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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very independent bookseller

no. 9   
The Botany of Desire
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Passport to the Cosmos
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The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Passport to the Cosmos by John E. Mack

Michael Pollan's new book, The Botany of Desire, is currently all the rage. But I wonder: Would readers be so enamored if they knew that Pollan was surreptitiously promoting the alien agenda? No, he hasn't actually admitted it – you know, The Botany of Desire: What I Learned From My Alien Abductors – but he might as well have. Consider the following direct quote, which he boldly places front and center in his introduction:

This book tells a different kind of story about Man and Nature, one that aims to put us back in the great reciprocal web that is life on Earth. My hope is that by the time you close its covers, things outside (and inside) will look a little different, so that when you see an apple tree across a road or a tulip across a table, it won't appear quite so alien, so Other. [emphasis mine]

He puts the word right out there for all to see! And this is not an isolated incident. The word alien is fairly littered throughout the book in passages like this:

Like an alien species introduced into an established ecosystem, the potato had trouble finding a foothold when it first arrived in Europe toward the end of the sixteenth century. The problem was not with the European soil or climate, which would prove very much to the potato's liking (in the north anyway), but with the European mind. Even after people recognized that this peculiar new plant could produce more food on less land than any other crop, most of European culture remained inhospitable to the potato.[again, emphasis mine]

I remained skeptical for a time, cautious of jumping to conclusions on the basis of a single recurring word. But when I noticed that the very string of letters necessary to spell out "The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan" actually contains all of the letters needed to spell "aliens," I knew I had found my smoking gun. It's just too farfetched to be coincidental.

But then I had to ask, Why would Pollan go to all this trouble? Why be so coy about his intentions? The answer is obvious. It's even slyly answered in the above passage. Throughout, substitute the word alien for the word potato and it becomes clear why Pollan is leery of stating his alien sympathies publicly. Just as the potato offered sixteenth century Europe a more efficient food source, the strange humanoids currently beaming thousands of people nightly aboard their cigar- or saucer-shaped crafts have something terribly valuable to offer humanity. But due to an willful intransigence, we have remained stubbornly resistant to the idea of the alien presence. We sorely need to hear what these aliens have to tell us. Yet most of us remain unwilling to accept even the idea of their existence.

Consider the fate of Harvard psychiatrist John E. Mack. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T. E. Lawrence, A Prince of Our Disorder. But as soon as he started to publish meticulous accounts of his psychiatric work with alien abductees in 1994 (Abduction: Human Encounters with Aliens) his fair-weather friends in the academic establishment abruptly stopped taking his work seriously. Mack soon became subject to a most childish brand of ridicule. Rumor is, a nervous Harvard even tried to revoke his tenure.

Though clearly compelled to inform the world about what the aliens have to say, it's no wonder Michael Pollan has opted to find a way to do it without opening himself up to the prattle of philistines. Nonetheless, it's all there in The Botany of Desire. And as you can see in the previous example, Pollan disguises his subject by analogy. Instead of referring directly to "aliens," he lets a variety of plants stand in for his true subject. With this in mind, it becomes simple to extract from The Botany of Desire the rudiments of the alien message, as well as something of Pollan's attitude toward our pale, pasty guests. Let's take the following quote from The Botany of Desire as a starting point:

...our sense of plants as passive objects is a failure of imagination, rooted in the fact that plants occupy what amounts to a different dimension.

Creepy, no? With only a slight adjustment – "...our sense of aliens as delusional fantasies..." etc. – this could be a direct quote from Dr. Mack's most recent book, Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters. In this work Mack explains that as far as he's been able to figure out, the likely reason the "reality" of the alien presence is so difficult to verify is that the aliens actually exist in another dimension. They're real as you and I, but their reality may exist on another plane. And just what is "reality" anyway? These abductees – or as some call them, "experiencers" – exhibit too many signs of genuine trauma, and too few of psychosis to be disregarded as manipulative or delusional.

Furthermore, the stories abductees tell, independent of one another, are far too similar in both substance and detail to be explained by mere chance. The details of a typical abduction have been thoroughly documented by Mack: the bright blue light; the "floating" up to a hovering, cigar- or saucer-shaped craft; the strangely powerful humanoids with over-sized eyes who occupy the craft; the bizarre medical procedures and painful probing, anal or otherwise; etc.

Of course, at first this is all quite terrifying. But abductees generally report that one does get used to it. After being forcibly removed, over and over, to their blue-lit spaceship, you kind of get to know them. And in fact, contrary to what you might assume about a band of compulsive kidnappers obsessed with bizarre medical procedures, these little hairless shrimps may not be so "bad" after all. Surprisingly, it may just be that the primary motive for their abductions is a deeply felt concern about the destruction human beings are currently wreaking on the environment of our planet. After working with hundreds of abductees over several years, Dr. Mack believes this is precisely the case:

I was astonished to discover that, in case after case, powerful messages about the human threat to the Earth's ecology were being conveyed to the experiencers in vivid, unmistakable words and images. The impact of these communications is often profound and may inspire the experiencer to work actively on behalf of the planet's life. Indeed, it seems to me quite possible that the protection of the Earth's life is at the heart of the abduction phenomenon.

As you might guess, Michael Pollan is also something of a tree-hugger. The Botany of Desire is, after all, an eloquent treatise on the extraordinary importance of nature's most precious resource: biological diversity.

To shrink the sheer diversity of life, as the grafters and monoculturists and genetic engineers would do, is to shrink evolution's possibilities, which is to say, the future open to all of us. "This is the assembly of life that it took a billion years to evolve," the zoologist E. O. Wilson has written, speaking of biodiversity....To risk this multiplicity is to risk unstringing the world.

