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Book Critic Maureen Corrigan Reviews Empire Falls

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews Empire Falls, the new novel by Richard Russo.

04:50

Other segments from the episode on June 6, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 6, 2001: Interview with Michael Pollan; Review of Richard Russo's new novel, "Empire Falls."

Transcript

DATE June 6, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Michael Pollan talks about his new book about man and
his relationship with plants
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Why are American apples sweeter than they were in Johnny Appleseed's day? Why
is American marijuana more potent today than the homegrown of the '60s? And
what separates today's genetically engineered potatoes from other potatoes?
These are some of the questions Michael Pollan answers in his new book, "The
Botany of Desire." He explores how humans have selected and bred plants that
suit our desires, and, in doing so, have altered the plant's evolutionary
destiny. Pollan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.
He's an urban emigre, a former magazine editor who gave up city life for the
country. His new book focuses on apples, potatoes, tulips and marijuana. I
asked him why he chose marijuana as one of the subjects of his book.

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Author): One of the very key things that plants do for
people is intoxicate them. Every culture on Earth, with one exception, has
had a psychoactive plant that they used to change consciousness. The one
exception are the Eskimos and the only reason they didn't was because nothing
would grow where they live. So if you're going to look at the relationship of
plants and people, you really have to look at an intoxicant. And it could
have been the grape and it could have been the opium poppy but I just thought
the story of the marijuana plant was such a fascinating one, and I had some
direct experience of it, so it seemed like a good one to delve into.

GROSS: Now as you point out in your book, homegrown marijuana, marijuana that
was grown in the United States, in the 1960s and '70s was very weak. So a lot
of people who tried to grow it and smoke it were very disappointed in the
results. Why was it a not very effective intoxicant in the '60s and '70s when
it was grown in the US?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, it was--basically, it was a tropical plant. And it grew
very powerfully in the tropics, in places like Hawaii, in India, where it's
grown very commonly. But when people took the seeds from the marijuana that
they bought, which was mostly marijuana that had been grown in Mexico--very
carelessly, in fact--these plants wouldn't do very well here. And one of the
great ironies of the drug war is this plant that really did not have much of a
purchase--I mean, looking at it from a natural history point of view--on the
American continent. This wasn't really its habitat except for a few corners
in Northern California and Hawaii. So it took the drug war, really, to create
an environment in which this plant could thrive here.

GROSS: What did the drug war do to create an environment that helped the
plant thrive here?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, it's a funny environment, really, because it consists of
closets and basements. You have to stretch your understanding of environment.
But basically what happened, it's almost like the Newtonian principle of, you
know, you act here and you have an equal and opposite reaction. So,
basically, with the drug war, you had people spraying paraquat and herbicide
on the Mexican marijuana. And then Ronald Reagan sent the helicopters into
the hills of Humboldt County to rout out the people growing there.

GROSS: Humboldt County, California.

Mr. POLLAN: Yes, excuse me. Which is sort of the original hotbed of
domestic marijuana and one of the few. And they forced the growers indoors.
And once they forced the growers indoors, the plant had, as it turned out,
this wonderful opportunity, if it could do two things. If it could provide
sort of a feeling, a magic so powerful that people were willing to risk their
lives and their property for it, and if it could adapt to this strange new
environment, growing indoors under these 1,000-watt lights 24 hours a day and
all these, you know, high-tech fertilizers and CO2 tanks sweetening the air
for them; if it could adapt to that bizarre atmosphere, environment, it would
thrive. And what's happened, essentially, is marijuana has now a whole
continent of new habitat, thanks largely to the drug war.

What was this, you know, rather mild plant with a--THC is the active
ingredient of about 3 percent, is up to 15, even 17 percent. So this
marijuana, you know, that you can't even go near without really falling on
your face at this point, has evolved, essentially. And you don't normally
look at things like the drug war from the point of view of natural history.
But from the plant's point of view, which is really what I'm trying to get at
in this book, the drug war has been--it's almost like an acid soil for a
conifer. You know, certain kind of plants love an acid soil. Well, the drug
war is the acid soil in which marijuana has thrived.

GROSS: You describe this wave of innovative breeding in the 1980s, you know,
performed by people working secretively, growing marijuana indoors. Do you
think these people were consciously breeding for certain characteristics in
the marijuana? Do you think that they really knew what they were doing in a
technical way? Or was it just a kind of hit-and-miss thing that chanced upon
a way of growing a hearty marijuana plant indoors?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, probably both. I mean, there was a lot of, `We'll try
anything and see what works,' which is, you know, the way evolution works,
trial and error. But also there was an understanding. Whenever you're
breeding you have an end in sight, you have a goal, you have your sort of
utopian version of the plant you're working with. And they understood that if
marijuana was going to grow in this new environment, it had to get a lot
smaller because you can't grow 16-feet-tall plants in an eight-foot-high
basement, or in a little closet. And it had to grow faster because you didn't
really want to stay put if you're growing marijuana since the police were
likely to knock down your door.

