Pollan, Botany of Desire

Pollan, Michael, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, 2011

Such a great book, I’m rereading it with Jan, will resume when she’s home again in Florida.
Halloween is coming up. God and Christ get their holy days throughout the year; the devils and satyrs still hold to one evening, with a variant of “holy” in the name: Halloween! All Saints day marks the beginning of the “dark” “half” of the year. The evening before crowds together the neglected, rejected, outlawed gods and spirits.

Christianity vs. Cannabis

Christianity is a monotheism with a ritual based in the hallucinogen alcohol: wine, communion, is a center of the mass. Wine gets the monopoly, other hallucinogens get outlawed. Read Pollan for details. Here I quote just a bit to start:

I sometimes think we’ve allowed our gardens to be bowdlerized, that the full range of their powers and possibilities has been sacrificed to a cult of plant prettiness that obscures more dubious truths about nature, our own included. It hasn’t always been this way, and we may someday come to regard the contemporary garden of vegetables and flowers as a place almost Victorian in its repressions and elisions.
For most of their history, after all, gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty—with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill. In ancient times, people all over the world grew or gathered sacred plants (and fungi) with the power to inspire visions or conduct them on journeys to other worlds; some of these people, who are sometimes called shamans, returned with the kind of spiritual knowledge that underwrites whole religions. The medieval apothecary garden cared little for aesthetics, focusing instead on species that healed and intoxicated and occasionally poisoned. Witches and sorcerers cultivated plants with the power to “cast spells”—in our vocabulary, “psychoactive” plants. Their potion recipes called for such things as datura, opium poppies, belladonna, hashish, fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria), and the skins of toads (which can contain DMT, a powerful hallucinogen). These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based “flying ointment” that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the “broomstick” by which these women were said to travel.
The medieval gardens of witches and alchemists were forcibly uprooted and forgotten (or at least euphemized beyond recognition), but even the comparatively benign ornamental gardens that came after them went out of their way to honor the darker, more mysterious face of nature. The Gothic gardens of England and Italy, for example, always made room for intimations of mortality—by including a dead tree, say, or a melancholy grotto—and the occasional frisson of horror. These gardens were interested in changing people’s consciousness, too, though more in the way a horror movie does than a drug. It’s only been in modern times, after industrial civilization concluded (somewhat prematurely) that nature’s powers were no longer any match for its own, that our gardens became benign, sunny, and environmentally correct places from which the old horticultural dangers—and temptations—were expelled.
Or if not expelled, almost willfully forgotten. For even in Grandmother’s garden you’re apt to find datura and morning glories (the seeds of which some Indians consume as a sacramental hallucinogen) and opium poppies—right there, the makings of a witch’s flying ointment or apothecary’s tonic. The knowledge that once attended these powerful plants, however, has all but vanished. And as soon as this plant knowledge is restored to consciousness—as soon as, say, one forms the intention of slitting the head of an opium poppy to release its narcotic sap—so too must be its taboo. Curiously, growing Papaver somniferum in America is legal—unless, that is, it is done in the knowledge that you are growing a drug, when, rather magically, the exact same physical act becomes the felony of “manufacturing a controlled substance.” Evidently the Old Testament and the criminal code both make a connection between forbidden plants and knowledge.

I love it: the priest pours the wine around; the witch worships her complement-god by applying her carefully brewed harvest to her genitals with a dildo-like applicator, a broom, that takes her on a trip!
Here’s something I didn’t know:

an American president—Jimmy Carter—had proposed that marijuana be decriminalized (his sons and even his drug czar smoked), and Bob Hope was telling benign jokes about doobies in prime time. Marijuana then was harmless, funny, and, it seemed to everyone, on the verge of social acceptance.
In the years since, there has been a sea change concerning cannabis in America. By the end of the decade the plant had suddenly acquired, or been endowed with, extraordinary new powers, which, among other things, rendered my story a period piece, quaint in its goofiness and not at all likely to be repeated. A couple of facts will illustrate the change: The minimum penalty for the cultivation of a kilogram of marijuana (the size of my harvest, more or less) in this state has, since 1988, been a mandatory five-year jail sentence. (Other states are harsher still: growing any amount of marijuana in Oklahoma qualifies a gardener for a life sentence.)
Jail time would not be my only worry were I so foolish as to reprise my experiment. If the New Milford police chief happened to find marijuana growing in my garden today, he would have the power to seize my house and land, regardless of whether I was ultimately convicted of a crime. That’s because, according to the somewhat magical reasoning of the federal asset-forfeiture laws, my garden can be found guilty of violating the drug laws even if I am not. The titles of proceedings brought under these laws sound rather less like exercises in American jurisprudence than medieval animism …

The author tells funny personal stories about pot. I have no such stories except to say that I have almost no experience with it, never approved: and add that my relationship to alcohol is misfortunate: wine (really beer, a lot of beer, and then a lot of gin, scotch …) abused me while I abused it: past tense. (I wonder how many of my teen friends are still alive. God, did we work at becoming alcoholics!)

Each chapter was so good I didn’t know how the last chapter, on potatoes, could be half as good or why it should come last, but it is the best!

… compared to the rest of the economy, farming has largely resisted the trend toward centralization and corporate control.

Monoculture is in crisis.

… the monoculture of global taste—is about uniformity and control. Indeed, the monocultures of the field and the monocultures of our global economy nourish each other in crucial ways. The two are complexly intertwined expressions of the same Apollonian desire, our impulse, I mean, to elevate the universal over the particular or local, the abstract over the concrete, the ideal over the real, the made over the natural. The spirit of Apollo celebrates “the One,” Plutarch wrote, “denying the many and abjuring multiplicity.” Against Dionysus’s “variability” and “wantonness” he poses the power of “uniformity [and] orderliness.” Apollo is the god, then, of monoculture, whether of plants or of people.

Monoculture is where the logic of nature collides with the logic of economic

the genetics of most of our major crop plants have traditionally been regarded as a common heritage rather than as “intellectual property.”

What a great book, great writer, great thinker. I’ve now read the chapter on potatoes at least twice. The Epilogue is really great too: We too cast unconscious evolutionary votes every time we reach for the most symmetrical flower or the longest french fry.

Reading Notes


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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