Buzzin like Bees

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York: Basic Books. p 113-175

I really enjoy the little things.  For instance, my parent’s house is that where the only dividing walls are those of the bedrooms and bathrooms.  So, in the early wake of the day, from my bedroom, I can hear the quiet mumbling of the brewing morning coffee.  Even before I drank coffee, it signaled the beginning of a new day.  Its peaceful noise and its distinct strong scent linger in the air every morning and gradually, every morning, the welcoming coffee familiarities are replaced with other sounds of life.

When I began to read Thor Hanson’s chapters of “Seeds Defend,” not a mere 3 pages in read “almendro”(p.116),  and suddenly memories of boredom flooded back to me from the previous Thor Hanson reading a few months ago.  The funny things is, I made a genuine attempt on my first Thor Hanson blog to be appreciative of the knowledge he had to share.  I commented on the educational aspect he successfully incorporated into his personal anecdotes- whilst this is all well and true, the trigger of that familiar almendro, made me realize that I was probably lying to myself.  To be completely honest, I really did not appreciate Thor Hanson’s writing that much the first time.  So,  I begrudgingly continued on from page 116, but to my pleasant surprise- I can honestly share that this time, I really did enjoy Thor Hanson’s writing. I was both amused and intrigued. So, what changed?

Each chapter of Hanson’s Seeds Defend, focuses on one plant and the relationships that exist for those plants.  Remarkably fluid in thought, his story encapsulates co-evolutionary relationships, Christopher Columbus, chili peppers, coffee, the KGB, James Bond and of course, the almendro tree.  Quite the range of topics.  Through the varying topics, I finally understood the lively story telling Hanson has been praised for.  With each plant story, Hanson successfully connects the audience.  In some instances, he introduces a character to attach us to the moment like when he paints a colourful scene of a coffee shop in Seattle with its java passionate workers.  In other instances, he will tie human experiences to connect us to his words like recalling the memory of putting orange slices in your mouth to make funny faces.  Through  Hanson’s anecdotal writing, I naturally began considering my own experiences, and my own connections to plants. I was reflecting on some of the same plants Hanson wrote about like the coffee plant and the emotional attachments in which coffee has integrated itself into my own life.  Those quiet morning brews.  He repeatedly  incorporates humans, our experiences or both to portray the seemingly unrelated triumph of seeds in history.  So, why does this prove so successful for Hanson?

Hanson notes “If Charles Lamb had truly wanted to say thanks for his morning cup, he should have penned an ode to various insects, slugs, snails, and fungi”(p.146). He follows up with “But poets don’t think about larvae and fungi when they make a pot of coffee-nobody does”(p.146).  In these harrowing words, lies the answer to Hanson’s success  story:  ego-centrism.  We are egocentric. We are narcissistic.  We will always listen more keenly when the story is about us.  Hanson’s writing is compelling because the story is about us and our human experiences. This, however, is not necessarily the worst thing for the plants.  I have sipped a cup of coffee in 18 different countries. A true global traveler.  Not me, but the coffee tree.  The tree requires no praise for its existence, it requires just its existence.  So our ego-centrism matters not to the tree.  Though, I was largely moved my Hanson’s thoughts on where we give our gratitude.  Although coffee plants are thriving, we are seeing other considerably drastic and alarming environmental changes.  I think Hanson’s words speak to a larger idea that it is crucial to change this egocentric mindset for Earth’s sustainability.  Though, it is also not simply our narcissism that is  Hanson’s writing.  We also simply have a desire to feel and to make connections-as a means of enriching our own existence.  Again, Hanson’s writing that naturally provoked my own reflection serve as evidence that he is succeeding in making us think about plants and the relationships we already have unknowingly established with them.

Hanson further delves into the coffee tree and its success.  He focuses on the root of its success which is not the root at all, but its seeds and their gift of caffeine.  Being a girl who has on numerous occasions researched (excessively googled) the benefits/health risks related to caffeine, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the topic.  To be dramatic about it, I care about my health and I do not want to be blindly sipping morning poisons.  Of course, as expected from my own research, Hanson gives no clear answer on the matter. We do not definitely know if the alkaloid’s process in our brain is of concern.  Regardless, my enjoyment still derived from reading and more thoroughly learning about the actual process of caffeine-from soil to brain.

