Mindless mutants or allies in coevolution?

Diamond J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel. New York (NY): W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 114-130 p.

Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. xxiii – xxv p.

It has taken three weeks, but I have almost learned to stop reading books about plants around meal times.

After enjoying my plate of homemade crispy, fries from freshly cut potatoes (inspired by “The Botany of Desire” by Michael Pollan), I started to wonder what a “wild” potato plant would have looked like before the advent of agriculture; before people entered a coevolutionary relationship with potatoes. I can come up with an image of the same flowering plant with reduced roots. I cannot, however, picture many of the other “wild” plants mentioned in “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond in the same way. I mean, how weird would it be to eat a banana with seeds?

These two books, “The Botany of Desire” by Pollan and “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Diamond, have very similar and also opposing views on agriculture and the evolution of plants. Diamond explains the evolution of agricultural plants as being driven by humans. He outlines the sequence of events leading to today’s agriculture, from unconsciously picking the biggest, juiciest berry and leaving the seed in a latrine to complex conscious techniques. I now see bathrooms in a whole new light. Plants themselves, are given little credit in this process other than being favorable mutants for humans to exploit. Pollan, on the other hand, believes that plants and humans have entered a coevolutionary partnership since the birth of agriculture. Humans are driving the evolution of agricultural plants, just as plants are driving the evolution of humans. I tend to side with Pollan’s idea that we are not separate from nature and that plants can have the same effect on humans as we do on plants.

I must say that I enjoyed reading “The Botany of Desire” over “Guns, Germs, and Steal”. Unfortunately, I read the latter first and it took forever to read. The writing style in the “Botany of Desire” was more personal and captivating, enticing me to read on. Pollan, begins with the metaphor, “the seeds of this book were first planted in my garden” (p. iv), followed by an intriguing comparison between the human relationship with plants to a bumblebees. Do you think we have entered into the same type of coevolutionary relationship with plants as a bumblebee has? It only makes sense that something we rely on so heavily as a species would have an effect on our evolution.

I was happily reading the introduction to “The Botany of Desire”, when Pollan talks about edible grasses like corn that “incited humans to cut down vast forests to make more room for them” (p. xx). I feel this takes the blame away from human and their mass destruction of the natural world around us. Plants have not caused the greediness of the human population. The ever-increasing human population is disconnected from nature so much that we justify cutting down vast amounts of productive and biologically diverse land to plant a few agricultural crops or worse, to build infrastructure. This disconnect with the natural world and greediness for what it has to offer humans must stop if we are to continue as a species.

Pollan sums it up perfectly, saying that “seeing these plants as willing partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship with us means looking at ourselves a little differently, too” (p. xxv). I encourage you to remind yourself that you are apart of nature. How else will you ever know if you chose to eat the apple or if the apple chose to be eaten by you?

 

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“A baby plant with it’s coat and a packed lunch”

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. xix-18 & 55-80.

What did you eat for dinner? What fabric is your shirt? It is truly amazing just how much seeds have shaped the world around us, everything from what we wear to what we eat. I knew that plants produced many of these items, but I’ll admit that I rarely think about the seed. To be honest, the only time I think about seeds is when I’m filling my bird feeders, eating certain foods, or sweeping the floor after my crazy parrot has had a temper tantrum and threw her food everywhere.

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In this book, Thor talks about the evolution of seeds and their impacts on humans. He explains what characteristics allow seeds to thrive in nature and why these characteristics are so vital and useful to us as humans. I took his invitation at the beginning of the book, sat down with some tea, and read the story of the triumph of seeds and how “these small botanical marvels paved way for modern civilization” (p. xxii).

Thor begins the book with a funny story about trying to open a stubborn seed. This seed was so well protected that Thor could not open it. He used this story to highlight the importance of seeds, followed by the quote “in the history of plants, no single event has ensured the protection, dispersal, and establishment of their progeny more than seeds” (p. xxi). Seeds are protected, nourished, strong, and mobile baby plants. Thor used this parallel to help you better understand the importance of a seed to a plant. uses these characteristics of seeds to bring us on his journey about the discovery of seeds and their evolution.

