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This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book.

I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk, and in his put-downs of the English, repeating the dubious analysis that tea drinking was a mechanism for evil English mill owners to get more work out of the masses.

The three chemicals are dealt with in independent sections. The first, on morphine, is an extended version of an old magazine article. It's quite effective in describing the byzantine contortions the US legal system got into over drugs, where it was effectively legal to grow opium poppies in your garden as long as you didn't know they were opium poppies, and the poppy seeds were legal to sell (after all they're used in catering) but not to be used to 'manufacture' poppies. (I wasn't clear from the book how and if things have changed now.) However, I found Pollan's attitude to drugs here worrying. Again with this self-oriented view, it was very much a case of 'what's wrong with me taking opium if I want to - why should doctors be allowed to prescribe morphine but I can't use it?' This is particularly ironic as later on he berates the English for selling opium to China in the nineteenth century. Don't get me wrong, the Opium War was a bad thing, but it feels like Pollan's attitude is 'it's okay for me but not for those foreigners.' 

The centre section, by far the best, is a rehash of an earlier ebook on caffeine. Apart from anything, it's most interesting because it's closest to normal people's experience. He takes us through the history of coffee and tea well (despite the strange social control allegations), then tries life for a few months without caffeine and tries to work out whether the pros of consuming caffeine are worth the cons. Genuinely interesting.

The final section is the most detached from everyday experience (we might not make our own opium tea like Pollan, but many of us will have grown poppies or have been prescribed morphine or codeine as a painkiller). Mescaline, derived from a couple of types of American cactus is a psychedelic chemical that is probably only familiar to most people from dramas or documentaries where someone experiences a religious ceremony involving it. Here another aspect of American culture comes out - the self-flagellation over past wrongs as Pollan worries about cultural appropriation or referring to something as a chemical, which it without doubt what it is, because it might offend someone who considers it spiritual - it's wokeness with a dollop of hippy leftovers thrown in. 

Just one more example of that US viewpoint. Pollan describes visiting a Columbian coffee farm. He mentions seeing the volcano Cerro Tusa and tells us 'You've seen it a thousand times on packages of beans and in all those commercials for Columbian coffee - the classic ones featuring Juan Valdez.' He then goes on to tells us how this fictional character was devised by an advertising agency in 1958. But guess what. If you aren't American, 'you' haven't seen all this - it means nothing to you. It's the same kind of viewpoint than leads the US to call a sports competition for a game essentially only played in America a 'World Series'.

There is no doubt that Pollan can write (even though he becomes distinctly repetitive in the first section - perhaps a side-effect of the opium consumption), and when describing his fears of being raided for growing poppies or his relationship with caffeine he is genuinely engaging. But this is a book that irritates more than it inspires.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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