But these days environmentalists are a dime a dozen. Am I implying that every vegetarian and recycling enthusiast is an alien abductee? Hardly. What confirms the fact that Pollan's environmentalism has its origins in abduction experiences is the fact that for him, environmentalism is clearly linked to his preoccupation with the complexities of genetic engineering and crossbreeding.

One of the strangest and most consistent elements of the abduction narrative is the so-called "hybrid project," which has been well-documented by Mack:

A central feature of the experience appears to be a complex sexual/reproductive "project" that, after a sequence of experiences, may result in the apparent creation of hybrid beings...which look like a cross between the aliens and humans...

Admittedly, though the majority of experiencers donate either sperm or ova to this project (against their will, of course), the exact reason aliens are breeding large numbers of alien-human children remains cloaked in mystery. Michael Pollan, like most abductees, seems just as perplexed as the rest of us by the phenomenon, for in The Botany of Desire he recounts many crossbreeding scenarios (between a variety of "plants," of course). By going over and over it, is he hoping to discover its purpose, its meaning? It's hard to tell. But in The Botany of Desire he clearly covers all the prominent theories. For example, Mack documents that some experiencers believe that...

...the hybrid "project" grows out of the fact that the beings made their own planet unlivable and destroyed their own capacity to breed. Now...the aliens are replenishing their stock by mating with us.

Compare that theory with Pollan's thinly-veiled allegory of the devastating Irish Potato Famine (one of many fascinating anecdotes in his book). Pollan explains that the famine was caused by the fact that in the 1840s the Irish were planting almost exclusively one variety of potato, the Lumper, which turned out to be extremely susceptible to potato blight. So when the fungus that causes this blight eventually made its way over from the New World, the resulting catastrophe was similar to giving Charlie Sheen a suitcase of cash and setting him loose in Mustang Ranch. The blight had its way with all the little Lumpers in the country; everyone else was appalled. So what in the end was the solution to the famine? Irish Lumpers were crossbred with blight-resistant potatoes from the New World in order to create a more hardy breed. Sound familiar?

Other theories about the alien breeding program are more cynical. Many abductees resent being used as "breeders" and can't help assuming that the aliens are up to no good: "They use us....Perhaps we're just walking stock with a little bit of brains," posits one of Mack's subjects. Pollan too has his less optimistic moments. He meets with one "disarmingly candid" genetic engineer at Monsanto who offers a number of persuasive, upbeat arguments for the benevolence of genetically engineered foods. Somehow, though, Pollan can't quite take this representative of Monsanto at his word. His final advice, when he is unable to satisfactorily answer Pollan's questions, is far too sinister: simply "Trust us."

But just as many abductees are convinced that the aliens' intentions are benevolent. In the following experiencer's estimation, the aliens are crossbreeding with humans in an effort to avert environmental disaster:

Catherine believes the hybrids are being created "so that if humans did destroy the planet there would still be alternatives." Perhaps, she suggests, by crossbreeding with humans, "the aliens are trying to come up with a form that would be more physical but could still exist in the other realm"

If Catherine is correct, then the alien crossbreeding project bears remarkable similarities to recent developments in marijuana cultivation, which Pollan recounts in obsessive detail.

As the story goes, in the eighties uptight Ronald Reagan put the considerable powers of his office behind his need to destroy all US marijuana cultivation. In response, creative marijuana farmers took their craft indoors. As it turned out, the variety of marijuana traditionally used in the US, sativa, did not grow well under these conditions. So creative growers crossbred sativa with a new variety from Afghanistan, called indica.

The resultant sativa-indica hybrids constituted the beginnings of a new superior variety of marijuana that not only thrived indoors under grow lights, but also contained, as luck would have it, far more THC than their more primitive cousins. Who would have guessed that Cheech and Chong owe Ronnie a debt of gratitude.

Sensitive readers will no doubt understand that, in his quaint "story" of marijuana cultivation, Pollan is presenting one theory of the elusive purpose of the alien hybrid project. But for those who are yet convinced, take as further evidence the eerie similarity between Pollan's rows of fledgling marijuana plants burgeoning under myriad grow lights, and the "rows of incubators containing hybrid babies in early gestation" reported by so many of Dr. Macks "co-explorers."

Finally, one can't help but speculate whether Pollan's excessive fascination with genetic crossbreeding isn't fueled, at least in part, by a wild speculation of his own. Mack reports that for many abductees, the sight of those rows of incubation tanks can be quite literally "jarring." Many have come to believe that they, themselves, are products of the hybrid project; that they are half alien.

Which brings us back to our original question? When it's so obvious that Michael Pollan has spent countless hours at the feet of his alien buddies, and is intent on passing on to his fellow spaceship-earth passengers what they have taught him, why doesn't he just bite the bullet and make a clean break of it? Why bother with all the secrecy? Other alien-human hybrids – Pee Wee Herman, Latoya Jackson, etc. – have made little effort to hide their alien half.

Well, the answer seems pretty obvious, and it has little to do with fear of ridicule. As a result of speaking out about the alien phenomenon, Dr. Mack has barely retained tenure and has been branded a quack. Meanwhile, Pollan's cleverly subversive book is earning him a pile of cash. The Botany of Desire is currently number twelve on The New York Times Bestseller list, and will no doubt continue to sell well for months to come. Pollan may not have a Pulitzer Prize, but he does appear to be the more intelligent of the two. Those aliens, after all, are pretty smart.


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