Dandelion Greens

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

It was a Saturday morning in May of last year; the kind of morning when the air was cold but the intensity of the sun hinted of the hot afternoon that would ensue. My boyfriend and I were browsing the Farmers’ Market, knit bags in hand. We had already filled them with our usual fruits, vegetables, and local honey, when we came across a small booth I had not noticed before.

The first thing I laid eyes on as a humble package of tiny, hand-picked chamomile buds. How delicate they looked: I could imagine just how deliberately and painstakingly they were plucked from their plants, dried, carefully separated, and sealed into their respective bags. I tentatively picked up the bag, and, at the same time, my gaze was drawn to a row fresh wild greens at the opposite side of the table. I saw broad leaves of stinging nettle, a few varieties of clover, and then, a bag bursting with dandelion shoots, the largest I’d ever seen. I smiled at the girl behind the counter, probably no more than a couple years older than me: “I’ll take one of these, please,” I said, imagining the bright and nutritious salad I could make (although my boyfriend looked a little less convinced).

As the young clerk tallied up the cost, a woman appeared beside me, busily inspecting the greens,”How does this taste? Is it garlic-y?”
“Yes,” replied the girl “I believe it is. Would you like to try?”
The woman popped a cluster of leaves in her mouth and chewed hurriedly, “Nope. Doesn’t taste like garlic at all.” Then she walked off.
Before I could process this a second woman came by, bringing herself just close enough to the table so that we could hear her scoff: “aren’t those the same weeds I could pull out of my front lawn?” I felt my face get warm as I stared down at my bundle of greens; they certainly didn’t look like any I could find on my lawn (and were presumably much safer to eat). My boyfriend and I exchanged glances, thanked the girl, and headed on our way, the dandelion greens joining the other chosen items in our bag.

So, what do dandelion greens have to do with the advent of agriculture? For me, they are a symbol of the fact that agriculture, as Jared Diamond expresses in “Guns, Germs and Steel”, was not much of an “advent” at all, but a slow evolution.  And that, correspondingly, the path from the life of a hunter-gatherer to that of a farmer was not at all linear, but was more than a bit messy.

The defiant woman at the farmers market, and admittedly my boyfriend, turned their noses at the idea of eating dandelion greens because they are a wild food, viewed by many as no more than a common, bothersome weed. In contrast, when I told my grandmother about my purchase she had a much different reaction: “Oh yes, dandelion greens!” She nodded, recalling with a hint of nostalgia how she would collect them as a girl for her Italian father, in a field adjacent to their house. For him, these greens were a delicacy, and a necessary ingredient to the perfect salad. This demonstrates just how much is still changing in our dependence on, and in our knowledge of, edible wild foods. By the time my grandmother was raising her own children, virtually all of their plant foods (other than the odd collection of wild berries) were deliberately grown in the garden or bought at the store. This is a modern day example of changes that have evolved as a response to convenience and availability, two important themes that emerge in Diamond’s work.

Starting with Chapter 4, “Farmer Power”, I found this phrase striking: “Today, most people on Earth consume food that they produced themselves or that someone else produced for them. At current rates of change, within the next decade the few remaining ands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle” (p. 86). I found this striking because it is a reminder of the way our ancestors lived, and even thrived, in non-agrarian groups for so long. When I have thought of my ancestors previously, I didn’t look so far back – I thought of the lives that my more recent relatives dedicated to farming, and to me this made farming and gardening seem the most natural and instinctive things in the world; a way to connect back to the Earth. But, Diamond’s words made me think, what is a more intimate and loving connection with the Earth than taking only what you need, careful to respect the integrity of the land from which you take it, as hunter-gatherers often did?

Coming back to the advent of agriculture, I appreciate how Diamond takes us through research and reasoning piece by piece, as if we are on the journey to unraveling the great mystery of the beginnings of food production with him. His sequence of explaining these events is completely logical, and fully explains a topic in one area before moving on to the next. For example, in Chapter 6, he begins with “Formerly, all people on Earth were hunter-gatherers” (p. 104), which set the stage for a long list of questions, loosely in the form of: “Why did this happen the way it did, and not this?”
“Why?..Why?..Why?”
Then, he “dispels” misconceptions about the origins of food production, and the differing lives led by hunter-gatherers. Finally, we get to the fact that “food production systems evolved as a result of the accumulation of many separate decisions about allocating time and effort” (p. 107) and the consideration of “food production and hunter-gather wrong as alternative strategies competing with each other” (p. 109), ending with a discussion of why, in the end, an advantage was seen in food production, leading to the modern agriculture that we have today.