So they crossed two great strains of the plant. And there was one, a northern
strain from Afghanistan, and then there was this tropical strain. Sativa is
the tropical strain. Indica is the northern strain. And so they very
knowingly put them together because they understood that cannabis indica was a
much smaller, stouter, very potent plant that, since it grew in a northern
latitude, had to flower and get to seed more quickly than sativa, which took
its sweet time about it since it grew near the equator. And they brought
these two things together.

They also learned along the way, though, that the high associated with each of
these strains was very, very different. And the way people talk about it is
that sativa is a very kind of head high as opposed to a body high. And some
people call indica as--blue collar pot. I mean, there for just--you know, if
you want to, at the end of the day, you want to just kick back and not think.
And sativas allow you to function much better. And so they started modulating
these effects and they did create marijuana for different highs, but also to
deal with different maladies. Because, you know, marijuana, like a lot of
plants, is a medicine, also, and for certain kinds of--for appetite, one would
be better than the other. For pain relief, indicas are supposedly the best.

So a lot of this was very deliberate. And, you know, I have met a lot of
these breeders and growers and I spent time in Amsterdam and in California
meeting with them. And what really hit me was that the best gardeners of my
generation--this is what they're doing, they're underground, perfecting this
plant.

GROSS: Well, in writing this chapter about marijuana in your new book, "The
Botany of Desire," you've thought not only about how humans changed the form
of marijuana that's grown in the United States, you thought about how
marijuana changes our perceptions. And one of the theories you propose is
that marijuana may actually remove some of the filters that consciousness
normally puts between us and the rest of the world.

Mr. POLLAN: Yes.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, people talk about marijuana turning us on but it
may be that it turns us off in certain crucial ways. I have to back up a
little bit though. What we've learned about consciousness from the study of
marijuana has actually been extraordinary. You know, Allen Ginsberg and those
people all said that marijuana would unlock the key to consciousness and they
meant smoking it, of course. But studying it, as scientists, has, in fact,
unlocked some incredible new findings about the brain, about experience, about
memory.

Basically, what happened was, in trying to figure out why this chemical
compound, THC, produced these effects, scientists isolated the brain's own
version of THC, which they called anandamide which is the Sanskrit word for
`Inner bliss.' As you can imagine this was not an American grant from the
government funding this research. It was an Israeli neurochemist who named
it. And he discovered that there was a neurotransmitter network dedicated to
this chemical, and this was completely new. We did not know--sort of, we have
this opiate network, we have this dopamine network, and now we have this
cannabinoid network. And then the question became `Well, why? Why did we
evolve to have this network that's activated by this plant but also this
chemical that the brain produces on its own?'

Now we didn't evolve to get high on marijuana. We did evolve to respond to
anandamide. Anandamide has all the same effects of marijuana. It, for
instance, causes short-term memory loss, has a big effect on appetite, has an
effect on pain. And so they looked at where these receptors were and they
found them all over the brain, except in the brain stem, which controls
involuntary functions like respiration and heart beat. And that's the reason,
since there are no receptors there, and that area is unaffected, that it's
very hard to overdose from marijuana because it doesn't close down your
involuntary functions.

They also found it in some surprising places like the uterus. And what was
this about? Well, the more they study it, the theory is that anandamide, the
brain's own marijuana, is involved in pain control. Specifically, forgetting
pain. And the phenomenon that women often talk about, that it's very hard to
recover the feeling of labor, you know it was really horrible but actually
evoking it to yourself is difficult, may be a result of this chemical's
ability to help us forget.

But it also helps us forget information and other things. And this really
baffled me for a long time. And I went back to this Israeli neurochemist, his
name is Raphael Mechoulam, and I sent him an e-mail and I said, `Why would he
evolve to respond to a chemical that makes us forget things short-term?' And
he wrote back this somewhat elliptical e-mail, and he said, `Well, do you
really want to remember all the faces you saw on the subway this morning.'
And I had one of those aha moments and realized, well, gee, forgetting is not
just a defect of the brain, it's actually a function of the brain. And, in
fact, it's almost as important as remembering because we take in so much
information, we see so many faces in the course of the day and hear so many
advertising jingles and that unless we can edit all this sense information, we
would explode. We would go crazy. And this may well be the chemical that
helps us do that. And there's probably another chemical that helps us lock in
long-term memories.

So this marijuana chemical is really part of the editing function of the
brain. Now editing is very much what goes on in changes of consciousness. If
you read accounts of--and I'm not just talking about drug experiences, I'm
talking about sports experience, extreme physical experience, I'm talking
about religious experience. You read a lot about people who have managed to
immerse themselves in the present moment and you get the same kind of
language, whether you're talking to a Buddhist or talking to a Christian
mystic or talking to an athlete, you block out the future, you block out the
past and you're able to seize the present. And that is a process of
forgetting.

