Plants eat light, grow almost everywhere on Earth, and make up 99% of the planet's biomass. But do what extent do plants think? Or feel? Michael Pollan tackles the question of plant intelligence in a thought-provoking article for the New Yorker (sadly behind their paywall).
Indeed, many of the most impressive capabilities of plants can be traced to their unique existential predicament as beings rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or when conditions turn unfavorable. The "sessile life style" as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one's immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty different senses, including analogues of our five: smell and taste (they sense and respond to chemicals in the air or on their bodies); sight (they react differently to various wavelengths of light as well as to shadow); touch (a vine or root "knows" when it encounters a solid object); and, it has been discovered, sound.
In a recent experiment, Heidi Appel, a chemical ecologist at the University of Missouri, found that, when she played a recording of a caterpillar chomping a leaf for a plant that hadn't been touched, the sound primed the the plant's genetic machinery to produce defense chemicals. Another experiment, dome in Mancuso's lab and not yet published, found that plant roots would seek out a buried pipe through which water was flowing even if the exterior of the pipe was dry, which suggested that plants somehow "hear" the sound of flowing water.
One of the researchers featured in the article, Stefano Mancuso, has a TED talk available in which he outlines his case for plant intelligence:
Michael Pollan and Maira Kalman come together to create an enhanced Food Rules for hardcover, now beautifully illustrated and with even more food wisdom.
Michael Pollan's definitive compendium, Food Rules, is here brought to colorful life with the addition of Maira Kalman's beloved illustrations.
This brilliant pairing is rooted in Pollan's and Kalman's shared appreciation for eating's pleasures, and their understanding that eating doesn't have to be so complicated. Written with the clarity, concision, and wit that is Michael Pollan's trademark, this indispensable handbook lays out a set of straightforward, memorable rules for eating wisely. Kalman's paintings remind us that there is delight in learning to eat well.
From a 1997 issue of Harper's, a Michael Pollan piece called Opium Made Easy. Written before even The Botany of Desire (and his later well-known books on food), the article explores the seeming illegality of growing poppies in one's personal garden coupled with the relative ease of procuring poppies for growing and making them into a sort of opium tea once grown. A long but interesting read.
The language of the statute was distressingly clear. Not only opium but "opium poppy and poppy straw" are defined as Schedule II controlled substances, right alongside PCP and cocaine. The prohibited poppy is defined as a "plant of the species Papaver somniferum L., except the seed thereof," and poppy straw is defined as "all parts, except the seeds, of the opium poppy, after mowing." In other words, dried poppies.
Section 841 of the act reads, "[I]t shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally ... to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense" opium poppies. The definition of "manufacturing" includes propagating -- i.e., growing. Three things struck me as noteworthy about the language of the statute. The first was that it goes out of its way to state that opium poppy seeds are, in fact, legal, presumably because of their legitimate culinary uses. There seems to be a chicken-and-egg paradox here, however, in which illegal poppy plants produce legal poppy seeds from which grow illegal poppy plants.
The second thing that struck me about the statute's language was the fact that, in order for growing opium poppies to be a crime, it must be done "knowingly or intentionally." Opium poppies are commonly sold under more than one botanical name, only one of which -- Papaver somniferum -- is specifically mentioned in the law, so it is entirely possible that a gardener could be growing opium poppies without knowing it. There would therefore appear to be an "innocent gardener" defense. Not that it would do me any good: at least some of the poppies I'd planted had been clearly labeled Papaver somniferum, a fact that I have -- perhaps foolishly -- confessed in these very pages to knowing. The third thing that struck me was the most stunning of all: the penalty for knowingly growing Papaver somniferum is a prison term of five to twenty years and a maximum fine of $1 million.
The tulip, by gratifying our desire for a certain kind of beauty, has gotten us to take it from its origins in Central Asia and disperse it around the world. Marijuana, by gratifying our desire to change consciousness, has gotten people to risk their lives, their freedom, in order to grow more of it and plant more of it. The potato, by gratifying our desire for control, control over nature so that we can feed ourselves has gotten itself out of South America and expanded its range far beyond where it was 500 years ago. And the apple, by gratifying our desire for sweetness begins in the forests of Kazakhstan and is now the universal fruit. These are great winners in the dance of domestication.
Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (another four minutes cleaning up); that's less than half the time that we spent cooking and cleaning up when Julia arrived on our television screens. It's also less than half the time it takes to watch a single episode of "Top Chef" or "Chopped" or "The Next Food Network Star." What this suggests is that a great many Americans are spending considerably more time watching images of cooking on television than they are cooking themselves -- an increasingly archaic activity they will tell you they no longer have the time for.
One of the things that food/cooking shows do -- particularly the dump-and-stir programs like Rachael Ray -- is to give the viewer the impression that by watching, they have cooked a meal. (Mirror neurons, anyone?) Perhaps that's a small factor contributing to cooking's decline in the American home.
Scientists are still trying to figure out what's causing CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a plague that's killing off millions of bee across the United States. Among the possible culprits are a virus, increased vulnerability to disease due to breeding, overwork (hives of bees are trucked around the country for months to pollinate crops), increased exposure to all kinds of insecticides, and perhaps even all of the above.
