Pollan: Taking the Plant's Point of View | Civil Eats

Pollan: Taking the Plant’s Point of View

On Friday August 8th, Michael Pollan gave a talk entitled “Taking the Plant’s Point of View” at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York. Taking a leaf from the subjects of his books The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he told stories to re-orient us in our place in the natural world. Specifically he spoke about the relationship between human beings and plants, which need other species to help spread their genes. One example he gave was the lawn, something that he has written widely about. Now, though, it was no longer a totalitarian landscape in his reckoning, no longer just a place where we’d forced our will on plants.

“Suddenly I understood the lawn from a different perspective, when I adopted the plant’s point of view. And that was, in mowing the lawn we’re doing exactly what the grass wants us to do, without knowing it. That those of us who mow lawns are the greatest dupes in nature. Because what does grass want? Grass wants what all things want: lots of habitat. In the case of grass it wants sunlight. It wants freedom from the trees.”

One of the values of taking this plant perspective, he argued, is that we are humbled.

“Looking at the case of plants, more than animals, which are much more on a continuum with us, highlights something really important about who we are. And what it highlights is that our whole cognitive apparatus, our consciousness, our tool making, these things we pride ourselves on, are really just one way of doing business in nature. They are the tools we’ve evolved. Every species evolves its own tools for getting along in nature. None are better or worse, or more sophisticated than any other. The plants have been evolving longer than we have, they just have been going down a different path. They’re not interested in consciousness, it’s not that they’re not good at it, it’s that they have something that for their purposes works even better.”

He spoke about the Darwinian idea that we are all species in a state of interdependence, and yet he noted that human beings still set themselves apart.

“We still think we’re different. We still think we are the thinking subject and everything else is inanimate and we can control it. So we bring these very factory-like ideas to the management of the natural world. So we know what Darwin told us, but we behave as if it was still a machine universe controlled by the great consciousness of humans. And [taking the plant’s viewpoint] is I think how we begin to overcome that. We can begin to finish that Darwinian Revolution. Because it’s one thing to know something, and it’s quite another to have it in your heart. Which is one reason why artists and writers are an important part of this project. It’s not enough for scientists to tell us things. We need to make it stick.”

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PS1 was a natural place for Pollan to speak, as the courtyard is currently home to Public Farm 1, a working, off-grid organic farm complete with chicken coop, wading pool and juice bar. Every year, the Young Architects Program picks a winner to create a community-oriented environment at PS1, where events take place throughout the summer. But this time, the architects Dan Wood and Amale Andraos of Work Architecture wanted to make a statement about local food in the urban environment, and rethinking sustainable cities.

Building such a farm was an ambitious affair. It is made using recycled cardboard barrels, which are filled with soil and hoisted into the air at a graduated angle, giving the effect of a hanging garden. There are also plenty of places to get situated and stay awhile, watching the squash grow, the tomatoes redden and listening to the farm animal sounds that emerge from one of the pillars as part of the installation. Here, the public is free to pick and eat what they like. Some produce is also harvested, and used in the café 300 feet away.

The farm will be on view until September 15th at PS1, so New Yorkers and visitors alike should head out to Queens and pick their own vegetables. Michael Pollan will be speaking at Slow Food Nation’s Food for Thought, on August 29th and 30th.

Photos by Paula Crossfield

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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