always has great character development so you feel like you know these character on a deeper level than just words on a page. He takes such a simple ideas and dives into them from all angles and explores the history and relevance to the modern world in more detail than I ever thought possible. Even though, I wasn’t overly interested in the main story line of the chapter, Pollan still found a way pull me into the story and care about what he had to say. Every time I read one of Pollan’s books I always walk away from it looking at the world a little bit differently, and this book was no exception. The taste of sweetness is something so abundant in our society that I never stopped to think about what my life would be like without it. Every time, I put honey in my tea or bite into an apple I will have new appreciation for the taste of sweetness and won’t soon forget how our desire for it has influenced evolution and society. I now understand why “writers like Jonathan Swift and Matthew Arnold used the expression “sweetness and light””(pg. 17) because sweetness really is a heavenly desire.


One thought on “Sweetness and Light

  1. Hi Krysten,

    I certainly agree with you! Every time I go to put honey in my tea nowadays, or eat any number of a variety of sweet treats, I am reminded somewhat of my dependence on “sweetness”, and the fact that in many cases I just expect it to be there. It is difficult to imagine a world without it – imagining that world seems bland. And yet, I wonder if we have gone too far with our reliance on sugar and sugary syrups. These days, it seems many children would prefer candy over fresh fruit.

    I appreciate your honesty in admitting that the John Chapman story to you was not particularly captivating. I too only recall briefly ever hearing of “Johnny Appleseed” as a child, and I am not sure where from. But it is true that Michael Pollan seems to have a way of making people care about things. 🙂
    I found it quite interesting to think that at one point in history the decidedly wholesome apple was primarily used to make cider, and that some settlers actually drank this more frequently than water!


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