An Upside-down Idea

I expected Michael Pollan’s lecture “Taking the Plant’s Point of View” at PS1 last week to be well-attended, but I’m not sure anyone was prepared for it to draw a Warm Up-sized crowd — the line was wrapped around the building for hours. Unfortunately, rain put a damper on the plan for Pollan to talk about sustainable food systems against a backdrop of tomatoes and kale from Work Architecture Company’s PF1 (Public Farm 1).

Instead, a few hundred people packed themselves into the gallery, where Olafur Eliasson’s Take Your Time — a giant rotating mirror suspended from the ceiling — reflected the sticky, patient crowd back down from above.

As he did in Botany of Desire, Pollan started off with the anecdote that led him to his original epiphany: Planting potatoes in his garden one day, he realized that, just as the apple blossoms nearby were “using” bees to spread their pollen, the potatoes he was planting were “using” him to ensure their own evolutionary dominance (by being delicious enough to entice him to cultivate them).

This perspective — that plants have needs and desires every bit as urgent as humans’ (though of course they wouldn’t express them in those terms, or, actually, at all), and that the attributes we think of as uniquely human (language, tools, consciousness) are just our own evolutionarily-developed means of survival, no more mystical than any other species’ — is the simple, radical idea at the heart of Pollan’s urgent call for us to rethink how we interact with the living things that become our food.

Most of what Pollan said at PS1 would sound familiar to those who have been following his recent work (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto), but even if you’ve read about it before, who wouldn’t want to hear more about Polyface Farm?

There, a simple rotation of species over the same acres of field yields tons of food without industrial practices: Cattle eat the grass and move on to another field; then chickens are brought in; they scavenge for fly larvae in the cow pats which both cuts down on pests and spreads out the cow manure; the chickens leave behind their own nitrogen-rich poo, which in turn fertilizes the grass, which in turn feeds the cattle.

Pollan uses this as an example of how thinking from other species’ point of view (chickens love fly larvae!) allows for amazingly sustainable, high-yield food production. But more importantly, in elaborating on the possibilities of adopting a whole new way of thinking, Pollan is offering solutions to the world’s huge and growing food problems.

As Pollan put it, “It’s not enough for scientists to tell us something is true — we need to make it stick. That’s what writers and artists are good at.” To me, this sounded like a call to action.

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