GROSS: So even focusing on things like why, if you're high on marijuana, my
food tastes more intense then it usually does. Or why music might seem more
dramatic then it usually does. Do you think it's because you're blocking out
everything else that you might be experiencing?

Mr. POLLAN: All your preconceptions. Yes, you're blocking out all the static
of experience, you're focusing on one thing, which, you know, when you smoke
marijuana, can almost be a detriment because you're just fixed so narrowly on
something, the rest of the world disappears. And this allows what you are
experiencing to--it allows you to have something a lot closer to direct
experience. You know, this chemical, whether in the marijuana form or in your
brain's own version, turns us all into transcendentalists and romantics, you
know, having had direct experience of nature or ice cream or Jerry Garcia. By
the time you get to be an adult, your ability to experience things
freshly--sweetness, for example. You know, children experience sweetness as
almost an intoxication. We kind of lose that.

GROSS: Did the research that you did on marijuana lead you to find out
anything about what frequent smoking might do to the type of short-term memory
that you'd like to maintain?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, it hurts it. You know, if you're a student, it's a very
bad thing to do. I didn't explore the whole issue of the negative long-term
mental effects of marijuana, although there is evidence that there are some.
And I should be--I want to say that I'm not holding a brief for marijuana or
any other drug. And what I think, though, is that, you know, we have a lot of
trouble holding two contradictory ideas in our head that drugs can be
wonderful and drugs can be awful, that they're a blessing and a scourge both.
And, you know, the ancient Greeks were much better at this. They understood
the power of wine and Dionysius and intoxication. But they also understood
that it was such a powerful magic it could turn you into animals, it could
ruin your life.

And so they surrounded around with rituals and they drank wine out of these
tiny little cups and they took their drug potions only, you know, at one
festival every year in the fall. So I think they sort of had a healthier
attitude than we do, where we--where every plant is either, you know, this
heroic thing that's going to save us or it's going to ruin us. And I think
the ability to hold contradictory ideas in our head is a very powerful thing
we're not terribly good at.

GROSS: Well, that said, did this research affect your point of view on either
medical use of marijuana or the decriminalization or legalization of
marijuana?

Mr. POLLAN: I spent enough time with medical marijuana patients in California
to be very impressed with what this drug did for certain individuals and
talked to many, many doctors who swore by its effects, especially on things
like certain kinds of pain relief. Marijuana, or anandamide, too, really
doesn't eliminate pain but it helps you forget it. And that's really just as
important for certain kinds of pain.

Appetite. I mean, I saw AIDS patients who were dwindling away to nothing and
a combination of taking testosterone and smoking marijuana would bring them
right back up to their normal weight in a matter of months. So it is a
powerful medicine. This isn't news. You know, this was discovered by the
ancient Chinese and the Indians and they've known and they've used this for a
long time. It's information we've forgotten willfully because, again, we
can't tolerate the idea that something that could ruin your life could also
help another person's life.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Pollan. He's the
author of the new book, "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the
World." And one of the plants he examines is marijuana. Let's take a short
break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Michael Pollan is my guest. His new book is called "The Botany of
Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World." And he looks at four plants and
the way that humans have bred these plants for certain characteristics. One
of those four plants is marijuana.

Scientists understand a bit about how marijuana intoxicates people when they
smoke it but what does that intoxicant do for the plant itself?

Mr. POLLAN: What happens is you have a plant that's doing something for it's
own reasons, you know, inventing a new chemical because this is what plants
are really good at. I mean, while we were nailing down consciousness and
locomotion and walking on two feet, they completely nailed organic chemistry.
And they can make compounds that we can't even imagine and manufacture them
and design them. And, then, of course, there's photosynthesis, which is an
outstanding trick: turning sunlight into food.

Anyway, so they may have done something like this for their own purposes. But
then what happens is strictly by chance, some human--or in the case of
marijuana, possibly a bird, because birds really like marijuana seeds,
probably because they are getting high. Animals do get high as well. And
then humans started selecting the plants that produced most of this chemical.
And so gradually the evolutionary destiny of the plant is shaped by the fact
that the plants producing the most THC are the ones that are making the most
copies of themselves because we're taking those seeds and planting them.

But marijuana had an interesting evolution. It unfolded along two paths:
While people were selecting the plant for higher and higher levels of THC for
medicine or for getting high, they were also selecting the same plant for
fiber. And that, of course, is hemp. Which until the last century, it was
the most important fiber for papermaking and clothing in the world. And so
the same plant was developed along that line for the longest, strongest
fibers. And then after 10,000 years of this co-evolution between us and the
plant, you had two families. You had hemp, which has very little THC and
really just gives people a headache if they smoke it, and then you have
marijuana, cannabis, which is not a terribly good fiber, especially now that
they've shortened it down to two feet or so.