As the swift expansion of feral honeybees across the Americas shows, they are not especially picky about their habitat; most anything outside of parking lot or vast monoculture will do. And for native bees, habitat could be restored to suit the needs of whichever species are exceptionally good pollinators of local crops. Bumblebees, for instance, are the best pollinators of Maine blueberries, whereas blue orchard bees work well for California almonds.
Hirsh's idea is reminiscent of Michael Pollan's proposals for decreasing the present monoculture in American agriculture outlined in his recent books.
I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.
I wonder if McCain had a chance to read it. (thx, tim & jeremy)
There are many moving parts to the new food agenda I'm urging you to adopt, but the core idea could not be simpler: we need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine. True, this is easier said than done -- fossil fuel is deeply implicated in everything about the way we currently grow food and feed ourselves. To put the food system back on sunlight will require policies to change how things work at every link in the food chain: in the farm field, in the way food is processed and sold and even in the American kitchen and at the American dinner table. Yet the sun still shines down on our land every day, and photosynthesis can still work its wonders wherever it does. If any part of the modern economy can be freed from its dependence on oil and successfully resolarized, surely it is food.
Michael Pollan blasts the current US farm bill, saying that all the subsudies for corn, soy, wheat, etc. drive down the price of unhealthy foods relative to healthful foods like carrots, making the bil responsible for the obesity and over-nutrition of the country's population, especially the poor. "A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called 'an epidemic' of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation's agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives."
Michael Pollan has some good advice for writing about nature and science. "So choose your first person deliberately. Too many newspaper first persons -- and a lot of magazine first persons too -- are written in the voice of the neutral feature-writer. They're the voice of the Journalist. That is the least interesting first person you have. Nobody cares about journalists. They're not normal people. So choose a first person that draws on a more normal side of your personality. And think about which one will help you tell the story. You'll see that in very subtle ways it will shape your point of view and your tone and unlock interesting things."
An interview with Michael Pollan about The Omnivore's Dilemma. "Whereas every chef in the Bay Area is deeply involved in sourcing their food with great care, and they know all their farmers and they go to farms. You still have many chefs in New York whose focus is on technique, on what happens in the kitchen, not on the farm."
I wanted to write more about this, but I don't have the throughput right now and the article is 5 days old at this point, so this shorter post will have to do. Michael Pollan, who is doing some of the best food writing out there right now, wrote an article in the most recent NY Times Magazine on how we should be thinking about eating. In it, he blames the rise of nutritionism (the emphasis on the nutrients contained in food rather than the food itself) for our increasingly poor diets. This goes in the must-read pile for sure, if only for the great "silence of the yams" pun. If you absolutely can't handle the length, skip to the "Beyond Nutritionism" section at the end for Pollan's rules of thumb for eating, my favorite of which is #5: "Pay more, eat less."
I am writing to you in the hopes that you can offer some assistance to me regarding a troubling household situation. My wife has been reading your recent book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and has allowed herself to become carried away with your admittedly persuasive argument about eating more locally and ethically raised food.
At first it was just little stuff, like buying local produce and banning foodstuffs made with high fructose corn syrup. But then there was the fist-fight at the greenmarket about the sausage that Meg suspected was not humanely made because the woman selling it did not know the names of the pigs that supplied the meat. "Just one name, you heartless bitch!" she screamed as security escorted her from Union Square. The restraining order prevents Meg's further presence at the market and I am barely tolerated in her stead.
Lately though, Mr. Pollan, the situation has become much worse. Meg has completely forsaken her marital duties, turning her evening attentions elsewhere. It took me a few weeks to discover what she was up to, but she finally admitted to tending a hayfield in an empty lot in Queens. Oh, didn't I tell you? Meg has purchased a cow. I don't know where this cow is located, but his name is Arthur. She's taking me to meet him before he's humanely slaughtered so that, and I quote precisely, "you know where your food comes from for a change".
After the cow news became widely known in our household, Meg turned our extra bedroom into a hay mow, which mow is the subject of our building's co-op board meeting next month. An eighth floor resident complained about the conveyor belt chucking bales into the building's alley and the straw situation in the elevator was getting on everyone's nerves. I dare not add to the register of complaints by mentioning my acute hay-fever at this point.
The loss of the bedroom was tolerable, but Meg has also planted a garden that takes up half of our living room. One day she just took out the hardwood flooring and replacing it with freshly turned soil. Did you know that you can buy a roto-tiller in Manhattan, Mr. Pollan? Well, I do know, and you can definitely buy a roto-tiller at the Home Depot on 23rd Street in Chelsea for a sum close to what your wife might get at a pawn shop for your wristwatch.
So you can see the predicament I'm in here, Mr. Pollan. Any advice you can offer to this sneezing, watchless, beleaguered soul would be greatly appreciated.
Yours very sincerely,
P.S. I hope this letter reaches you in a timely manner. Meg has determined that the USPS uses ethanol-based gasoline in their trucks, so this letter is "speeding" its way to you via grass-fed horseback. Pray for me.
Meg blasts the NY Times for keeping blogs behind the Times Select paywall. "Michael Pollan is doing some of the most interesting and important writing about food right now. He's doing it frequently and it's being published in the easiest possible manner for massive distribution and influence. But only the Select few can see it. Even if I paid to access it, I couldn't share it with my readers. So much potential unrealized."