The Orchestra Conductor

Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma. Penguin Press, New York.

“I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time” said Joel Salatin to Micheal Pollan as he describes how its the animals who do the real work on their farm (p 223). Joel treats his farm like an organism, ensuring that all moving parts are just the right size to benefit each other. The chickens trim the grass, feed the soil, and eat parasitic grubs, a key section of symphony. Joel also ensures his barns stay warm by the decomposition of cow manure all winter long. His ‘happy pigs’ search for fermented corn in the compost, and in turn aerate it while killing any harmful bacteria. The surrounding forest as play an integral roll in maintaining the system. The end result of such a healthy organism, is that the animals are able to be raised without chemicals and antibiotics.

Having been a vegetarian my entire life (yes, a rare breed, I know), I found the next chapter titles simply “The Slaughterhouse” both difficult to read and very informative. Pollan reminds the reader that a lot of us avoid thinking of steps between a healthy adult chicken, to a hot dinner. After recounting the factory ‘disassembly’ line, Joel mentions that only having to do this chore a few times a month allows them to process and think about these actions. This ensures that they continue to be as careful and as humane as possible.

As someone who tries to shop at farmers markets as often as the seasons will allow, I am all too familiar with the “no-barcode people”. I have had farmers hand out raw slices of sugar beets as samples, only to discover that they are mouth-wateringly delicious, and to be asked to take a bite of a raw husk of corn, only to subsequently buy a bakers dozen. I’ve heard tales of this years brassica bounty, or this seasons great humidity. Or apiarists who still have bees crawling on their arms, as they drove from only 5 minutes down the road… All of these stories, and interaction with my famers bring me closer to the food I eat. And, these irreplaceable moments are one of the reasons I keep coming back to farmers markets, and support out local farmers.

The relationships between land, animals, farmers, and shoppers, are inherently interconnected. If it weren’t for the conductors in our lives, the symphonies would fall apart.

The Line Between Poison and Desire

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire. Random House. Chapter 3

As we discussed in class this past week, the line between medicine and poison is often merely a matter of dosage. And we know as a general rule of thumb, that sweet foods are often edible, whereas bitter foods have more of a tendency to be poisonous. As Pollan states in chapter 3 of Botany of Desire, “[t]he bright line between food and poison might hold, but not the one between poison and desire” (p. 240). Pollan confirms this by referring to the lessons we had learned from our ancestors: their ‘mistakes’ are instructive. “For even some of the toxins that kill in large doses turn out in smaller increments to do interesting things—things that are interesting to animals as well as people” (p 244). Not only are we drawn to plants that alter our consciousness, but also those with medicinal properties…

What really spoke to me in this chapter was the way in which Pollan describes gardens as having more power than I ever could imagine. His observations of his cat ritualizing nepetalactone in cat nip he grew in his garden shows that our gardens are “capable of producing more than just food or beauty” but can also feed our needs to alter our consciousness, or cure illness. His imagery and description of the beauty of marijuana as ” a towering heap of leafy palms held up to the sun in an ecstatic frenzy of photosynthesis” connects to the way in which we as humans may also bow our heads and lay our palms on the ground in spiritual worship of these intoxicating plants.

The time of year once again comes to begin converting compost, sunlight and water into my tomato and basil starts, and to fill my greenhouse with seedlings of the food I crave to state my independence from my grocer. When this time comes, I will be all too aware that my garden is only feeding my desire for fresh sustenance, and not that of temptation and intoxication. I will still be reliant on my drug dealer (pharmacist, or otherwise).

Interdisciplinarity of Diamond

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. W.W. Norton and Company, New York. (Chapters 4, 5, 6, 8)

Part II of Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel titled The Rise and Spread of Food Production Diamond aims to show how the domestication of plants changed homo sapiens lives. Diamond states that “plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses…were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies” (p. 203-204). Diamond then describes how agriculture developed across the world, and focuses on independent origins of domestication. He goes on to show the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to that of agriculture and the factors that influenced the transition. Finally, chapter eight shows the benefits of locations such as the Fertile Crescent.

