Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pollan's Progress

Michael Pollan is the prophet for the local food/real food movement, to the extent that there was a serious effort to have him named as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration. He is probably the person most single-handedly responsible for shifting the perspective of a significant proportion of our nation regarding food and how it should be produced. If he did not coin it, he has clarified and explained the concept of "industrial agriculture". Reading his book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006), has been what many have described as the signal moment when they realized that they had to redefine their relationship to food, and how it is produced. He has certainly had a profound influence on my thinking.

I've become more and more interested with his progression to where he has arrived. I was intrigued by his statement on a recent TV interview that he had reached this place because of his experience as a gardener. If I recall correctly, he said that gardening had made him think about food and how it was produced. I've been reviewing his books and his personal evolution, as reflected through them. The books are remarkable in that they are both intimate and lofty. While he poses big, universal questions, he then muses aloud, relating his own personal experience (with sometimes embarrassingly self-revelatory snips, like reading The Selfish Gene while stoned on pot), and yet manages to place the subject within an extensively researched and broad historical context (most of his books have a comprehensive bibliography) .

Pollan is a journalist who wrote extensively for the New York Times Magazine before beginning with books. But he bought a piece of an old farm in Connecticut in 1983, began to garden, and then to write about it. This eventually led to his first book, "Second Nature", first published in 1992. The book made quite an impression on me when I read it shortly after its publication. It is a personal exploration of his own evolution as a gardener, with chapters on miscellaneous subjects like choosing a tree to plant (alas, it was a Norway maple), the politics of garden catalogs, his grandfather's garden and what he learned from it, lawns, weeds, and rose gardens. There are some amusing stories, some that are touching. But Pollan gives away his real identity as a seriously serious writer in the Introduction: "...I soon came to the realization that I would not learn to garden very well before I'd also learned about a few other things: about my proper place in nature...about the somewhat peculiar attitudes toward the land that an American is born with...about the troubled borders between nature and culture; and about the experience of place, (and) the moral implications of landscape design..." He then somewhat bashfully admits, "It may be my nature to complicate search for large meanings in small things...". Yup.

Probably the most significant chapter in the book is "The Idea of a Garden", in which he explores most of those questions from the Introduction. He tells a sad story of old-growth trees in a Nature Conservancy tract that were felled by a tornado. What to do? Remove the trees, which would make the forest pretty again, and less likely to be a fire hazard? Or let "nature" take its course by leaving them in place? The final decision in such cases is destined to meet some human desire (whether for a pretty scene or a sense of untouched wilderness). This leads to a musing on what the real "nature" of such a place really is, and what is the meaning of wilderness in the presence of humans. The overall conclusion is that we treat all of nature as a garden, even when we are trying to "preserve" or to "restore" it.

His next book (if we skip over a book about building a house) was The Botany of Desire (2002). Here again is the theme of the interaction of humans and nature. But a new insight is expressed here - that we are interacting with plants, influencing their evolution while they influence us. Pollan chooses just four plants to discuss, the tulip (a discussion of tulipomania and our fascination with flowers), the apple (Johnny Appleseed, wild and heritage apples), marijuana (humanity's need for intoxication), and the potato.

Particularly in this last chapter, we see the present Pollan emerging. He discusses the spread of the potato across Europe and the effects of the late blight epiphytotic in Ireland in the 1840s, while also traveling to Monsanto in St. Louis to learn about genetic engineering. Talk about going into the belly of the beast - just as he would later buy a steer and follow it all the way to the slaughterhouse, he obtains potatoes that contain the gene for Bt resistance and plants them in his own garden (he would later discard them rather than serve them to the unsuspecting). He later visits a potato farmer in Idaho, where he sees the many baths of pesticides that potatoes grown conventionally must be treated to. (A moment of hilarity ensues when he is served a potato salad made of freshly dug potatoes that include the genetically engineered variety as well as some presumably pesticide-treated ones.) Afterwards, he visits an organic potato farmer, whose complex adaptive strategies are described at length. And then for the first time, he uses the phrase "industrial agriculture", as he discusses the efficiencies of monoculture and the problems it creates. (Of which the Irish potato famine is again presented as a prime example.) After musing on our collective responsibility for demanding perfect McDonalds' french fries and thus perfectly industrially produced potatoes ("the problem of monoculture may be as much a problem of culture as it is of agriculture"), he goes home to harvest his own (untreated) Kennebecs.

So - the perfect circle, from the gardener to the front lines of the food system, and back to the garden again, where it all begins.

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