This journey begins with his graduate work where he worked on almendo trees in the Costa Rican rain forest. Thor spent multiple field seasons searching for seeds, but did not understand how this small seed grew into a huge almendo tree towering above. To answer this question, he turned to well known botanists Carol and Jerry (>450 publications… wow). Carol says a familiar quote, similar to that said in my Botany class: “a seed is a baby plant with its coat and packed lunch” (p. 9). This quote is the first example of how plant seeds are paralleled with human babies in the book. Thor furthers this parallel to humans by saying that Carol and Jerry did not have children because they were too busy, but chose work with seeds, the plant’s baby.

Thor continues his journey with the evolutionary importance of seeds. Seeds evolved to give plants an advantage in a dry environment. Thor works with paleontologists and a researcher named Bill who has a revolutionary theory that seed evolution took place on land during the Carboniferous. Bill explains that the Carboniferous was not as swampy as we may have thought. This theory is revolutionary because it was previously thought that seed plants became dominant after the swampy Carboniferous when the land dried up, giving seed plants an advantage over spore plants. Thor believes Bill’s theory; however I am not as convinced. It is hard to picture what happened during the Carboniferous with little fossil evidence of seed plants and no knowledge on ancient seeds during this time. I still imagine a swampy landscape dominated by ferns, but this image has been tainted by what I’ve been taught in class.

Continuing with the evolution of seeds, Thor talks about how the evolution of angiosperms parallels his “intrinsic parental response to protect and nurture” (p. 67) his son. This is because flowering plants (angiosperms) have covered seeds, whereas gymnosperms have naked seeds that are more exposed to the environment. Thor uses this parallel to help you better understand the importance of a seed to a plant. It would only make sense for angiosperms to cover and protect their children to better ensure their survival.  This is an important step in the evolution of seeds, as well as in their usefulness to people.

We finish reading by revisiting Mendel’s work. Although his work is well known and taught today, it is hard to believe that at one point Mendel was the only one to understand his work with peas and genetics. It is sad to think that Mendel never got credit for his work when he was alive. People may not have understood Mendel’s work; however, archaeologists have found that people knew about the benefits of selective breeding and even crossbreeding for many years. We see selective breeding in everything today from plants like corn to animals used for pets.

In closing, this book has made me think more carefully about seeds and how they have evolved to shaped our world to have an extraordinary impact on people. It is hard to believe something to small has had such a large impact on us as human and our civilization. I will definitely think about them more carefully as I grind my coffee beans in the morning.

The 100-Mile Diet

 

Citation: Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. Toronto: Vintage Canada. 89 P.

 

I would like to start out by saying that I did not read up until October in the book. Unfortunately, I only read until July (p. 87), but I plan to continue reading as I enjoy this book because it is local and the writers include some facts along with descriptive writing and narration.

The 100-Mile Diet has caught my attention for a few reasons, starting with the fact that it is based in British Columbia. As they describe their cottage in Northern B.C., I can picture their “homestead that squats in a clearing between Sitka spruce and western red cedar trees large enough to crush it into splinters” (p. 1) because I have seen places like this before. Furthermore, when they describe the map of the Fraser Valley and beyond (p. 9), I am able to follow what is being said because I have travelled to these places before. I frequently visit the lower mainland in the summer and the fall to visit family and friends. Finally, when they talk about Westham Island, I can remember seeing the sign that reads “Warning: This island is protected by Westham Island Gun Club” (p. 52) on my way to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary. I visit this bird sanctuary every year in the summer and a few years with my classes in the fall. Although I have never seen snow geese there, I can relate to their “wild-goose chase” (p. 52) as they try and search for birds in this beautiful landscape. Below are some photos of mine from the Reifel Bird Sanctuary.

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Another reason I enjoy reading the 100-Mile diet is because the writers intersperse facts and data in to their descriptive narrative. They talk about worldly issues such as dead zones and extinction in the Gulf of Mexico (p. 4), the influx of products into supermarkets (p. 13), water use for agriculture in California (p. 31), and changes in agricultural and farming practices (p. 56-57). They write about these issues briefly in the book, but with enough detail to make people aware of them. I believe it is important to include these facts because it makes people think about what is going on in the world around them. These facts provide some insight as to why this couple has chosen to partake in this local diet and why it is important to them.

Overall, I have enjoyed reading this book because it talks about things that people are oblivious to in everyday life. The book highlights that the world is changing and that us as humans are losing all connection with our world. This book should really make the reader think about how they live their life, more specifically what they eat.