Michael Pollan

by Andy Peterson

Michael Pollan

(06.Feb, 1955 – )

Michael Pollan was born in 1955 in Long Island, New York.  He received his Master’s Degree in English at Columbia University in 1981, having previously studied at Bennington College and at Oxford University .  His first published article, “Gardening Means War,“  appeared in the New York Times in June of 1988.  In this piece, he tells the story of moving his home from the city into the countryside, where he strikes forth in a grand struggle with nature that most of us call gardening.  This article is extremely comparable to the book, “Epitaph for a  Peach,” (Masumoto) through each writer’s coming to terms with the natural world as he attempts to dominate nature (with mixed physical results and ethical realizations), and is awakened to his connection (or lack thereof) with nature.  The reader is called to a new way of looking at the land we cultivate, and that which we do not:

The forest, I now understand, is “normal”; everything else—the fields and meadows, the lawns and pavements and, most spectacularly, the gardens—is an ecological “vacuum” that nature will not abide for long. Here the soil is richest and most frequently turned over. What softer, sweeter, more hospitable bed could an airborne weed seed ever find to lie down on? Other weeds don’t even have to find your garden: thousands of their seeds lie dormant in every cubic foot of garden soil, patiently waiting for a pleasing combination of light and moisture so they can move on your plants.

And your plants are sitting ducks. Just as cultivated soil constitutes a kind of vacuum in the environment, so do most of the plants grown in it. Most cultivated fruits and vegetables contain nutrients in greater concentration than ordinary plants. They stick out in the natural landscape like rich kids in a tough neighborhood. Enter the animals. The woodchucks and deer are the flora’s great levelers, making sure there are no undue concentrations of nutritional wealth in the landscape. They want to redistribute my protein.”

Pollan continued down this literary path, continuing to delve into the history, quandaries, and the veil that are all interlaced in the common-knowledge “truths” about food and agriculture.  His article “Weeds Are Us” was published in the New York Times in November of 1989 and was selected for the Norton Book of Nature Writing.  Other articles have been used in  anthological books like “Best American Essays”, “Best American Science Writing”, and “the New Kings of Non-Fiction”.  He is still a regular contributor to the New York Times, and served as the executive director for Harper’s Magazine. He has written 6 books since 1991, beginning with “Second Nature–a Gardener’s Education”.  Subsequent to this came “A Place of My Own” (1997),  “The Botany of Desire–a Plant’s Eye View of the World” (2001), “The Omnivore’s Dilemma–a Natural History of Four Meals” (2006), “In Defense of Food–an Eater’s Manifesto”(2008), and most recently, “Food Rules: an Eater’s Manual” (2009).  He also released an updated version of “Omnivore’s Dilemma” adapted especially for young readers in 2009.

Pollan has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards.  “Eater’s Manual”, “Eater’s Manifesto”, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Botany of Desire” were all New York Times bestsellers.  “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. It also won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.  He also received the James Beard Award in 2003 for best magazine series,  the John Burroughs prize for best natural history essay in 1997, the QPB New Vision Award for his first book, “Second Nature”, Reuter’s Global Award for Environmental Journalism (2000), Humane Society Genesis Award in 2003, Truth in Agriculture Journalism Award, given by the American Corngrower’s Association (2008), the  President’s Citation Award from the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the 2009 Voices of Nature Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Since the spring of 2003 he has been teaching in graduate school, and is now the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California in Berkley; his most recent course option titled, “Edible Education-The Rise and Future of the Food Movement”.  Pollan is one of the most significant environmental authors of our time, urging us as a community to come to grips with fallacies regarding the way “we” grow food, how we mutilate it into other products, and how it gets onto our kitchen tables, medicine cabinets, and gas tanks.  He addresses themes of “Other”, domination, language, history, food, childhood, humans, animals, plants, and hierarchy in his many literary works.


-”Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

-”You are what you eat eats.”

-“The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. ”

-“… the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.”









Botany of Desire


Omnivore’s Dilemma


Open-Source Food & Genetic Engineering


Until the romantics, the hierarchy of plants was generally thought to mirror that of human society.  Common people, one writer held in 1700, may be “looked upon as trashy weeds or nettles.”  J.C. Loudon, an early 19th century gardening expert, invited his readers “to compare plants with men, consider aboriginal species as mere savages, and botanical species…as civilized beings.””  (Norton, pp. 1081)

Pollan is, in this section of “Weeds Are Us”, trying to understand what a weed is. Why are weeds “weeds” and plants not?  In a subsequent article, he compares the botanical species we plant and slave over to “rich kids standing in a tough neighborhood”.  What does this passage say about the way we decide what ethnicities, cultures (both plant and human), and states of land are cast into the “other”, and, since we eat many of these plants, what does it imply we are doing when we ingest them?

“But by the end of the chapter, Thoreau trudges back lamely to the Emsonian fold: “The sun looks on our cultivated fields and on the prairies and forests without distinction…Do these beans not grow for woodchucks too”…How, then, can our harvest fail?  Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of the weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?”

Sure, Henry, rejoice.  And starve.”

Here, Pollan is wrestling with different schools of thought on weeds, and sees in text that Henry Thoreau had preceded him in this battle of ethics and survival.  Emerson’s “Weediness is in the eye of the beholder” was the philosophy that Michael tried to embrace, but is reminded by Thoreau that if we are to sustain ourselves by growing crops, we must tend to those crops.  What similar dilemmas have occurred throughout history on the human stage,  where “live and let live” has turned to a choice between “die and let live”, or “live and let die”–whether the weeds are plants, animals, or human?

“Working in concert, European weeds and European humans proved formidable ecological imperialists, rapidly driving out native species and altering the land to suit themselves….In a sense, the invading species had less in common with the retiring provincial plants they ousted than with the Europeans themselves.  Or perhaps that should be put the other way around.  “If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance,” writes Jack R. Harland in Crops and Man, “then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”

Weeds are not the Other.  Weeds are us.”

Written and presented by

Andy T.K. Peterson



About envirolit

Professor of Environmental Literature
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