So, you know, evolution--it's really a concatenation of accidents, things that
just happen and turn out to have some utility, and are seized on. And I think
that's probably what happened with opium also. You know, opium is an alkaloid
in a flower that seems to repel animals from eating it because it's so bitter.
So they start out--you know, they have their own agenda, and it gets cross
wired with our agenda, and then we're off to the races, and the co-evolution
is under way. And the plant, after that period, and it's been 10,000 years or
so since the invention of agriculture, is a completely different plant.

Who's using whom is really the question. And the marijuana plant, you know,
yes, we selected it, we developed it, we talk about hybridizing it and
changing it, but it makes just as much sense to say that the plant found this
unwitting animal that would go to the ends of the Earth, literally, with these
seeds and give it this--a world's habitat when it started off with just a
little part of Eurasia.

GROSS: So what's in it for the plant? It gets to grow more all over the
world.

Mr. POLLAN: Exactly. It gets to concur the world.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. POLLAN: It's the old--you know, it's the evolutionary goal. I mean, we
shouldn't talk in terms of intent and goals in evolution. It doesn't work
that way. But the one sort of life force that we see is the desire to survive
and to make more copies, and as you make more copies, expand your range. And
all species will do whatever trial and error presents to make that happen.

And in the case of these very ingenious species, the domesticated species,
what was presented to them was this animal, Homo sapiens, who happened to be
very thoughtful and able to change the environment and go all over the world.
So if you look at agriculture, in general, which happens 10 years ago, then we
have this phrase `the invention of agriculture.' Well, you know, stand back a
little and you realize that's kind of conceited. It makes just as much sense
if you look at things from a Darwinian point of view to say that agriculture
is something that the grasses, because those are the main--you know, the
wheat, rice, corn--did to get the better of the trees. They got us to cut
down the trees.

So whenever you mow your lawn, you know, you think that you've got these
grasses under your thumb. But in fact, they've got you preserving their
habitat, because by mowing the lawn you're keeping the trees from coming back.
There's a war between grasses and trees in evolution. We weighed in on the
side of the grasses, and it was the smartest thing the grasses ever did.

GROSS: Michael Pollan is the author of the new book "The Botany of Desire."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You're letting the grass grow right under your
feet. You're letting the grass grow on the busy street. Don't you know that
love is grand? Don't you know I'm in demand? Oh, got to have love, got to
have love, got to know where I stand, yeah. Someone's gonna steal me right
under your eyes. Why wait till they steal me? You'd better get wise. Give
out for those kisses, baby, they're sweet. You're letting the grass grow.
It's growing. It's growing. It's growing right under your feet, yeah.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

Coming up, Michael Pollan examines the genetically engineered potato, and
tells us how agribusiness is moving in on the organic food world.

Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Empire Falls," the new novel by Richard Russo.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michael Pollan. He's a
contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and often writes about
gardening. In his new book, "The Botany of Desire," he investigates how we
have bred plants that fulfill our desires, beauty in tulips, sweetness in
apples, and potency in marijuana. And he focuses on a new development in the
relationship between plants and people, genetically engineered fruits and
vegetables.

Now one of the plants that you talk about in your new book is the potato, but
not just any potato. You're focusing on the new leaf potato, which is a
genetically engineered potato. It's part of the whole biotech realm. Why did
you want to make sure that you looked at a genetically engineered fruit or
vegetable?

Mr. POLLAN: Because, I think that this relationship, this 10,000-year-old,
wonderful, co-evolutionary relationship we've had with these other species is
changing. And I actually think that biotechnology, genetic engineering in
particular, represents a whole new wrinkle in our relationship to plants. In
the classical relationship of domestication, the plants propose new qualities,
traits, through variation and mutation, and we select from that. But all
these qualities already exist in the potatoes genome: blueness, bigness,
nutritiousness, non-toxicity. It's a give-and-take. They propose; We
dispose. And in fact, Darwin says in "Origin of Species," `Man does not
create the variation. Now we do. Now we shoot the genes of a flounder into a
tomato. Why would we want to do that? Well, to make it so it won't freeze at
32 degrees, 'cause flounders can go below 32 without freezing. In nature, in
a billion years of evolution, the flounder would never lie down with the
tomato and make a baby. It's just not going to happen. Now that isn't
necessarily evil. It's not to say it's bad. It is to say it's novel. And
whenever you do anything novel in nature, I think you've got to be awfully
careful.