But, perhaps my favourite chapter so far was Chapter 8, “Apples or Indians”. This chapter compares the facility of cultivating plants and domesticating animals in the Fertile Crescent with two vivid examples at the other extreme – the highlands of New Guinea and the Eastern United States. These examples culminate in an important lesson: it was not some deficiency of the people that lived in these areas that led to relatively less food production than obtained in the Fertile Crescent, but a deficiency in the availability of wild species that could be domesticated for human use or consumption, as well as a deficiency in crops that provided adequate protein and calories for these populations to expand. In fact, Diamond makes the case that the indigenous peoples that inhabited these areas (and in some cases, still do) knew a lot more about their natural environments than we do today, and they were extremely capable in recognizing which varieties of plants would be useful to them. “Native Americans were not constrained by cultural conservatism and were quite able to appreciate a good plant when they saw it” (p. 152).

When the “Mexican triad” was completed in the Eastern United States with the introduction of beans and corn via trading, native species like sumpweed (a relative of ragweed) were discarded and long forgotten as a food source. Somewhat similarly, we have largely forgotten dandelion greens in our modern-day North American salads, instead replacing them with tender lettuces while we spray and weed out the invasive dandelions.

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Artificial Selection of Plants & People

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House: New York.

In an introduction to The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan starts with a premise: perhaps it is not us (humans) who have solely shaped plants over hundreds and thousands of years, but also plants who have acted to shape us. For many people, myself included, this notion is rather strange, as it shatters our belief as a human species of being in control, reducing us to be little more influential than an insect. Further, for many of us, it changes our whole notion of what a plant is. Of course we have a basic understanding that plants are alive, but seldom would we think of a plant as having a voluntary, active role. And, seldom do we consider that what we choose to eat on a daily basis – the seeds and fruits we consume – could possibly be shaping the plants that produce these foods, and likewise shaping our own genes. In other words, we have been programmed to think of ourselves as subjects and  plants as mere objects, but could this be wrong?
Pollan begins his discussion with some very simple, yet vivid, imagery: lazily sowing seeds in the garden, lost in one’s thoughts. Remarking the sounds and smells of nature; in this case, buzzing bees and sweet fruit. I know that I can relate to this image he has conjured. I’ve often thought of the act of planting seeds as almost too easy, intuitive even, once I got past the initial doubts of my own skill. For a short time I agonized over getting the rows straight, making them deep enough but not too deep, and determining exactly how many seeds I should sprinkle. But even when my work was clumsy and the soil was relatively poor, things grew. As simple as that, a seed would sprout into a seedling, and several weeks later I would have dark green spinach, curly kale, or the tiny beginnings of cucumbers, fat, unripened  tomatoes, the flowers of squash, or up-reaching tendrils of pea plants that would eventually gain pods. Perhaps, I speculate now, this is because nature, or plants more specifically, has selected me (or us) to disperse these seeds. In a way, almost no other act could be so natural. Even as we believe we are rarely associated with plants except for when our hands are in the dirt, deliberately spreading seeds & coaxing them to life, I think it is truer that plants are intertwined with us in a way beyond our imaginations, so vital for everything we need and, as Pollan stresses, desire. Aha, yes, we desire the products of plants. Pollan makes the argument that this is because they have readily adapted to offer us our desires (eg. beauty, nutrition, intoxication), so that we can fulfill for them their destiny of reproduction and expansion. I appreciate Pollan’s injection of humor, as he says, “I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its naughty charms in the pages of a seed catalog”, and reinforces this with “the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue were no longer quite so innocent” (p. xv).

Another image that stuck with me is that of the dog and the wolf. Pollan posits that relative to a domestic dog the wolf seems much more “impressive” to humans, but it is the dog that has been able to readily adapt and survive in a world increasingly governed by human activity, by learning “our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes” (p. xvi-xvii). He also argues that this is quite similar in plants.

