Michael Pollan is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years. This is Your Mind on Plants is his most recent book, consisting of three essays, each on a different psychoactive plant product: opium, caffeine, and mescaline. As in other books, Pollan perfectly combines his passion for plants and gardening with a political and sociological discussion, while explain the historical background – and all that in a voice that is a pleasure to read.
Pollan explores the cultural contexts in which these three plants have established their relationship with humans and asks why a plant would evolve to produce a psychoactive substance. In order to get to know these drugs and their effects, he tries them all – though in the case of caffeine that means undergoing a withdrawal in order to experience the lack of an effect he had grown so used to – and he wonder where the human interest to alter or state of consciousness stems from. Surrounding his self-experimentation, the legal status of the three substances plays a significant and fascinating role. Caffeine obviously being legal, Pollan wonders whether our unquestioning consumption of it is justifiable and truly as harmless as we (and its legal status) make it out to be. In the case of opium, Pollan’s attempts of growing opium poppies in his own garden highlights the absurdities of the war on drugs that was rampant in the US at the time, but has of course done nothing to prevent the devastating opium crisis that causes hundreds of thousands of deaths each year and leaves a few families incredibly rich. Finally, mescaline enjoys a special status. While generally its production and consumption, and the cultivation of the cacti it can be won from, is criminalised, Native American’s hold a special right to consume mescaline as a cultural significant ritual.
This is Your Mind on Plants hits the sweet spot between personal experience, scientific investigation, and political criticism that Pollan has mastered. It awakens a new fascination for nature and evolution and highlight the arbitrariness of many of our laws and customs. As always, Pollan’s curiosity and open-mindedness are the key to his success and the readers pleasure. With charm and wit he relates his adventures, resulting in a work that is not only eye-opening, but also hugely entertaining.