Kale, kale, the gang's all here in our botany of desires

by Emily Stone
Naturalist, Educator Cable Museum of Natural History

Hot sun beat down on my neck as I crouched in the dirt, pulling thin blades of quack grass from out between my kale plants. Weed by weed, I slowly reached the end of the row, stood up, and stretched my back. A quick survey showed that my work was not even close to being done. My plot at the brand-new Cable Community Farm had only recently been sheep pasture, and even after three rounds of tillage, quack grass roots still run deep.

The kale looked relaxed and happy, though, in its spacious row. For a second, I felt a twinge of resentment. Why does kale get to just sit there and grow, doing the only thing it really wants to do, while I have to toil away, tilling the soil, planting the seeds, watering the garden, and weeding away any competitors? By offering up its tasty, nutritious leaves, the kale has seduced me into catering to its every whim.

“…the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue no longer quite so innocent or passive. All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realized, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves,” Michael Pollan wrote in his excellent book, The Botany of Desire.

When I first picked up this book off a friend’s coffee table and read the introduction, it completely changed the way I think about domesticated plants. Although I love to eat kale and almost every other fruit and vegetable, I have always had more respect, more reverence for native plants. If you think about it, though, everything in our gardens started in the wild somewhere, once upon a time.

Pollan flips our perception of plants upside down, and asks us to think about domestication “as something plants have done to us—a clever strategy for advancing their own interests.” Their own interest, as with every living thing, is to make more copies of themselves, to reproduce.

So, just as plants use nectar to trick bees into transporting their pollen, plants bribed us with sweet fruits, crunchy leaves, nutritious seeds and beautiful flowers. In return, we choose the seeds of their genetic kin to be collected, sold, and replanted year after year. We bring them to a good habitat, protect them from pests, reduce their competition with other plants, and make sure their every need is met.

The tastiest, most prolific varieties (think Brandywine tomatoes, Provider bush beans, or my Winterbor kale…what’s your favorite?) are first developed through selective breeding, and then replanted over and over again. In the meantime, the quack grass and other weeds are tilled under, pulled out, and repeatedly beaten back. Says Pollan, “our desires are simply more grist for evolution’s mills, no different from a change in the weather: a peril for some species, and opportunity for others.”

When I write about nature, I usually choose to just write about wild things out in the woods. But, as Pollan observes, “Nature is not only to be found ‘out there’; it is also ‘in here,’ in the apple and the potato, in the garden and the kitchen…” My relationship with nature does not stop at the edge of my garden. In fact, by planting, nurturing, and eating these other living beings, I develop an even more intimate, reciprocal connection with nature, and weave myself more fully into the “reciprocal web of life that is Earth.”

Yes, kale and other vegetables have persuaded me to pamper them, and to pay others to make sure they reproduce every year, but I also receive benefits, just like the bee on the rose bush. Instead of a hive full of honey, I will survive winter with a freezer full of kale!


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