Secondly, in Chapter 7 (“How to Make an Almond”) of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, this idea of the way plants have changed in response to human consumption becomes fleshed out. Diamond begins with a description of domestication from a “plant’s point of view”, outlining how seed dispersal and artificial selection probably first began, mostly accidentally, and both in ways that can be readily seen (eg. picking the biggest, juiciest berries) as well as in ways that are more subtle and unconscious; serendipitous, even (eg. picking and eating the pea pods that don’t pop open and release their peas). He ends with a developmental view of ancient cultures and the crops they domesticated as they became more skilled and purposeful in their agricultural endeavors. I found Diamond’s writing to be a bit more matter-of-fact, with less character and plot development than the other creative non-fiction pieces we have been reading thus far (which could be due to starting with the seventh chapter), but that being said, this book read smoothly, easily, and intriguingly. His word choices certainly evoke the senses; I could taste the wild strawberries and blueberries,“oily” olives, and the crunchy, bitter acorns.

Something that I remarked as I pored over the table of “Examples of Early Major Crop Types around the Ancient World” (p. 126-127) that Diamond includes, which displays cereal grains and legumes (pulses) as the predominant and integral food sources for the human diet, is that it differs greatly from the Americanized and fast-food diet of many people in today’s times, in which animal proteins are often viewed as a staple, while legumes (with the exception of a few) are not largely consumed. Cereal grains do remain widely important, although not in the same ways that our ancient ancestors used them. Breads, bagels, cookies, cakes, muffins, pastas, instant oatmeal, and so on, typically consist of highly processed wheat, corn derivatives (ie. high-fructose corn syrup) and many additional additives.

For me this comes back to a familiar question: how have we so much lost touch with our deeply-ingrained, mutual relationship to plants (the organisms largely responsible for feeding and clothing us)? Will we ever get it back?

An Unveiling of Seeds

Hanson, T. 2015. The triumph of seeds: How grains, nuts, kernals, pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York: Basic Books.

To start this post I’d like to share a little bit about myself, which you will understand the relevance of in just a moment:

I have to admit that I felt slightly (okay, incredibly) intimidated when I attended my first Plants and People lecture and realized that I was mostly accompanied by seasoned plant biology students and science students from adjacent disciplines. What had I been thinking signing up for a third year Biology course as a Psychology major who has merely dabbled in vegetable and herb gardening?! Not only has the sole science lab of my university career been identifying rocks, but prior to this course I had not taken a class covering any aspect of plant biology since Science 10 – in French (which is probably why I tend to want to throw an accent on the “e” in meiosis). In my last years of high school I opted only to take Biology 12 (Human Biology), and participated in a 3-month exchange program to Trois Rivieres in lieu of Biology 11 (the kind of course that you just can’t catch up on half-way through the semester), without any idea that one day five years down the road I would be impacted by this decision. So here we are! Good thing I enjoy a challenge ;). And all of this is to say, thank goodness for the gem that is Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds!

I am not quite sure what I expected as I began to delve in to this book, but after reading only the first chapter I felt that my eyes had been opened to a whole new world – the world of plants! Hanson seems to have humbleness about him, and this allows his to write in a way that comes across as natural and easy to understand, even as the concepts he describes become increasingly complex. In tandem with his personal stories, each new concept builds upon itself and discriminates itself from other concepts in a logical manner, constructing a clearer picture in my mind of what exactly a plant is, how plants reproduce, and how they have evolved in their means of reproduction over millions and millions of years. A good example of this is in his discussion of what the Carboniferous is thought to have looked like; Hanson uses dialogue of Bill DiMichele (as well as opinions of other paleontologists), and rich imagery, to paint this picture:

“It should be called the Coniferous!” he burst out during one of our conversations. “The evidence now really suggests coal was a minor element.”

Once Bill’s team began questioning conventional wisdom, they started seeing compelling signs of a hidden flora, a community of conifers and other seed plants that lived uphill from the swamps. Though it probably only covered all but the wettest places, this forest left almost no trace of itself behind – just the occasional leaves and branches washed down from above.