GROSS: Well, let's look at this new leaf potato. What are some of the
non-potato like functions that have been bred into it?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, it produces its own pesticide in every cell, including the
spuds, the part you eat. There is a bacterial toxin, called Bt, that's often
used by organic farmers, and it's a very safe and effective pesticide for the
Colorado potato beetle. However, it's never been part of the human diet
before, and now it is. And so the plant produces its own defenses. And it
got them from a whole other corner of nature, from the bacteria.

GROSS: So a potato beetle would be repelled or die if...

Mr. POLLAN: No.

GROSS: ...it got to the potato plant?

Mr. POLLAN: It takes a bite of a leaf and keels over and dies. I saw it in
my garden. I grew these myself. I sort of--my garden gave up its organic
virginity for this experiment, and it is effective. I saw a Colorado potato
beetle larva sicken and die.

GROSS: Have you eaten the new leaf potatoes that you've grown?

Mr. POLLAN: You know, we've all eaten the new leaf potatoes I found out.
That was my shock. They were, until recently, in McDonald's french fries, in
Frito-Lay chips. They're inescapable. I didn't eat the ones I grew. I sort
of had a moment, though, where I realized I was going to serve these at--I was
invited to a potluck dinner, and I had this beautiful bag of potatoes that I'd
grown. And I hadn't been able to get rid of them, and I sort of put off
eating them, not for any ideological reason. I just felt a little creepy
about it. And then I got invited to a potluck in my town at the beach. And I
thought, `Great, I'm going to make potato salad.' And then even before I
could get the water to boil, though, I had, you know, these pangs. And the
pangs were, could I serve genetically modified potato salad to my neighbors
without telling them. And I said, `Obviously not. I can't in all good
conscience.' And then I thought, `Well, if anyone else is bringing potato
salad that isn't genetically engineered, mine's going to come home uneaten,
because why would you possibly want to eat this? It offers you no benefit,
and some risk, however small. And then I understood with great clarity why
these companies do not want to label their products.

GROSS: Because they're afraid you'll not want to eat it...

Mr. POLLAN: Why would you?

GROSS: ...for fear of taking a risk.

Mr. POLLAN: Why would you want to? I mean, they don't yet offer
consumers--now some day they will. They'll offer us low-fat potatoes.
They'll offer us more nutritious rice. But right now there's no benefit for
the consumer; all benefits, such as they are, are for the farmer.

GROSS: And the benefit for the farmer is the farmer doesn't have to use
pesticide.

Mr. POLLAN: Well...

GROSS: Or as much.

Mr. POLLAN: ...less pesticide.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. POLLAN: And you know, if they actually could say that these potatoes
didn't need to be sprayed at all, I think, you know, that would be very
appealing to a lot of people.

And you know, one of the things that struck me about--when I was researching
the potato, I went out to farms in Idaho, and I saw, you know, farms, tens of
thousands of acres. The soil is essentially killed before you plant. You
spray these fumigants that kill every bit of life in the soil. And the reason
you're doing this is to control diseases. Then you plant your potatoes and
you spray herbicide to control the weeds, and then you have 14 sprayings of
pesticides.

Some of these pesticides are so toxic that the farmers will not go into their
own fields if one of their irrigation machines breaks. They would lose that
field--'cause this is the desert, of course. They would rather lose that
field than expose themselves or their workers to these pesticides when they're
in the field. Some farmers grow their own organic potatoes by the house for
eating during the season, because they're waiting for the potatoes in the
field to lose all their systemic pesticides.

So it was kind of a--you know, I was astounded by where industrial agriculture
has brought us with the potato and with other crops as well. I mean, dead
soil, poisonous plants, right up until the time they're sold.

GROSS: So with the dead soil, I imagine that also sprayed on are a lot of
nutrients.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, they also spray fertilizer. It comes--the water--you
know, they have these giant pivots. You've see them if you fly over the West.
You see these circles down in the desert, green circles amidst this scrubby
brown. And out of that irrigation pivot is coming water and fertilizer and
pesticide in these systems. It costs a fortune. In fact, potato farmers make
virtually nothing on their crop, because they're spending so much money on
chemicals. The only people making money in agriculture these days are either
food processors or chemical producers.

GROSS: Now you point out in the book that part of the problem that these
large agribusiness farmers face is that if you're growing one crop year after
year and you're growing that crop over a large number of acres, you know, over
a vast area, that these crops are going to be more vulnerable. Why?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Monoculture--I mean, if you could put the whole problem of
American agriculture into a single word, it is monoculture--grow the same
thing over such a large expanse and it's genetically identical, it is
exquisitely vulnerable to pests. Because the pests are also in a
coevolutionary relationship with the plants, and they are evolving as quickly
as they can to unlock the defenses of the plant and consume them essentially
and eat them. And the plant needs to evolve also to outwit them.

