Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Are you there, Michael Pollan? It's me, Cocoa.

Betty read Michael Pollan's lyrical builder's memoir A Place of My Own in an architecture class during her sophmore year of college. In the book, Michael Pollan sets about building himself a little study house in the woods and must consider the environmental, historical, and philosophical ramifications of doing so.

Lars, Betty's leather-pantsed German grad student TA, immediately tried to sour Betty on Pollan with the following argument: "Who does he think he is? The Unahbombah? Why does not he build a house for everyone?," but even the temptations of class warfare couldn't undo the book's thoughtfulness or make Betty appreciate its deft, light strokes of history and philosophy less.

While in D.C. for a month, Betty read The Botany of Desire, and was impressed again by Pollan's clean, clear writing and both the politics and the beauty latent in the ordinary things - apples, potatoes - he chose to document and decode.

Now Betty is reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan's book about food, its uses, its histories, and its industries, and halfway through she dares say it is his best book yet! Though it can be tediously technical at times, the payoff comes when you learn what all that technique means for the whole world, and how quickly our generation of large-scale industrial farmers, even so-called organic farmers, are changing indelibly the depths of this planet.

All of which gets Betty to thinking: Michael Pollan is the best, most gung-ho writer out there on the intersection of nature and culture. Which is why his next book should be about animals, specifically, PETS. Why do we have them? Where do they come from? Why do we differentiate between them and the animals we eat, and how did this differentiation get started? (Remember, Betty and Bimbo saw a CHICKEN up for adoption when they last visited New York City Animal Care and Control.)What psychological effects might domesticated animals bring to humans, and humans to them? Why some pets and not others? Are "cat people" really more prissy? What really goes on in puppy mills, and how is that different than what goes on with "respectable" breeders? Whence the obsession with breed, anyway? Why are the British more attuned to the horrors animal cruelty than North and South Americans are? Isn't that kind of ironic? Who are these people who go to dog shows, and who are their dogs? Do guinea pigs have souls? What does it all MEAN?

I don't know about you all, but I wasn't impressed with the cover story New York Times magazine ran on the hip new dog breeds a couple of weeks ago. The photographs were adorable, but the piece wasn't really rigorous or reflective, not did it open any history or "What is human nature?/What is dog nature?" types of boxes. Clearly, amending this problem and enlightening us about our pets is a job for Michael Pollan.

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