Diamond is Not This Girl’s Best Friend

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. p.-85-113; 131-156

Where did our agricultural roots begin?

Author Jared Diamond explains in part 2 of his book, the rise and spread of food production.  In these 4 chapters, he scientifically analyzes the historical relationship between humans and seeds.

So where did our agricultural roots begin?  Diamond often utilizes questions to capture the reader’s interest.  This writing technique proves imperative as the detailed history of people and seeds can feel overloading.  Though the information is plentiful, Diamond succeeds in explaining with a lack of jargon-which stretches his story to attend a general audience.  The book is factual in nature-similar to a textbook, but manages to share history more intriguingly than a textbook itself.   He emphasizes interesting points about divide.  A divide he focuses on is the shift from the hunting and gatherer lifestyle to domestication and production.  Furthermore, he often attempts cliffhanging endings to his chapters-an appeal to further delve into this historical tail.  However, despite Diamond’s best efforts, an overall compelling nature is lacking-the efforts of which I will explain in then next paragraph.

So where did the story of our agricultural roots go wrong?  First, Diamond’s interesting points are lost in a sea of long detailed sentences.  His precision of research in his writing is apparent.  There are numbers, figures, dates and people.  Yet, the overload of knowledge is overwhelming and often I found myself having forgot the initial argument he was explaining.  Though there was intention for a general audience, the lack of character and the lack of voice, create a lack of story.  I really made the attempt to read Diamond’s work with an open mind, grasping the thickly bound story and opening midway ready to learn.

I failed.
I failed multiple times.
I was falling asleep in a coffee shop failing.
I was rereading the same line multiple times failing.
I was counting the number of pages left in the chapter failing.

I think why I failed derived from an overall lack of interest for the subject itself.  I hate to admit it but I just do not think I care when or where the shift away from hunting and gathering began.  Things had to progress and I would be satisfied knowing in short what happened.  Against all my morals, I could flip to the last chapter and read the ending.  I am truly sorry I feel that way.  I lack the same passion for the historical significance Diamond spews.

Whether one can appreciate the subject or not, Diamond’s ‘big idea’ style is still impressive.  He grasps, organizes and shares an array of knowledge all interconnected to the agricultural evolution.  I respect his well rounded perspective that by nature is enlightening even if I find the subject a bit boring.

So maybe Diamond is not this girl’s best friend, but I can appreciate his brilliance nonetheless.

 

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Perspective

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. p.114-130

Pollan, M. 2002. The Botany of Desire. New York: The Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.xiii-xxv

In these 2 separates books, authors, Diamond and Pollan, exhibit 2 distinct styles of writing whilst sharing striking theme similarities.  Pollan conveys in a story-like, 1st person manner, the relationship with humans and seeds.  He explains in his introduction his intention to focus on human desire and what effect this beholds for both humans and plants.  Diamond, writes a 3rd person narrative, emphasizing similarly on the human relationship with seeds but through a scientific and historic perspective.  A reoccurring relationship in both passages is that of domestication and selection.

Plant domestication. When my eyes first glazed over the concept, I hardly thought anything of it. As Pollan furthermore continued on with the domestication subject comparing dogs and wolves, I stopped anew. Plant domestication. I had never considered plants to be a domesticated species such as our beloved cats, dogs and other little creatures are. Yet, this was a blatantly true statement.  I had definitely never considered this from the plants perspective as both authors allude to.  Though us humans are reaping many benefits of this coexistence with plants, the plants ability to survive and reproduce is undoubtedly thriving.  As Pollan titles, we are “the human bumblebee” (p.xiii).  So nor is it really adequate, nor accurate to consider our relationship as one-species-dominant-over-another.  This is plant and human mutualism.  This concept highlights a main theme occurring in both exerts:  perspective.  Pollan explains “we divide the world into subjects and objects” (p.xiv), and we consider ourselves the subjects having a “relationship to nature”(p.xxv).  To.  There is an explicit distinction that we as humans do not consider ourselves as part of nature; we “stand outside”(p.xxv).  This significant distinction is perhaps why we see many various environmental issues that range from a simple disregard, or under appreciation for seeds, to mass habitat destruction and fragmentation, air pollution or other greater issues.

Pollan claims “plants are nature’s alchemists” (p.xix).  This claim and its entire proceeding paragraph  explains the diverse toolbox that plant’s possess; this complex nature is truly astounding.  It transitions smoothly into a second thematic aspect both authors succeed in emphasizing: selection.  Plants have been selecting and gradually evolving their toolbox to suit their best environment.  This is a concept interconnecting to domestication.  If it was to a plant’s advantage to entice human desires, then this is how the plant would select its traits.  Furthermore, Diamond comments upon human’s close involvement with selection as “modern botany”(p.130).  This modern botany accounting for the mega-size juicy supermarket strawberries in contrast to the small, sweet wild strawberries.  Modern botany established a new world of agriculture.  Human selection of traits began to cross an organisms set bounds and deviate to greater alterations incomparable in nature.  Modern botany established an agricultural branch often under harsh skepticism: genetically modified organism(s) (GMOs).  GMOs may possess DNA crossovers between organism.

One of the most interesting concepts brought about by Diamond and Pollan (and Lyn) is the interconnection between domestication and selection.  Such an important aspect to consider for this relationship is perspective.  Humans struggle to see themselves or even consider themselves object to another species.  So how do we alter perspective?  When can we begin to reciprocate our own thought value onto plants?

What Did You Eat for Breakfast

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York: Basic Books. p xiii-18; p55-80.

Author, Thor Hanson, strives to convey the physical triumph of seeds in earth’s history, and furthermore, why this triumph is of such importance to our world.  He is inspired by his toddler, who displays an innate enthusiasm for seeds, to share both a scientific and a personal story of seeds.