An older woman gave me some advice the other week while I was working a wine sampling in the liquor store.  She had just recently seen her doctor and she proceeded to share as she sipped the Spanish Temprenillo that she had the best LDL/HDL  levels .  I am 21, and I have not visited the doctor all that much-especially not to assess my cholesterol levels, so the technical terms were mildly lost on me.  Nonetheless, her enthusiasm of the matter withdrew a bright smile from my face.  Keen with her health success, she shared her routine.  She spoke clearly and well-paced, transcending an air of genuine wisdom, as she said she drank a large strong cup of coffee in the morning, followed by a brisk morning walk with her dog, and later, she enjoyed a large glass of red wine in the evening.  Now perhaps, taking blind advice from strangers is not recommended (and perhaps I am biased because I love coffee, dogs and wine), but to me, her story is the soundest evidence  I have to believe the benefit of coffee.

I am now two cups of coffee into writing my blog and I cannot quite think of the way to properly conclude my thoughts…Basically, I have come to realize how involved coffee and other plants are in my own life and I have learned how powerful an anecdotal style can be.  A week ago, I read a quotation by Paul Nicklen, a biologist and photographer for National georgraphic, that resonated with me and it comes to mind here again:

“Good science is essential however, I find that photography and journalism are much more powerful tools when it comes to effecting change.”


The American Hero

Pollan, M. 2002. The Botany of Desire. New York: The Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.3-58.

I used to go to Summer Camp as a kid.  It was a religious type camp, but nothing too overbearing.  I was not brought up in a religious family so my only real desire for attending was simply because all my elementary school friends went as well.  However, other than a morning chapel in the fresh dewy forest of the okanagan or the quick grace before meals, it would be hard to suspect it was a religious camp at all.  Nonetheless, these aspects were of course novel to me and I found enjoyment in them.  Grace was often a quick rhythmic melody and as with any good song, the grace told a story.  However in the hungry moments of grace, the story was sung with keen eyes at the promise of food, but largely unheard.  As the keen eyes aged, the youthful summer camp days lived only in memory and the lyrics of grace were largely forgotten.  Interwoven in my memories, but lost.  Today, I was reading in one of the high ceiling university buildings, next to a vast window overlooking my hometown.  I was a mere 80 km distance from my old summer camp, with a distance of 10 years in time since those days.  On page 4, it read: Johnny Appleseed.  Then there I sat, with an unexpected tune on my mind:

  “Oh the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord
For giving me, the things I need:
The sun and the rain and the apple-seed
Oh, the lord’s been good to me.

For every seed I sow,
will grow and grow and grow.
And someday, they’ll be apples there
For everyone in the world to share.
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.

*Clap* Johnny Appleseed *clap* Amen”

If there is one thing Michael Pollan succeeds at, it is the art of story telling.  Apples are one of the most prevalent fruits through human history and he accounts their story of North American settlement by reciting their colourful story-tale history whilst telling-it-slant to his perspective.  He writes a type of adventure/botany/history book, as he conquests to the apple’s North American beginnings on the rural frontier lands of Ohio.  Here is introduces the first character in his story and in apple history: Johnny Appleseed.  This stays the focus in his entire apple tale as he furthermore integrates human nature and desire, whilst continually shifting between actual history and current experience.

Micheal Pollan writes delightful sentences to appeal to all senses.  As he was describing the apple and its use in alcohol, I found myself craving the sweet and fresh taste apple cider.  His descriptions successfully set the scene and in another instance, I could clearly imagine myself walking among the apple orchard myself, with the fresh apple scent lingering in the fresh air.  Pollan emphasizes human desire.  In his writing about apples, he attributes their success in human history to the human desire for sweetness whilst his eloquent writing equivalently appeals to the human desire of story itself.

Having read Pollan’s writing before I was expecting bold metaphoric claims and big ideas.  He alludes to the distance we see in our modern world.  He writes of trying “to imagine”(p.11) what the apple forests must be like, including the look and the smell.  This reveals the distance in the world, as an apple forest is something to imagine and not a concrete thought.  I quickly realized that I had never thought about apple forests.  This was foreign.  When I think apples, I think apple orchards.  Of course, this is the domestication of the wild apples.  Another idea Pollan alludes to is how this domestication could reach a point of no return, similar to the potato famine in Ireland.  When domestication concentrates to an irreversible degree, this could result in a complete loss of diversity and ultimately a species is susceptible to extinction.  In a concluding compel, Pollan states  “in wildness is the preservation of the world”(p.57).



