Pollan, M. The Botany of Desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p.113-179.
Previously in my blog, I commented on Michael Pollan’s reflection on The Apple. Similarly, I would now like to share with you my experience with Cannabis, well more specifically and more appropriately, my experience reading about cannabis. “The Botany of Desire” is an excellent title for this book because it depicts exactly what is contained within the pages. Throughout the chapter on cannabis, Michael Pollan examines the relationship that has developed between animals and the cannabis plant as well as our desire to consume its components for our own benefit. I would like to say that this chapter is about the cannabis plant, but it is more complicated than that. It touches on every detail surrounding the plant. It is the calyx that encompasses every detail of the seed. To be more specific and less philosophical, it reaches back towards the history of the discovery and uses of cannabis all the way towards the current illegal and legal production today. Along the way, this chapter investigates the newly manipulated hybrids, cannabis’ intentions of our high, our desire for its use and many more intriguing concepts. Most importantly though, Michael Pollan’s chapter on cannabis focuses on the human desire for its intoxicating effects.
Although I do not use drugs other than the occasional aspirin, tylenol, gravol, or alcohol during a night out with friends, I decided to read this chapter in the relaxing and comforting environment of a steamy bath. I wouldn’t consider the bath a psychoactive agent, but the elevated temperature and steam created a more dizzying space than usual, which would have to do for this experiment. However enjoyable the warm water was, after 66 pages I came out of the bath looking like a old, wrinkled raisin.
This chapter touched on many concepts that I found myself intrigued with which all focused on one more or less general idea; why do humans desire the high of marijuana? Though Michael Pollan suggested a few suggestions, I agree most certainly with one. As animals, we naturally crave the altered state of consciousness. We are curious creatures. We, not only as humans but as animals, need to experience the absense of thought. Generally, we are seers, not believers. To cement this argument down, Michael Pollan argues that not only few individuals crave this feeling of euphoria but all of us. “… There isn’t a people on Earth who doesn’t use psychoactive plants to effect a change in consciousness, and there probably has never been” (page 139). The desire is universal and not limited by age. “… Even young children seek out altered states of awareness. They will spin until violently dizzy, deliberately hyperventilating, throttle one another to the point of fainting, inhale any fumes they can find, and, on a daily basis, seek the rush of energy supplied by processed sugar” (page 139).
Getting to the euphoric state of mind produce by cannabis is not necessarily considered evolutionarily beneficial. Being zen and spaced-out will not improve a human’s ability to produce offspring and thus will not increase their capacity to pass on their genes and increase their evolutionary fitness. To the contrary. Marijuana will most likely decrease that individuals capacity. So why then, do humans crave that altered consciousness?
That’s a good question. A question I couldn’t answer. A question that Michael Pollan suggests a few potential answers to.
First, I think Michael Pollan eludes to the fact that marijuana is a means of connection. He describes the experience of being high as a network to the inner self as well as a way to reach higher spiritual levels. Being high on cannabis provides heightened senses of an individual which also links to increased sensation during romantic intimacy. “One of the things certain drugs do to our perceptions is to distance or estrange the objects around us, aestheticizing the most commonplace things until they appear as real versions of themselves” (page 147). Not only does the altered state of consciousness while high affect an individual’s appreciation for the world surrounding them, but also alters their perception of the unknown. Michael Pollan suggests that perhaps the high of cannabis allows what would normally be inconceivable to become within our grasp. “But is it outlandish to ask whether such an experience might have helped inspire Plato’s supernatural metaphysics-the belief that everything in our world has its true or ideal form in a second world beyond the reach of our senses?” (page 147) Furthermore, it is on these journeys that we, as the human race, develop new cultural interpretations, otherwise known as memes. “The memes that prove themselves best adapted to their ‘environment’-that is, the ones that are most helpful for people to keep in their brains-are the ones most likely to survive and replicate and become widely regarded as good, true, or beautiful” (page 148). The first thought that came to my mind after reading this sentence was religion. Religion is a means of helping people get through the day as good people. It is a means of accepting disease, illness and death in the form of heaven or an after life. Religion gives some people a reason and guidelines to live their lives. I’m not saying religions were made up by a guy high out of his mind in a field on a sunny day. I’m just providing an example of something seemingly inconceivable and beautiful that is now widely accepted. Michael Pollan provides examples of philosophers, memes, and romantic imagination that were all accessed through a high. “Psychoactive plants are bridges between the worlds of matter and spirit or, to update the vocabulary, chemistry and consciousness”(page 144).