What you can appreciate most about this book is Hanson’s style of writing.  He is strategically able to seep his botany knowledge in such a way that interests a general audience.  He writes a story.  He accomplishes this by making apparent the connection between humans and seeds. For example, he relies on the selfish nature of humans to capture the reader’s attention indicating on p.xxii, “Homo sapiens might never have evolved in a world that lacked seeds.”  Furthermore, Hanson often utilizes questions in his writing.  “What did you eat for breakfast” (p.18) is one of his most simple means to again establish the “intimate relationship” (p.73) between humans and seeds by forcing the reflection of the reader.  With this established interest, he then utilizes other questions to introduce curiosity towards the nature of seeds and their “dramatic triumph”(p.xxiii) in history.   “Why are they so successful?”(p.xxiii) is an example of how Hanson maintains the reader’s curiosity, through question, yet he has transitioned his intention to begin to seep in his botany knowledge.  Hanson’s style makes for an interesting way to learn the ecology and evolution of seeds far better than any textbook could intrigue.

Although Hanson shares the story of seeds intriguingly, there are other aspects of his writing I appreciated less.  Perhaps this is simply because this review remarks 2 separate passages of the novel; however, nonetheless, the novel seems to lack fluidity.  The story’s chapters vary between his home life, specific seed studies, Mendel’s experiments and his field experiences.  Although all chapters have the same general intentions, the chronological flow was lacking.  Furthermore, his story lacks appeal.  Although he establishes and connects the fundamental relationship with humans and seeds, there’s no impression of an intention to express a greater message for future generations, other than to appreciate seeds and their historical significance.  With this argument, it is important to note that appeal is not to be confused with interest.  Hanson’s seed saga is an educationally driven story that succeeds in reaching the interest of a general audience, which is an impressive botany feat. Again, perhaps reading the novel in its entirety may affect this argument.  In a lovely quotation he also enlightens “it’s not unusual for tiny things to look beautiful” (p.65).  Although contradictory to my desire for a greater, deeper meaning-his quotation is a simple, yet valuable reminder that there is importance in beauty. In seeds.  In appreciating things for how they are.

Overall, Hanson’s story is both endearing and educational.  Its large focus on the relationship between humans and seeds is imperative for recognizing, as Hanson portrays, “the gift of a seed” (p.6).  A gift not only fundamental to nature, but fundamental to our entire food industry.  A gift of creation, a gift of beauty and a gift that is often overlooked and taken for granted in our society.

 

 

Local Eating: a Foreign Affair

MacKinnon, J.B., Smith, Alisa. 2007. The 100 Mile Diet: a year of local eating.  Vintage Canada Edition, Toronto, Ontario.

A young Vancouver couple inspired by one fully authentic gathered-from-the-land meal during a stay in their isolated Northern BC cottage quest to complete one year of eating solely from products produced within an 100 mile radius of their Vancouver apartment.  The two writers, James and Alisa, collaboratively each share their insight through first person in a genuine month by month chronicle of their adventure.

Is it even possible?  A question that is almost immediately instinctive to not only both the writers but also to the readers.  This reflection is what instantly captured my interest in their journey.  Strictly local eating is a concept which at a precedent time in history not so long ago was a complete necessity to life, and now is something which forces one to question its actual plausibility.  This itself is a main theme highlighted by the authors: traceability.  How far have we unknowingly distanced ourselves from the food industry in such a short period of time?

I appreciated the writers use of humour in small remarks which cleverly draw attention to the experiments level of ridiculousness in todays’ society.  Finishing off one of the many recipes remarking “serve in the center of a large plate alone and a little heartbreaking” (pg.20).  Alisa expresses towards one of their main staples in April, borscht as belonging to “…nineteeth-century Russian steppes, flavoured by bone-chilling wind, a steel sky, and oppression”(p.24).  Lastly in one of my favourite remarks, James explains during their hope for wheat, “And there I sat, separating mouse shit from wheat berries with a credit card” (p.63).  The ultimate challenge of local eating is not only comedic in its revelation, but beholds a greater serious undertone.  There is a complete visual contrast of the two opposing “societies” they are attempting to co exist; the wheat berries are symbolic of agriculture and the credit card is a symbol of consumerism.

The concept of the book, which had immediately captured my interest is equally something I dislike about the book.  The reality is, it is sad.  It is very sad that we have disconnected ourselves from our food that we do not know if eating local for 1 year is possible.  It’s somewhat shameful to think I am not completely sure what is even capable of growing locally, nor do I know the extent to during what season any particular plant thrives.  It is even more sad to think that society does not really care.  Often this theme is echoed in the book reversely as now, the authors do care.  In one instance, “the rain mattered-there were beautiful red berries at stake”(p.63).  Furthermore, the authors delve into the dominant shift towards consumerism.  This shift favouring the mass production of food is ultimately damaging nature directly, through habitat fragmentation, and indirectly, through the fuels burned for distribution.   First it explores the gradual depletion of nature, claiming it is “a shadow” (p.143) of its previous generation, yet the essence of “what keeps us alive” (p.146).  Despite nature’s importance, the authors note “the notion that everything can be valued in terms of money rather than the fundamental natural processes” (p.144).  In this sad reality, it is optimistically appealed that this is just an idea, not an irreversible process.

In a paradoxical truth, local eating has stretched to a completely foreign affair.  This is somewhat slightly comedic and largely sad, but furthermore, what makes James and Alisa’s chronicle endearing and inspirational.  Through the April to October journey, with months still to continue, we are reminded that it is always still possible to bridge the distance back towards our agricultural roots.