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What plants want

Exploring the places where nature and nurture collide



The inevitable collision of nature and culture produces some intriguing mysteries. Here in the last weird place, for example, Garden City voters approved a levy to control invasive weeds, but could not find it in their collective civic heart to approve funding for its arts museum. If we can’t have it both ways, as the polling results on a bleak November day would suggest, what does the pastoral ideal of hillsides festooned with bitterroot and arnica and lupine and emerald grasses say about our notions of beauty? More to the point, will nature let us spray, pull, or graze our way into the recent past without fomenting some more dire ecological buffoonery in the future? For those wont to delve into such issues, two recent books with a historic and philosophical look at the interaction between plants, animals and people are probably worth a read.

The first is written by former Missoula resident Kim Todd. Tinkering with Eden (WW Norton, $26.95) is a natural history of 17 of the 4,500 or so bugs, birds, trees, weeds, and critters that have been introduced to North American ecosystems (including Alaska and Hawaii) in the past 400 years.

Todd’s meticulous research allows certain patterns in the history of exotics to emerge. Each invasive species and its profound and often disastrous effect on the ecosystem it inhabits seems to have gotten a start with some human desire, sometimes benevolent, sometimes benign, though often involved is the dash for quick fortunes. The gypsy moth, for instance, got its start in 1868 when an amateur astronomer and kitchen scientist named Leopold Trouvelot accidentally dropped a container of the little buggers he was hoping to cross-breed in an attempt to create a better silkworm. The result was that Trouvelot’s hometown of Medford, Mass. was for years turned into something out of a Hitchcock film. The moths in their larval stage terrorized the town, munching trees, crunching underfoot by the thousands, and hitching rides all over town in hair and coattails. Todd deftly describes the bleak times began by Trouvelot in Medford: “The stench of dead bugs hung over Medford like smoke, intensifying the summer heat. The noise of feeding insects sounded like ‘the clipping of scissors,’ or ‘the patterning of very fine rain drops’ and whoever heard them knew she would wake up to a yardful of skeleton plants.”

Closer to home, the author writes about how the history of the brown trout and the pheasant have altered ecosystems in western Montana, among other places. Both planted as a sop to hunters and sportsmen, Todd gently scrutinizes the hook-and-bullet mentality that still profoundly affects land management decisions around the West, a tone that may do little to bridge the gap between hunters and Todd’s employer, The Sierra Club.

Better yet, a fantastic chapter titled “A Fly in Every Seed Head,” devoted to the aforementioned weeds that plague western Montana, should be required reading for every land manager in the region.

For all its rich, detailed natural history, Tinkering with Eden has a few rough edges. Todd took on an ambitious research project with this first book, the sheer volume of which is impressive. But 17 exotic species in 255 pages gives the impression of a topic covered a mile wide and an inch deep. The writing is a bit clumsy in spots, and at times the reader wants Todd to tread deeper into the philosophical questions her stories dredge up. She flirts with them, but never really takes the time to moon over the meaty issues in a more than cursory way.

If indeed Todd’s book leaves you wanting a more colorful narrative, look no further than Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (Random House, $24.95). Pollan is an award winning journalist who turns the topic of nature and culture on its head by posing this question in a laid-back, engaging style: What do the plants we cultivate want from us?

Far from being a New Age houseplant worship cult treatise, Pollan often manages to write seriously from a plant’s evolutionary perspective.

What does this mean? Writing about four plants—the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato—Pollan explores the ways in these plants have co-evolved with certain human desires, and makes a case from the Darwinian perspective that plants are just as adept as we are at using humans for their own proliferation around the world.

Marijuana, for instance, capitalizes on the desire for intoxication, and has adapted not only to different climates, but to the politics of drug wars. Crossing the strains of indica and sativa created a plant that was more potent, could be grown indoors, and produced more THC in its buds. In turn, the plant has become America’s leading cash crop. Pollan notes that the genes that make up the two strains had evolved in Asia over thousands of years. The reunification of these genes after millennia of separate evolution could have only happened under social conditions created by the war on drugs; though humans did all the transgenetic work, it’s the plant that has benefited most by meeting the human desire for altered consciousness.

The best part of Pollan’s book are the consciousness-raising issues he draws out of this perspective. Writing that the seeds of modern religion likely came at the inspiration of an altered state like the one induced by marijuana, Pollan proposes that beyond all the silly stoner jokes lies the possibility that plants are a link between the world of matter and spirit.

Both Pollan and Todd’s books are worthy additions to any literary garden, timely reminders of the bumper sticker wisdom inherent in the idea that nature bats last.

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