“There’s a problem with terrestrial plants,” he explained. “They don’t preserve well in place.” (p. 59-60).

I’d also like to comment on Hanson’s depiction of his relationship with his son, Noah. The anecdotes that he provides of Noah make him a relatable human being, and also make the material much more meaningful (and therefore easier to remember) than would be the case with a heavily-worded textbook. I think it is genius how he uses his own experience with parenting to mirror that of a plant caring for its seed. I will not soon forget the metaphor of wrapping a naked child in a “big fluffy towel” as “the same evolutionary drive [that] led one line of gymnosperms to wrap their naked seeds, folding up the underlying leaf to enclose the developing egg” (p. 67).

Another aspect of Hanson’s writing that I admire is the way he is able to tie each new concept or story in to the larger theme that he is trying to get across – the theme that reappears over and over again – that the advent of the seed has been for nature and for humans, completely triumphant, and for scientists, a little bit mysterious.

He describes how seeds are triumphant in their physical characteristics that have slowly evolved over time, giving way to angiosperms. And angiosperms in particular have been pivotal in nourishing the human species, and in the development of agriculture and other technologies that followed: “without the ability to manipulate pollination and save the result as a durable seed, it’s hard to imagine our ancestors ever succeeding in agriculture” (p. 69).

The latter bit of seeds being mysterious, as expressed in the final sentence of Chapter 5, “exactly how a seed can lie dormant for years or even centuries before germinating is a fundamental mystery that scientists are only beginning to understand” (p. 80), plays in to another underlying theme of this book: that there are so many incredible things about nature (whether it be evolution, genetics, and so on) that we are still on the road to understanding. I think this is important in our “Age of Information”, as many people may get the sense that all of the greatest secrets, especially in terms of the natural world, have already been discovered, or that we have already established all of the basic mechanisms that there are to know. In reality, with the world being so diversified and complex, it is unlikely that there is a chance of this happening anytime soon.

The 100 Mile Diet: Part 1

Smith, A., & Mackinnon, J. B. 2007. The 100-mile diet: A year of local eating. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

The 100 Mile Diet describes Alisa Smith and J. B.  Mackinnon’s struggles and successes with eating locally, or within a hundred mile radius of their tiny apartment in downtown Vancouver, over the course of a year. However, this book doesn’t simply “describe” what it is the couple ate (which at some points was endless amounts of potatoes and root vegetables), but it takes the reader on what feels like a first-hand trip to locating, gathering, purchasing, and preparing the food, as well as meeting with farmers, bee-keepers and produce sellers, and navigating changing seasons, and their own differences of opinion. The first half of the book in particular (up until “October”) leads us to the East Side farmer’s market, the fish market, the thick forest of the isolated northern town of Doreen, BC., and farms scattered over the authors’ region of the West Coast, including UBC, Westham Island, BC., Salt Spring Island, BC., and Bellingham, WA. Intertwined with these food-finding adventures are thought-provoking statistics, and historical narratives on the state of our land and food supply in times past.

A narrative that I found particularly interesting was that of the outrageous abundance of Salt Spring Island in 1893, when “even the years’ apple harvest, considered “almost a total failure” could have provided seven apples a day to every islander” (p. 97). Similarly, it is difficult to imagine the total volume of mammals, birds and fish that once roamed and swam in every corner of the Pacific Northwest, as is remembered in narratives of voyagers and explorers of the 1700s and 1800s; “such exuberance of life” (p. 142). I appreciate both of these examples because they really give me a sense of the impermanence of the world as we know it now; creatures and plants that we see in abundance today may someday become unknown to generations of the future. And with this there is also a sense of loss in knowing that we too have missed so much abundance of previous eras, so much so that we have already begun to forget the kinds of seeds that can be sown in our BC soil, or, for example, that seeing an eagle or a stream overflowing with wild salmon was once commonplace. This notion also means that it is possible that one day the state of our Earth may be better than it is today, if only we can remember what is important. As J.B. Mackinnon puts it: “a bean reinforces an original truth: that human beings are sustained by the natural world… the garden is a constant reminder that our depleted global environment is linked to the gap we have constructed between our food and ourselves” (p. 146).