Diamond’s career has extended over many disciplines. His education began as an undergraduate of anthropology and history at Harvard, and extended to a PhD in physiology at Cambridge. After his education, he became a professor of physiology at Harvard, while simultaneously beginning a second career in ornithology and ecology of New Guinea. From there he went on the a third parallel career in environmental history and geography, which leads us to his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Diamond has been described as a polymath; a person with expertise in a significant number of disciplines, and a person who can draw on complex and diverse bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. Although a dated term, often used to describe great thinkers from the enlightenment, Diamond encompasses the interdisciplinary aspect of the definition, and shows this in his book. Although he is not a biologist or a paleobotanist, he is able to draw complex conclusions that truly span across multiple disciplines.

As we discussed, his book does lack the vibrant storylines that we’re used to in The 100-mile Diet, or the Triumph of Seeds. An at times, Diamond seems as though he condescends the readers in such instances as having to specify that a rhinoceros may be dangerous to hunt, or giving us 9 examples of animals that can be milked. Thanks, but I think the reader got the point after the first few. But having said that, perhaps his examples, although excruciating to me at times, could be why the book is so widely ready across a broad audience. These chapters were a bit of a slog to get through, but at the very least, the depth of knowlege was interesting


A Plant’s-Eye View

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire. Random House.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire aims at presenting case studies that show how human desires have shaped the way in which we have selected plants over the ages. In his introduction, Pollan suggests that our relationship with plants is comparable to that of the honeybee: the bee needs a plants nectar and pollen to create honey, and in exchange, spreads the plant’s genes. Pollan states that “the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom” (Pollan, p 13). Therefore, Pollan uses this example to show that we are just as much a slave to the plant as the humble bumblebee.

In chapter 7 of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel titled How to Make an Almond, he begins by giving his definition of plant domestication. He states that it “may be defined as growing a plant and thereby, consciously or unconsciously, causing it to change genetically from its wild ancestor” (Diamond, p. 258). The question Diamond poses in this chapter, is why have some plants been domesticated for centuries, whereas some plants remain undomesticated today?

He begins by creating a similar point to Pollan, in that “while some plant species have seeds adapted for being carried by the wind or for floating on water, many others trick an animal into carrying their seeds,” and depositing them far away to continue the growth of their species (Diamond, p. 260-61). Although this wouldn’t adhere to Diamond’s definition of domestication, because these animals do not consciously grow plants.

He then goes onto his example of the almond, which was originally poisonous in the wild. Human selection led to the selection of those which had a one-gene mutation that caused the almond to be sweet. Although the trees with the mutation would die out in the wild due to the lack of protection, they thrived amongst farmers who would only plant the sweet almonds. Diamond then goes on to describe more unconscious means of human selection including seed dispersal, dormancy (extended germination), enclosing seeds, and plant reproduction. “Thus, farmers selected from among individual plants on the basis not only of perceptible qualities like size and taste, but also of invisible features like seed dispersal mechanisms, germination inhibition, and reproductive biology. As a result, different plants became selected for quite different or even opposite features” (Diamond p. 276-277). In all of these cases, certain plants prevailed to be adopted by farmers, whereas others did not.

Diamond then goes on to describe the progression of domestication throughout the history for the Fertile Crescent. Seed crops, which were easy to grow and store, therefore their domestication came first around 10,000 years ago. They were followed by the first fruit and nut trees, olives, figs, dates, pomegranates, and grapes which were domesticated around 4000 B.C. (Diamond, p. 281). The final stage, and the most difficult to cultivate, were fruit trees such as apples, pears, plums, and cherries, which couldn’t be grown from cuttings.

Both Pollan and Diamond suggest that the plants themselves have played a roll in the ways in which humans have began to select plants, and therefore help in creating a “plant’s-eye view” of domestication. Whether consciously or unconsciously on the part of both the plant and the human, we have chosen to domesticate plants for a whole heap of reasons other than simple taste.


