Apple Of My Eye: A Summary of Michael Pollan’s ‘The Apple’ from The Botany of Desire Micheal Pollan begins his bestselling novel, “The Botany Of Desire”, with a question, what is the difference between humans, and the bumblebee? Pollan argues that humans do not have control over nature as we tend to believe, he believes that nature plays an equal or even more dominant role in our relationship. He states, “this book tells a different story of man and nature”(xxv) and he tells this story through the apple.
Pollan believes that the apple had much of the control over its destiny; that it is the one that chose its fate, not humans as we are so inclined to believe. He sums up his thoughts up perfectly by stating, “The apple is the hero of its own story”(6) As Pollan’s thesis states, the apple is the hero. This idea is meant to make the reader uncomfortable, Pollan is trying to make us see the story we have been hearing all our lives in a new light. He wants us to shed the belief that we control the destiny of everything around us and show us a different perspective, one in that nature plays its part in its history.
The apple, which Pollan uses to illustrate his idea, has evolved so that every aspect of it furthers its “fitness” as Darwin would phrase it. One of its most helpful adaptations that has helped it thrive across the globe is its “heterozygosity” Every seed, or offspring, of the apple is completely different than its parent. Pollan attributes this “ineluctable wildness”(11) to the apples widespread success. Pollan also puts a lot of emphasis on the apples quality of sweetness, a quality more revered in times past when sugar was not so easily attainable.
Pollan suggest that sweetness could even be at the root of all human and non-human desire. He states, “Sweetness has proved to be a force in evolution”(19) Sweetness is what propelled the apple on its journey and plays a huge role in its history. Pollan begins his essay by informing the reader of the apple’s history. The apple originated in Kazakhstan and was brought west through the silk route. Along the route, seeds were dropped, and the apple spread, increasing its … until millions of different apple trees sprouted across the continent.
The apple continued its journey to domestication with grafting in China and popularity among the Greeks and Romans. It arrived in England and was met with new opportunities and new frontiers: America. The puritans brought the apple to the new world with them where the apple began its next chapter, one that was largely helped by one man: Johnny Chapman. Johnny Chapman, more commonly known as Johnny Appleseed in American culture, was an integral part of Pollan’s essay. Pollan continually referenced back to him, for good reason.
The apple and John Chapman had a symbiotic relationship, helping each other in ways they could not help themselves. They were equal in their relationship, which Pollan highlights as he discusses the tale of Chapman floating down the Ohio river-side by side, floating in matching catamarans, both essential to the others fate. Chapman owned many nurseries along the frontier and helped spread the apple across America. Pollan credits Chapmans widespread success to his “fanatical devotion to apple planted from seed and his ever changing location.
His success can also be attributed to the fact that since he only grew apples from seed and not from grafting, as is the preferred way to grow apples, Chapman’s apples were not suited for eating, the only thing suited for his apples was cider, and the American pioneers had a great want for alcohol. The apple in modern times is associated with health, we have all heard the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, but Pollan informs us that the apple was not always recognized this way.
The apples current view comes from a rebranding attempt during the prohibition when cider, and the fruit it was made of, was to be banned. Like the apple, Johnny Appleseed was not always known as he is now, as an American saint, he was rebranded and domesticated, just as the apple was. Appleseed may have been heroic and preached God’s word as some may suggest but he had a darker, more pagan side to him. He often slept outdoors, walked barefoot and more unsettling was rumored to have been engaged to a ten year old girl.
Pollan introduces the reader to Bill Jones, a Johnny Appleseed fanatic, firm in his belief that Appleseed represents all that America needs and is the perfect role model. Bill Jones beliefs strongly juxtapose Pollan’s own. Pollan believes that Appleseed, or Chapman as he is more inclined to call him, is the American Dionysus, who more closely represents a pagan God rather than an American Saint, which Jones is so desperately trying to paint Chapman as.
These two contradicting views are accurate for Chapman’s life, he was religious but made his living providing alcohol to the frontier, he helped domesticate America and yet he was completely at peace in Nature. Just as Chapman is split between two tales, so is the apple. One a story of a wild past and another of a saccharine sweet domestication. Pollan started his novel by comparing humans and bumblebees and by the end of his essay he makes it evident that he was correct in saying the two are very similar.
Humans and nature have coevolved to mutually benefit each other, which Pollan made very clear through his essay. He made it clear that the apple was indeed in control of its own fate; we brought the apple across the world because it adapted to be something we desired. From cider to its elusive sweetness, to bringing domestication to the frontier, the apple has seduced us into spreading its range and DNA. Pollan expanded upon the apple’s adaptively by drawing similarities between it and Johnny Appleseed’s wild past and modern day domestication.