The problem with a crop of potatoes or apples that are essentially
clones--You're planting genetically identical; you know, all russet Burbanks
are the same all over the country--is that the pests get a chance to evolve
and kind of break the locks and get in; so therefore, you've got to come to
the rescue of these plants, which are really sitting ducks, and spray lots of
chemical.

If you were growing with greater diversity, if you had lots of different
crops, you wouldn't have the same problem. If you didn't just plant russet
Burbanks, which we do essentially because McDonald's needs them because they
make the longest, most golden french fry, we wouldn't have the same problem.

You know, the potato famine in Ireland, which seems so long ago and far away
to us, we're doing the same thing with the russet Burbank now. The reason
there was a potato famine is all of Ireland was essentially planting one kind
of potato, the lumper. And when a blight came along, which is a fungus, that
could unlock that potato's defenses, overnight all the lumpers in Europe
turned to a black, rotting mess. And so monoculture, if there's a single
evil, it is that.

And the problem is the monoculture's very important for driving down the price
of food, for, you know, our cheap food economy. I mean, the logic of
capitalism drives you toward monoculture. The logic of nature is resisting
and driving you toward biodiversity. And there's a fundamental clash between
those two systems, I believe.

GROSS: Well, you visited a lot of organic farms. What do organic farmers do
differently?

Mr. POLLAN: Organic farms basically nurture the biodiversity in the soil and
amongst the plants. They will not grow one kind of potato. They will grow
many, many different kinds and many different crops. They won't grow the same
crop year after year. And by mixing things up this way, you don't allow the
pests, the insects to build up their numbers. You also have--the pests of one
species may indeed help you control the pests of another, because it may be a
predator.

They take care of the soil so that the soil provides a lot of the nutrients.
And they're basic premise is if you take care of the soil, the plants can then
take care of themselves, because these are plants less dependent on us to come
to their rescue with chemicals.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Pollan, and he's a
contributing writer to the Sunday New York Times Magazine. He's also the
author of the new book "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the
World."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Michael Pollan. His new book is called "The Botany of
Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World."

Now in a recent New York Times Magazine article, you wrote about how
agribusiness has taken over a lot of organic food companies. What are some
examples of that, of things you might have seen on the shelf that really were
small companies who have now been bought by agribusiness?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. Well, as organic have begun to prove itself in the
marketplace, the big companies that sell Americans their food wanted in.
And--for example, Cascadian Farm is an old organic brand started in a hippy
collective farm in the '70s. It's now part of General Mills. You wouldn't
know that reading the box. It still creates this impression of the, you know,
supermarket pastoral of a small farm where people are tending these
raspberries very carefully. In fact, they may be coming from as far away as
Chile.

What's happening is as organic food gets bigger, the same pressures toward
monoculture are being felt, and there's a real tension there and there's
reason to worry. I mean, I think organic agriculture still is a great hope
for American agriculture. I don't think it's going to solve all the problems.
But if it is industrialized, which is starting to happen, you're going to find
that it's just as processed. You know, now there are organic TV dinners that
are full of synthetics and additives, and there's organic milk that is
ultrapasteurized, which means it's more processed than the regular milk you
get. So that--there is a danger that as organic catches on it'll get diluted
along the way.

But what happens is, if you're selling vast quantities of corn and you're
freezing it, the processing machine, even the combine can't make the turns in
a small field, so you end up planting giant fields of all the same variety
because that's what processes well and that's what the processors want. So
you see the whole kind of pattern repeating itself, which is definitely a
cause for concern.

GROSS: There are big organic superstores now, stores that are like
supermarkets but they deal only with, you know, quote, "organic" foods. Is
that feeding this trend too, of organic...

Mr. POLLAN: No question.

GROSS: ...combining with agribusiness?

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah. No question. I mean, Whole Foods and Wild Oats and those
companies are selling large quantities of organic. And I should point out
that's a wonderful thing in one way, you know? I mean, here's again an
example of--we have to hold two contradictory ideas in our head. By selling
it on this scale--and now I understand Wal-Mart is going to get into
organics--when you start selling organic on that scale, you're going to have
thousand and thousands of acres being treated organically, and that represents
an enormous improvement over what we have. That said, it will not be the same
organic as it was when it was smaller. And a lot of these pioneering farmers
who developed it will be crushed by the big agribusiness farms. But you know,
it's not good or bad. And it's very good in some ways.

And I saw industrial organic farms where, you know, it was kind of mixed farm.
They'd have 10,000 acres of conventional and 2,000 acres of organic. And the
farmers were learning the virtues of organic, and they were switching over to
organic pest controls, and they were putting composts in their conventional
fields. So there's a cross-pollination going on, and that's a very healthy
development.