The Triumph of Seeds

Hanson, T. 2015. The triumph of seeds. Basic Books. New York. (Introduction, Chapters 1,4,5)

In the intro to Triumph of Seeds, Hanson examines the immense power of the perseverance of seeds. He aims to show how the seed as come to survive as the most common type of plant, and how humans now rely on them. Everything from cotton, to coffee is the result of a seed, and human history has been shaped by them.

“We live in a world of seeds. From our morning coffee and bagel to the cotton in our clothes and the cup of cocoa we might drink before bed, seeds surround us all day long.” (pg. 27) Hanson states in his introduction how immediately connected we are to seeds, even if we don’t realize it. From the bulk of our food, to the basis of our economies, Hanson argues that seeds rule, and are in face vital for human life. The structure of his book aims to reveal the five points he introduces at the start: seeds nourish, seeds unite, seeds endure, seeds defend, and seeds travel.

In the first chapter, he uses the avocado as a basic example of a functioning seed. His colleagues Carol and Jerry give the “baby in a box” analogy to neatly capture the essence of seeds (pg. 44). Carol explains that “[a] seed contains three basic elements: the embryo of a plant (the baby), a seed coat (the box), and some kind of nutritive tissue (the lunch)” (pg. 44). She then describes how the embryo typically feeds on its lunch to sprout its first green leaves, roots, and shoots. This analogy brings the complexity of seed germination to an understandable level for a wider audience. In chapter five, the description of the pea is also used.


Plants and People: The 100-Mile Diet (part I)

Smith, A. D., & MacKinnon, J. B. (2007). The 100-mile diet: A year of local eating. Toronto: Random House Canada.

The 100-Mile Diet is a book co-written by couple Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon as they narrate their attempt to eat locally-grown food within a hundred mile radius of Vancouver BC. They begin their journey in March, and write month by month the challenges they face, as well as their successes. The intention of their project aims at facing the issues of the global food systems, and attempts to show a possible alternative. But when contrasting a typical pantry, with one stocked locally, it is likecomparing apples and oranges. Alisa and James write to a broad audience, and incorporate shocking statistics that aim at striking a chord with the readers, and to promote change in the current state of eating habits.

In the first half of James and Alisa’s recollection, they explain the reasoning for attempting their year-long local-eating experiment with a radius of only 100 miles from the core of Vancouver. Right off the bat, this eliminates a massive amount of food products. Large grocery store, with the delights of foreign foods, were now off the table so to speak.

Being an East Vancouver native myself, I instantly connected to the challenge of eating locally in the buzzing metropolis of a port city. I grew up just a 15 minute bike ride from the Trout Lake Farmers Market, and have fond memories as a child being given fresh berries from farmers, honey tasters from apiarist, and of course fresh cheese straight from the gulf islands. And as I continue to read, it turns out that farmers markets become the bread and butter of the duo’s shopping ritual. As a child, food security was never an issue, but as an adult I understand that living on a local diet in Vancouver is impossible for many. As James and Alisa find out with their first local meal, the price of local good can me astronomical. But as the pair acquire a taste for the local diet, they find ways to reduce cost.

Although the quality local food they were finding was often literally the cream of the crop, they also faced food-sourcing challenges. As their project continues, it turns out that perhaps they have managed to bite off more than they can chew. Many items, such as salt and grain are hard to find within the Fraser Valley and surrounding area. And when potatoes, an all year staple, is not longer their cup of tea, they are faced with the challenge of creativity. How to use the ingredients available to them to create interesting and fulfilling meals. James, who does the bulk of the cooking between the two, proves that it is truly possible for the to have their cake and eat it too, by making innovative meals with the food they can source locally. They become very connected to the food they eat, and can really enjoy the fruits of their labour.

As I stew over the prospect of only eating local food, I find myself thinking about all the forbidden fruit: a hot coffee in the morning, a fresh mango, a vibrant avocado… Although many of us would be a hard nut to crack to give up our favourite foreign foods, James and Alisa find new favourites growing right in their (100-mile) back yard. Although they seems to have a lot on their plate throughout their project, the fact that they make it through the first 6 months without ‘accidentally’ having a papaya, for example, is a feat in and of itself.

I look forward to the second half of their adventure


Introspective Nomad