This chapter also mentions the important side effect of being high on cannabis; forgetfulness. Forgetting may come across as a negative effect, but as Michael Pollan explains, it is an absolutely necessary actions of human nature. If we did not forget the simple, insignificant details of everyday life, our brains would be so full of information that we would not be able to function as we do. Our minds are like sieves, selectively choosing what makes it into the memory bowl and what is discarded afterwards. Through this selection process however, we are left with memories from the past and thoughts of the future which cloud our current moment. “For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours. And the wonder of that experience, perhaps more than any other, seems to be at the very heart of the human desire o change consciousness, whether by means of drugs or any other technique” (page 162). He further mentions that marijuana also has the ability of making the most conventional items become magical again. “By the grace of this forgetting, we temporarily shelve our inherited ways of looking and see things as if for the first time, so that even something as ordinary as ice cream become Ice cream!” (page 168)
There’s one thing I loved more than anything in this chapter; Frank. Michael Pollan used his pet cat, Frank, to make a comparison between catnip and cannabis. I have a sweetspot for cats and I couldn’t help but be intrigued and instantly connected to the (imaginably) adorable tomcat that would indulge in the euphoric ecstasy of catnip. “He would first sniff, then tug at the leaves with his teeth and proceed to roll around in paroxysms of what looked to me like sexual ecstasy” (page 117). While talking about Frank, Michael Pollan forshadows his future point in drug plant’s abilities to help us forget. “Maybe he ritualized the practice to keep it under control; or maybe it took him the better part of the day to remember just where it was that the magic plant grew” (page 118).
Although somewhat faded in the steam of my bath, Michael Pollan managed to keep me interested and alert to all the information he was providing throughout this chapter. I think a main contributing factor to my intrigue was the humour he included in his writing. As previously mentioned in my past blog about apples, Michael Pollan is capable of informing the reader of relevant facts while making them smile or even laugh out loud. “These ingredients would be combined in a hempseed-oil-based ‘flying ointment’ that the witches would then administer vaginally using a special dildo. This was the ‘broomstick’ by which these women were said to travel” (page 119). Although this statement is utterly ridiculous and made me giggle, it makes much more sense than I would have ever thought. Most modern fairytales are based on ancient stories altered to be acceptable for children. In this case, the “broomstick” and ointment allowed these women to travel to an atered state of consciousness to access their magical (and hallucinogenic) thoughts.
His personal stories and thoughts also kept me intrigued throughout the pages. I was thoroughly entertained by his pot-growing, police encounter story. Not knowing what would happen next left my eyes darting for the next then next sentence. Although the stakes were lower back then, the possibility of punishment still left me curious as to how he was going to escape his sticky situation. “As soon as the wood was unloaded, the chief of police drove off to go get the second half of my cord, and I, temporarily reprieved but still in full panic, ransacked the toolshed in search of an ax” (page 124).
There isn’t much I can say I didn’t like about this chapter. Michael Pollan’s writing is humourous and thus intriguing. His ability to intertwine characters into his information is flawless and Frankly impressive. I found the first fifty or so pages of this chapter the most compelling, although to be fair, I finished the last chunk of the chapter in bed before letting myself fall asleep. The only part of the marijuana section that I found to be somewhat boring was when Michael Pollan started to refer to philosophers and his writing became. interestingly, more philosophical. After speaking to a friend of mine who also had read this chapter, we agreed that it almost seemed as though Michael Pollan had endulged in a high of his own during this section. “Some of our greatest happinesses arrive in such moments, during which we feel as though we’ve sprung free from the tyranny of time – clock time, of course, but also historical and psychological time, and sometimes even mortality” (page 164). Although this statement is beautiful, I found he may have been sidetracked by the artistic component of writing and veered away from the main topic of marijuana.
Michael Pollan’s writing has an ability to sum up all his ideas into to one common point. After reading his somewhat lengthy chapter on cannabis, he manages to bring the story back to his own garden. Through his garden he emphasizes the importance of nature and the power plant’s hold over us. Plants may let us animals pretend we are in control, but in truth, it is nature that overpowers the human mind time and time again.