The Apple And The Poppy

During my brain operations I found out the hard way that I’m allergic to the opiates codeine and morphine–naturally occurring, addictive, and still the best pain-killers around. One source of opiates is the opium poppy , which, contrary to certain sources, grows easily in the States, where it once grew in abundance. It’s still legal to grow it, to sell its seeds, and to make poppy-seed cake, but do more than that and it can be very illegal. However, poppies were not a controlled substance during the Temperance ban on alcohol (1920-1933). Writer and gardener Michael Pollan wonders why, then, it is illegal now, and suggests that the war on drugs is inconsistent: ‘The war on drugs is in truth a war on some drugs…. Is it the quality of addictiveness that renders a substance illicit? Not in the case of tobacco, which I am free to grow in this garden…. So is it toxicity that renders a substance a public menace? Well, my garden is full of plants … that would sicken and possibly kill me if I ingested them, but the government trusts me to be careful. Is it, then, the prospect of pleasure—of “recreational use”—that puts a substance beyond the pale? Not in the case of alcohol…. So could it be a drug’s “mind-altering” properties that make it evil? Certainly not in the case of Prozac, a drug that, much like opium, mimics chemical compounds manufactured in the brain…. My failure to heed what amounts to a set of regulations … and prejudices … makes me not just a scofflaw but a felon…. Perhaps one day the government won’t care if I want to make a cup of poppy tea for a migraine, no more than it presently cares if I make a cup of valerian tea (a tranquilizer made from the roots of Valeriana officinalis) to help me sleep, or even if I want to make a quart of hard apple cider for the express purpose of getting drunk. After all, it wasn’t such a long time ago that the fortunes of the apple and the poppy in this country were reversed.’

The fortunes of the apple and the poppy are not the only thing reversed. Seems everything’s upside-down. In a 2009 letter to newly elected Barack Obama, Pollan writes that health-care has become illness-care, affecting both domestic and foreign policy. Furthermore, ‘the 20th-century industrialization of agriculture [nurtured by what he calls ‘the cheap-energy mind’] has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. Put another way, when we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. This state of affairs appears all the more absurd when you recall that every calorie we eat is ultimately the product of photosynthesis — a process based on making food energy from sunshine. There is hope and possibility in that simple fact.’

Why? Because ‘the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious)…. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym…. Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment. You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as [farmer/philosopher] Wendell Berry [pictured] pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions” like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon.’

Which gets us to the heart of this reversal. For millions of years, billions of years, nature’s been calling the shots. Now we think that we humans are separate from nature and we’re calling the shots, but we’re still part of nature and it’s still calling the shots. Who’s the boss, really? ‘What if human consciousness isn’t the end-all be-all of Darwinism? What if we are all just pawns in corn’s clever strategy game to rule the Earth?’ In this video Pollan asks us to see the world from a plant’s point-of-view.

But why bother? Pollan says we need to:

  1. be our best (‘virtue’) because ‘the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.’
  2. think differently
  3. set an example
  4. act even if it’s improbable, because we don’t really know the future
  5. reduce our ‘sense of dependence [helplessness] and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.’

In food gardening, you can:

  1. begin ‘to heal the split between what you think and what you do’
  2. ‘re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools’
  3. reduce the power of the cheap-energy mind
  4. learn ‘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’

If the apple represents health and the poppy addiction, let’s choose in all things apples. images from wikipedia.

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