GROSS: What are some of the organic pest controls that are used for large
organic farms?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, this brings us back to our potato story--Bt, the pesticide
that is put inside those crops. And this another problem with these crops.
It is a bacterial toxin found in the soil called Bacillus thuringiensis, and
organic farmers have used it with great success. The way they use it, it
breaks down overnight--just in sunlight it breaks down--and therefore, the
pests have never been able to develop resistance. Now with all these Bt
crops, because in addition to potatoes there's corn that's Bt, there's cotton
that's Bt, we are putting so much of this bacterial toxin in the environment
that even the Monsantos of the world acknowledge that pests will develop
resistance, and the key organic pest control will not work within 5 to 10
years. So it represents, you know, a real taking on the part of this industry
of this public good, which is Bt.

GROSS: Wow. So the organic food industry would be in trouble if their major
pesticides ceased to work.

Mr. POLLAN: Yes. I mean, the organic food industry has many threats from
genetic engineering, and that's why the two camps have been in such
opposition. But genetic modification will probably cost them their most
important pesticide. But it's also contaminating their crops, because these
genes--you know, we read about StarLink corn contamination--don't stay put.
And you know, genetic pollution is very different from chemical pollution.
Once a gene gets into the environment, it reproduces, it copies itself, and so
you can't clean it up the way you can an oil spill, and it doesn't fade. So
you're getting genes--you know, flounder genes and these kinds of things that
will be in organic crops as well. So that safe haven that they've set
themselves up for will not exist in a few years.

GROSS: What concerns you most about genetically engineered foods?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think that the more serious threat is probably
environmental, and we probably don't know what it is yet. I think from a
health point of view, I'm less worried about health threats from eating it;
although, they may be there. But environmentally, we are introducing
something novel into nature. And whenever we do that, the effects show up
where we least expect to find them.

You know, DDT is the great case study. I mean, here was this wonderful new
chemical. It wasn't terribly toxic to people. It passed all its
toxicological tests. We started spraying it like crazy, and it really worked
on mosquitos and malaria in turn, and then suddenly the bird population
crashed. No one thought to look at the thickness of birds' eggs, which was
essentially what was happening. DDT was staying in the food chain. The birds
were eating the bugs. Their eggs were collapsing if they sat on them.

So when you make a change in nature, because everything is linked, the effect
is often very far from where you're looking. And the other problem is we're
not looking very hard. You know, these companies, they're not concerned with
these relationships the way they should be.

GROSS: Michael Pollan, where do you get most of your food? Do you grow most
of it in your garden?

Mr. POLLAN: I wish I could. I grow a fair amount. I've got a large
vegetable garden. But you know, I shop at the supermarket like everybody
else. But ever since I wrote that article on organics and did the research
for this book, I've started to really look around me more closely. And I
found some remarkable resources in terms of organic milk that isn't processed
at all, in terms of people growing grass-fed beef and farmers markets. So I
do as much as I can locally.

And given a choice now, given what I've learned, I think between something
locally grown and something that's labeled organic in the supermarket, I think
I would opt for the local. Because you know, one of the things--farms give us
many things besides food. They give us a kind of landscape. And I like the
rural landscape. I like seeing farms in the New England town where I live,
and I don't want them to go away. That's another thing they produce. So I
buy local when I can.

GROSS: You say you don't like to see the farms go away. Now you're one of
the urban emigres who have moved to this farm country. Are there a lot of
other urban emigres, like yourself, who have moved out there, and are you part
of what's changing the farm landscape?

Mr. POLLAN: Oh, yeah, I'm sure I'm part of the problem. I mean, the farms
are disappearing and a lot of them are being bought by New Yorkers for second
homes. But that said, if the people who move to the country will patronize
the local farms, then they'll survive. And so it's very, very important to do
that, and not just assume, if you see that organic label, that that's the end
of the story. Organic is not the last word. I think local--I think a
shorter, more legible food chain--I mean, if I learned anything from this is,
you know, Americans have really forgotten where their food comes from. They
think it comes from the supermarket. And the shorter and more legible the
food chain is, the healthier will be the agriculture. If a farmer at a
farmers' market looks you in the eye and you ask him how he grows his
potatoes, and you're going to find out and that's the best pressure. I mean,
a labeling scheme is a substitute for actually meeting the farmers who are
growing your food.

GROSS: What got you to move from New York to farm country and to make
gardening the subject of your writing and to focus so much of your life around
gardening and acquiring food?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, I started gardening. This was a second home. I
was living in Manhattan working as a magazine editor. And this was a second
home and I took up gardening and fell in love with it. And then realized in
the course of, oh, having a war with a woodchuck at one point and having to
deal with pests, that this was a wonderful laboratory to look at our
relationship to nature.

You know, Americans, when they want to think about nature, always go to the
wilderness. You know, you have the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and John
Mira(ph) and this is supposedly where we got for our insights into the natural
world. I actually think that's kind of a lousy place to go. I think there's
a lot more to be learned in the garden with domesticated plants. This is
where we really mix it up with nature. This is where we go where we have to
get something from nature without ruining it, where we engage. And I'm very
interested in the places where we engage.

