October 2011

Lightsey Darst


Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History is an absurd title. Plants are history, plants are life; we eat them; drink them; wear them; live in them; dose, kill, and cure ourselves with them. I was going to write an A-to-Z sentence here, reminding you of everything around you that comes from plants, but I axed it because the sentence would partake of the same absurdity as the title of the book under review. Without plants, we wouldn't be here. An analogous title might be Fifty Chemical Elements That Changed History.           

But this isn't a serious effort; it's a gift book, meant for people who cannot tell dogwood from maple to buy for their rose-fancying mothers. Chockablock with sidebars, faux-antique script, and illustrations that slice into disposable text, this book is meant to be looked at, skimmed, casually thumbed. You wouldn't actually sit and read it the way I did. If you do, you'll notice more absurdities: the serious-looking categories that identify each plant as edible, medicinal, commercial, or practical, when it doesn't seem possible for a plant to be practical without also being any of the above, or edible without being commercial. You might notice how promises go unfulfilled -- AIDS and condoms are mentioned in the heading for rubber, but entirely neglected in the text -- or how history comes and goes: we find out that agave "was not scientifically classified and named until 1753," but in the next chapter discover that no plant was scientifically classified in the modern sense until that year, which was when Carl Linnaeus published his taxonomy. You find yourself, in the chapter on coca, being twice introduced to "a young Viennese neurologist, Sigmund Freud," as if at an odd cocktail party with a thoroughly blotto host. 

Trying to make sense of this botanical mishmash, though, I found myself growing more and more impressed with the mound of data assembled here. I began thinking of the author, Bill Laws, as an Indiana Jones of the plant archives, an intrepid explorer fearlessly lassoing facts, or, alternately, as a floral Fisher King, shoring up these fragments against the ruin of the gift book wasteland. 

Laws seems to have some larger points to make. He shows how ingenious people are, how Pacific Islanders and Indonesians turned the coconut into matting, soap, fuel, various foods, baskets, brooms, sterile fluids, liquor, and stronger liquor. Our ingeniousness seems linked to our rapaciousness: craze after craze swept the globe, for black pepper, tulips, coffee, nutmeg. And this global trade in plants is no recent phenomenon. Consider how what we think of as national cuisine so often depends on imports: peanuts are not native to Thailand, the cardamom beloved in Finnish bread comes from India, and of course no one in Italy ate a tomato until after they'd been brought back from the New World. The ubiquitous apple, temptingly rosy fruit of a thousand legends, was once just a spotty crabapple living quietly in what is now Kazakhstan. But savvy readers know what's coming: in all this hungry trade, man's inhumanity to man looms large. Cotton, tea, sugarcane, coffee -- time after time we hear of people exploited and land devastated. What does Laws make of all this? The closest thing to a summary is this nonsense sentence in the introduction: "The perils of destroying our plants could alter the course of history forever." 

Well, never mind; this isn't that book. This one is a harmless little compendium of plant lore, suitable for wrapping and displaying on coffee tables. Still, as I read, I couldn't help thinking about what another W.G. Sebald would do with all of this, how he would weave these bits and pieces together to make some larger tapestry of hunger, desire, cruelty, and natural fertility. So here, for your pleasure and puzzlement, are a few odd facts. 

Cotton takes up less than three percent of the world's land, but around twenty-five percent of pesticides. The man who invented plastic died a recluse; his grandson, after killing his own mother, apparently suffocated himself in a plastic bag. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had hemp plantations. The Declaration of Independence was probably drafted on hemp paper. The synthetic dye mauve, first of the cheap and vivid colors, was invented in the search for a synthetic quinine, the treatment for malaria. Profits from German chemical dyes helped pay for World War I. Ethiopia still uses a pre-Gregorian calendar, meaning that it is seven to eight years behind. "Alcohol" comes from "kohl"; Muslims invented distilling for perfumes and essences, not for forbidden liquor. There was a Jean Nicot, a French ambassador to Portugal who brought tobacco seeds to Catherine de' Medici. There are about sixteen thousand kinds of rose. The Latin name of the chocolate tree means "food of the gods." Beriberi, a disease partly caused by white rice, means "I cannot, I cannot" in Sinhalese. 

Do with them what you will. 

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws
Firefly Books
ISBN: 978-1554077982
224 pages