One day, while planting potatoes in his garden, Michael Pollan had an epiphany. Above his head, bees were buzzing about an apple tree in blossom, moving from flower to flower, collecting nectar and moving pollen.
How was he, the human, any different from the bees? He was planting the potatoes so he could eat them, but at the same time, he was helping them expand their habitat, just as the bees were helping the apples.
In his 2001 best seller The Botany of Desire, Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) explored the connections between human beings and four plants — apples, tulips, cannabis and potatoes — from the plants’ points of view.
By feeding our desire for sweetness (apples), beauty (tulips), intoxication (cannabis) and control (potatoes), they ensured that we would help them flourish.
Now Michael Schwartz has produced a film adaptation, which premieres Wednesday at 6 p.m. MDT on PBS.
Schwartz takes his audience from the native apple groves of Kazakhstan to the potato fields of Peru to the floor of the world’s largest flower auction in Holland.
A longtime friend of Pollan’s, Schwartz read th e book’s manuscript and immediately saw its potential as a documentary. It took seven years to get funding.
“The reason it was a hard process was because of the marijuana chapter,” Pollan said.
The “forbidden fruit” element certainly gives this section extra powers of fascination.
Who could have predicted that by driving marijuana growers indoors, government agencies also set the stage for plant breeding that would vastly increase the strength of the drug?
The film demonstrates how a monoculture — a lack of genetic diversity — in Irish potato fields led to the Irish potato famine, which began in 1845, and resulted in more than a million deaths.
Just this past summer, Northeast tomato crops were decimated by late blight, a strand of the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine.
“We have to understand that we don’t stand outside nature acting on it. We are in the web of life,” Pollan said.