There is Steak at Stake

Pollan, M. 2006. Omnivore’s Dilemma . England: Penguin Books Ltd. p.15-119

Industrial Corn.

Glazing over the 2 worded opening title of part 1 of  Michael Pollan’s 3 parted story, I was not expected much of a riveting tail.  Corn is dominant in the seed world.  It is mass produced and consumed all around the world.  I did not feel any allure to what new facts Michael Pollan had to share.  However, the 100 pages that followed captured my interest more than anticipated.  I was arguably livid at times.  Pollan, through a 1st person narrative, shares his journey of following a complete life cycle of 1 meal.  A burger.  So in other words, he follows the industrial food chain from the early beginnings of an Iowa farm to purchasing his burger with his family on a visit to McDonald’s.   Along every step of the way from where this story begins to where this journey ends, there is one common denominator that is also the main focus of which this story branches out to expose the general conspiracy that is the North American food system.  The same denominator that caused my initial inadvertence to swiftly transition to complete enthrallment: industrial corn.

Pollan’s story could be organized into a web diagram.  At the epicenter of the web, there is corn.  Then there are all the separate branches extending out from this center including: farmers, cattle, environment, humans and capitalism.  Then there exist the interconnecting webs between many of these ideas as well, which add further complexity to Pollan’s story.  His fluidity and interconnection of writing is a remarkable feat on its own.

One of the branches of Pollan’s story focuses on traceability and consumerism.  He relates the traceability of our food- or lack there of, by noting the need to be an “ecological detective”(p.17).  His statement acknowledges the notion that tracing food to the industrial scale is rather challenging.  Pollan centers on consumerism as well, noting in a bold metaphor that humans are “processed corn, walking”(p.23).  We are what we eat and in our world, corn completely dominates.  It exists and is consumed in an alarming number of variations, most of which sound nothing like corn.  Furthermore, Pollan alludes to “the great edifice of variety”(p.18) in reference to our supermarkets, which emphasizes largely the lack of knowledge that exists for the general public.  Variety is simply an illusion, though we do not trace our food to see this.  Combining all these ideas together and you get the blissfully ignorant consumer.

Pollan’s journey largely takes place on the farm itself.  The wholehearted farm where the corn is grown and harvested, the cattle are raised and butchered peacefully and the farming family is well sustained.  Not quite.  This is the image we want to see.  Contrarily, we know the falsehood of our daydream and as Pollan shares, the industrial farm is far from our moral desires.  Pollan notes “the only thing missing from this man-made landscape is…man”(p.38).  He further delves into the realistic picture of the farm.  The farmers are overworked and underpaid, the animals are ethically mistreated, the surrounding community is vanquished and vanished, the environment is gradually turning toxic, the corporations are thriving and we are all willing to turn a blind eye.  In lies, the omnivore’s dilemma.

In a disturbingly eloquent claim, Pollan remarks “the plague of cheap corn” (p.54).  There again is the epicenter of the web.  Not just corn, but cheap corn.  Yes, there was a time where it was beyond rational to utilize corn to all of its capabilities.  There was need.  However, the need no longer exists.  Unfortunately prior to this realization, corn had already fallen victim to capitalism.  So cheap corn will stay cheap corn and the plague will continue.  The disturbing reality is simply in the North American food system, money is the priority.  Is there really any end in sight to this?

Lastly, I want to talk specifically about the cattle.  The cattle are what struck me as most off putting in Pollan’s story.  As a general disclaimer, it’s fair to say I was largely uneducated in the whole subject matter of a cow’s digestive system prior to Pollan’s insight.  Nonetheless, the image of ingested grain causing a cow’s rumen to bloat enough to suffocate the cow from the inside out is heartbreaking.  Not to mention, the silver lining of this is that they are batch fed preventative antibiotics or better, slaughtered before this is too much of an issue.  Finally, this is all reasoned simply because there are marbled steaks at stake?  Maybe I am the irrational one, but I have seriously begun to reconsider my omnivore eating habits.