This week I went back to The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and read his first chapter, which was entirely devoted to apples.
Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.
So far, I’ve become accustomed to Pollan’s flavorful writing style and his use of people and characters to spark the reader’s attention through their stories. In this first chapter, Pollan re-acquaints us to a familiar childhood character, Johnny Appleseed. He sets the stage to “north of Wheeling, West Virginia”, and paints the image of “a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat” (Pollan 5). How’s that for an introduction to apples in America? Well I became immediately more interested as Pollan took me for a ride through Johnny Chapman’s journey in America and also (though more discreetly) the evolution of the relationship between apples and humans.
Pollan begins by describing Johnny Chapman as a a man who traveled the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana with large stores of apple seeds in the late 1700’s. Chapman would scout up and coming areas of land where he reasoned that settlements would eventually establish, and plant a nursery of apples so that in the near future he could sell apple trees to eager settlers for cheap. He would then find a local boy to maintain his growing orchard, pack up his meager belongings, and move on to repeat the process. Rather than focusing on Chapman’s story for a mere introductory hook, Pollan carries it out throughout the chapter and details the life of a simple storybook character more than anyone I believe ever could. Pollan again draws on his remarkable gift of flipping perspective to allow us to picture Chapman’s innate wildness and natural tendencies (not just a happy-go-lucky man eating an apple). The descriptions of Johnny Chapman’s barefeet, scraggly beard and alleged child bride, all helped comprise a completely new image of Jonny Appleseed. Pollan enables us to see man’s coevolution with apples, as he states that Chapman “understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him” (Pollan 5). What’s more is that I had never known that the apples Johnny Chapman had helped spread across North America were primarily used for alcohol. This was kind of a game-changer for me, because from the storybooks I used to read, Johnny Appleseed is usually depicted eating the apples. Bringing in the resources for readily accessible alcohol is a pretty big deal, especially in the United States, don’t you think?
Pollan then explains the origins of apples as first emerging from the mountainous region of Kazakhstan. The ancestor to the modern day apple is Malus sieversii, which Pollan describes as “the dominant species in the forest, growing to a height of sixty feet and throwing off each fall a cornucopia of odd, applelike fruits ranging in size from marbles to softballs, in color from yellow and green to red and purple” (Pollan 11). The apples from these trees were supposedly carried along by travelers of the silk route, all the way to China. The art of grafting the trees was then stumbled upon by the Chinese, and then imitated by the Greeks and Romans who later brought the apples to England. The first North American settlers had then attempted to grow their grafted apple trees in the foreign environment, to no avail. Pollan then suggests that Chapman’s seeds, which harbored genetic diversity, were much better able to slowly promote new adaptations to the alien environment, and thus eventually created the most successful American apple varieties. Since Pollan speaks of the apples as immigrants adapting to a new land, I kind of thought about it in a funny way – it was like when my own parents immigrated to Canada. They came over but weren’t the most successful right away. They had to learn a new language, acclimatize to the weather (my mom had never seen snow before), and work very hard. And then they had me and my brother, and we absolutely thrive here. Us first-generation kids know the languages, customs, and weather, and feel like we could never be at home anywhere else in the world – just like a plant parents’ genes selecting for the best possible traits in a new habitat. I loved how Pollan put it, in that “in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves” (Pollan 13).
Pollan slowly leads into why the apples have succeeded so greatly not only for alcohol, but as edible fruit – their sweetness. Although my genes are conditioned towards wanting more salty and spicy foods, I still share an immense sweet tooth with the rest of the world. Pollan explains the inexplicable human preoccupation with sweetness, as before the introduction of the sugar cane, synthetic sweeteners, or honey in North America, apples “helped gratify” human desire of sweetness (Pollan 16). I found Pollan’s description of his son eating a cake for the first time very humorous and enlightening!
I loved how Pollan even further expanded our view of Johnny Chapman by entitling him the American Dionysus, and our view of the apple by reminding us that it is “the forbidden fruit”, but also a most “democratic fruit” as it contains the genetic variability to thrive in almost environment, and amongst almost any people (Pollan 48). I thought the chapter was skillfully written and articulated Pollan’s humour and poetic thoughtfulness.