Summer Reading: Fresh Air From Pollan

I’ve been meaning to tell you more about Michael Pollan. I’ve been planning a post or two about Summer reading, and was going to discuss the books of Michael Pollan to kick off a possible series. That plan was hatched in the late Summer of 2007… then the Fall came, and then the Winter and Spring… then Summer of 2008… never got around to it. Drat. (Checking back, I see that I started the series by talking about Haruki Murakami, here. So I’ll call this part of the series too, even though it is not really Summer.)

Anyway, the good news is that Pollan was on Fresh Air (NPR) yesterday, and as usual he was excellent:

In an open letter to the next president, author Michael Pollan writes about the waning health of America’s food systems — and warns that “the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close.”

The future president’s food policies, says Pollan, will have a large impact on a wide range of issues, including national security, climate change, energy independence and health care.

Here’s the link to the audio. Before you rush off to that, let me continue what I was going to say, at least in brief.

Pollan has risen to prominence, justifiably, mostly as a result of his excellent book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals”. It is a delightful examination of the food industry, charting the route of much of the food that you eat from source to market shelves. It is wonderful, and shocking in places too. It is also quite beautifully written. I think that everyone should read it, frankly, since it’s really important to know where what you eat comes from, and at what cost. (The 2006 interview about it on Fresh Air is here, and the Science Friday interview where I first heard him, that same year, is here.)

It’s not a simple rant against Big Food, pushing some oversimplified idealistic view of organic food as solving all our problems. No, he examines all of the industry, both industrial (where you learn so much about industrial grade corn, which goes into nearly everything you’re eating in one form or another) and organic (where you learn about the seductions that big-scale organic operations like Whole Foods work on us). He asks detailed questions about our relationship to food, and whether organic food, in its truest sense, can ever really be done on a sustainable large scale to feed society… or whether you have to compromise (as the organic industry certainly has). He asks whether organic food is really better for you, and what exactly better means. Is it tastier? Healthier?

I like the way Pollan writes. Ok, I love the way he writes. He’s not thought of as a science writer, and I think that’s actually a mistake. He has no fear of doing a careful examination of a subject, weighing the evidence for a given view based on good research, which includes breaking things down to their component parts and tracing things to their source to get to the bottom of how things work. He is not worried about discussing the chemistry and physics behind what’s going on in the food industry, for example noting the major change that took place in the industry when we learned how to circumvent the basic solar cycle of agriculture by powerful fertilizers: a huge amount of the energy in what we eat comes from the oil industry in the the form of using oil as the energy source for making fertilizer, coupled with the driving (through agricultural subsidies, and uniformities and streamlining in the system) of agriculture to focus on monocultures – growing nothing but corn, corn, and more corn, which gets piled up in vast quantities at terrifying factories that turn it into a remarkable variety of products that enters almost every foodstuff that passes your lips. (Soy is the other big crop like this, by the way.)

Pollan’s writing, even on the darkest of subjects, is beautiful to me. I love the way he constructs his sentences, and, when it comes down to describing the wonderful sustainable farming practices on Joel Salatin’s (and family’s) Polyface Farm, for example, or when he just talks about food, the love of it, the preparation of it, and the meals that are prepared (especially in the latter half of the book when he described the meal made entirely from hunted and gathered food, and the meal made from organic products), he is an intense pleasure to read. I am unashamed to admit that I sometimes have been moved to tears by some of his work. That gathered meal with all of the people assembled who helped him and taught him along the way… I can’t forget how powerful and wonderful that scene was – just the perfection of it, the symbolism of it, the sheer warmth of it – and am still moved by it well over a year later of having read it.

(Breaking news: – I just found some of the piece he wrote on Polyface Farm online, I’m excited to report! You can read it here as an essay in Mother Jones entitled “No Bar Code”.)

So here’s the thing. Pollan’s recent books, for which he is currently celebrated (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” – his most recent work, catch a Science Friday interview about that here.), are only the beginning. I strongly recommend that you read his earlier work, which I wish more people would read. Please read them. I was drawn to him not because of his food writing, but because of his wonderful book examining gardening. I recommend “Second Nature”. Please read it. It is such an excellent examination of gardening that it is a highly regarded book in the gardening world. It lies at the core of what drives nearly every aspect of Pollan’s writing, aspects that you see later in Omnivore. Pollan is all about our relationship to Nature – He is interested in the dialogue that might be entitled Nature Vs Culture. It is both battle and dialogue, and it is between two vitally important things. Neither is wholly good or evil – both are vital – and somewhere at the fascinating and rich intersection of these two wonderful forces is where Pollan’s writing thrives. He examines this dialogue wonderfully in this book, and uncovers so much about gardens and their role in our culture, their reflection of our culture and their capturing of our culture and, in turn, their role in shaping it. Witness his examination of the Great American Lawn, for example (an environmental nightmare, from many points of view, including mine), which . Read his wonderful writing about roses in that book, and you’ll be transformed. It doesn’t end there. The model for Omnivore, where he takes four topics and traces their origins and our relationships to them, began earlier in “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World”. This is an examination of Nature vs Culture at its finest. He takes four plants and studies our relationship to them – the apple, the potato, the tulip, and cannabis. It’s utterly marvellous. Please read it. The writing is again so beautiful, so logical, and so appealing to me. The final parts of the Apple essay really did move me to tears… weird, you might think, but there it is. You learn so much about apples, fascinating aspects of the plant itself, the sadness of how the food industry has removed so many varieties from easy access, but then the fact that there’s hope in every apple seed: It turns out that if you plant an apple seed, you won’t get a tree that produces those apples. It resorts to wild type. This is quite wonderful, since it means that there’s potential to find all sort of wonderful varieties, simply because of the apple’s curious reproductive nature. When he gets to the end of the chapter, and visits the… well, I won’t spoil it for you. It moved me a great deal, anyway.

Another reason I love Pollan’s writing is because we’re sort of kindred spirits on at least one major aspect: He likes learning about things by just rolling up his sleeves and getting involved in doing it. He tries things out and then loves writing about it. I love doing that too, as you might have noticed from reading this blog. So how he thinks, and the evident joy in the exploration, the finding out, and the writing about it…. these all resonate with me a great deal. (Perhaps that’s why I keep getting all weepy at several points, you quip. Perhaps.) In this exploratory vein, I strongly recommend “A Place of My Own”, where he learns about construction, design, building, and architecture through this wonderful project to build himself a writing cabin in the woods near his house. (The same house which has the garden he talks about in “Second Nature”). He learns from the architect, and also learns the actual craft of building by doing it with his own hands, learning from a craftsman who agrees to show him the ropes and help him out. In this endeavour, he (and you) learn about all sorts of aspects of design and architecture, and the craft of making it actually happen for real (important phrases like “measure twice, cut once” – which is so important, I can testify)… and of course, there’s a dialogue between two important competing forces: the views of the architect and those of the craftsman. This is a wonderful and classic battle that goes on in every major project, and it is quite wonderful to see played out in this book, with Pollan in the middle, having loyalties to both.

Well, I’ll stop here. The message is simple – Pollan is a wonderful writer, and don’t just stick to the famous stuff… dig into his older books. You’re seriously missing out if you don’t.

-cvj

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