And by looking at plants--you know, the wonderful thing about domesticated
plants is they're sort of a compendium of nature and culture together. You
can read these plants and learn about us. In the same way, you can look at a
wild flower and learn what a bee thinks is beautiful and what a bee thinks
smells good, you can look at a russet Burbank potato and learn what makes us
tick.

And so I just found that in plants you could learn an immense amount about
people. And so I've used my garden and my plants to write about everything
from drug policy to food to architecture. And so I think it's a wonderful
place to go to think through our relationship with nature, far better than
where we usually go.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Pollan is the author of the new book "The Botany of Desire."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Tulip or turnip, rosebud or rhubarb, filet or
plain beef stew. Tell me, tell me, tell me, dream face, what am I to you?
Diamond or doorknob, sapphire or sawdust, champagne or plain home brew. Tell
me, tell me, tell me, dream face, what am I to you?

Do I get the booby prize, or will I be the hero? Am I headed for blue skies,
or is my ceiling zero? Tulip or turnip, moonbeam or mud pie, bank note or
IOU. Tell me, tell me, tell me, dream face, what am I to you?

GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by Richard Russo.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Richard Russo's new novel, "Empire Falls"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Novelist Richard Russo specializes in capturing the humor and the messy
humanity of small communities fighting against extinction. His novel
"Nobody's Fool" was set in a working-class town in upstate New York. It was
made into a movie starring Paul Newman. In his new novel, "Empire Falls,"
Russo burrows deep into a dying town in Maine. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

Not one wrong note. That's the most amazing thing about Richard Russo's new
novel, "Empire Falls." In a nearly 500-page story that spans generations and
features such risky minor characters as a sassy waitress and a dirty old man,
you'd think the literary odds would mandate that Russo would scribble a false
bit of dialogue here, a canned observation there. Not so. "Empire Falls"
flawlessly creates a fully realized world that's, at the very least, as
engaging, hectic and probably even as stupid as the one you fled by opening
the book, with one irresistible difference. In his fictional realm, author
God Russo doles out frequent epiphanies and measured justice.

Russo's marvelous novel takes its title from a fictional old mill town in
central Maine, where the story is set. Like many of Russo's other literary
locales, Empire Falls is an isolated place, dying a slow death. The
working-class citizens of Empire Falls appreciate that in a cosmic sense the
joke is on them, and has been ever since the 1970s when the town's main
employer, a textile mill, was bought by an international conglomerate.

Within a couple of years, the mill was gutted, its mortgaged machinery
disassembled and placed on trucks bound for Georgia and the Dominican
Republic. Russo's main character here, Miles Roby, is a direct inheritor of
this disaster, since his late mother, Grace, spent nearly her whole working
life in the mill's adjacent shirt factory. Forty-somethinger Miles now runs
the Empire Grill, a greasy spoon landmark currently experiencing an upswing in
business due to the patronage of faculty and students from a nearby college
who've decided the Grill is quaint.

When the novel opens, Miles is in the midst of a divorce, and he's worried
about the emotional fallout on his beloved teen-age daughter, Tick. Because
this is a small town, Miles finds himself regularly serving coffee to his
almost ex-wife's boyfriend and running into folks he's known and, in some
cases, disliked since childhood.

A constant thorn in his side is Mrs. Francine Whiting, the matriarch of
Empire Falls, whose husband's family founded and sold the mill. Mrs. Whiting
claims she's left the Empire Grill to Miles in her will. But since she's as
wily as a Maine coon cat, there's reason to suspect that she's just stringing
Miles along in revenge for his mother's long-ago affair with her deceased
husband.

A constant thorn in Miles' other side is his con man father, Max, an itinerant
housepainter and irregular bather. Here's a snippet of Miles' ruminations on
his father's wet sneezes. `Max regarded recovering his mouth as irrational
behavior. The way he looked at it, you might as well cover your ass with your
hand when you farted--see how much good that did.'

There's a shocking act of violence towards the end of "Empire Falls." But
essentially, the novel is about taking stock at midlife. It explores the way
Miles, a thoughtful, gently depressive man, comes to terms, or doesn't, with
the major decisions he's made, consciously or not. Chief among them was
Miles' decision to drop out of college when his mother was dying of cancer.
As Russo shrewdly shows, a little higher education is a dangerous thing in
Empire Falls, dividing not quite college graduate Miles from most of the
people he serves at the Grill.

Maybe one of the reasons Russo is so great at unsentimentally, but generously
depicting failing communities and the people left behind in them is because,
as a literary novelist at the high end of the `mid' list, he knows what it's
like to be stranded in a world fast becoming extinct. "Empire Falls" might
just airlift him up and out.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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