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Seeds of intrigue

Michael Pollan, a writer and gardener, might not consider himself a naturalist on the order of Henry David Thoreau, but he can spot a bug in the grass _ no mean feat to the eye of a visiting New Yorker, who couldn't have found a penny in the sun.

"Might be a firefly; I'll put it in a jar for Isaac," Pollan said, cupping the bug in his hand: a melon-striped, half-inch needle in a haystack.

"It's a firefly," said Isaac, Pollan's 8-year-old son, looking at the Tupperware tub with the heirloom deer tongue lettuce leaf in it. That night, the tub glowed, like a tiny power source.

Pollan's interest these days is in the garden as a source of unlikely powers. His third book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (Random House), was published last month.

"Deep down I suspect that many gardeners regard themselves as small-time alchemists," he writes. "Maybe at some level we're still in touch with the power of the old gardens."

Pollan's picture of his garden has deepened, and darkened, from a pretty place flowering with metaphoric potential to a more disturbing place with the power to alter experience, like the medicines of the medieval garden or the moral lessons of the 18th century landscape garden.

Or the apples in the garden in the Book of Genesis. That waxed red ball in your lunchbox has had other careers.

Pollan looks like the youngest owl on the property, in his baseball cap and sneakers, with his sharp stare focused through his eyeglasses. Like Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991), his first book, and A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997), The Botany of Desire is set in, and concerned with, the outdoor classroom that is his 5 wooded acres in northwestern Connecticut. Pollan lives there, in a Sears kit house built by a farmer in 1925, with his wife, Judith Belzer, a painter.

What has pushed up through the soil lately isn't your average crop. Witches' brooms, the natural history of marijuana and Johnny Appleseed's child bride are discussions in The Botany of Desire, as are the transformations of knowledge lost in the garden because people no longer look for them, Pollan believes.

I spoke with him in his garden recently about pagan Edens and the thigh of an aroused nymph _ two things, according to Pollan, that you can grow at home.

Question: The thigh of an aroused nymph?

Answer: These are my old roses _ smell this one (it smelled like what you'd expect a figure in a Bello photograph to smell like). This is "maiden's blush" _ Cuisse de Nymphe Emue _ "thigh of an aroused nymph." Definitely the sexiest rose. Sex in the garden _ that's a whole subject that people aren't in touch with, that they used to be.

Question: The garden has been a good field of research for you. What kind of conclusions are under cultivation at the moment?

Answer: Looking at plants to determine what our ideas are _ of beauty, sweetness, intoxication. The idea is to use these plants as a mirror in which to see ourselves, our desires. I plant certain things because I want to learn certain things.

Question: What, for example?

Answer: I've put in some medicinal herbs, like St. John's wort. I'm drying some various medicinal herbs _ valerian _ to make teas. Comfrey's a terrific pain reliever. I've got a great hops vine. I may try beer. I want to try applejack, too. (Pollan has several apple trees, including Esopus Spitzenberg, which was Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple-bearer, and Malus sieversii, or wild apple, from Kazakhstan, where the apple originated.)

There's an older idea of the garden, back past the popularity for flowers, of powerful plants that change us _ that heal us, or poison, do all these things we don't discuss in the garden, or grow, anymore. I'm very interested in bringing back that idea of the garden. I really do feel that we've bowdlerized our gardens and that prettiness rules now in the garden, and that's a recent idea.

Question: How far back do you have to look to escape it; what preceded it?

Answer: You go back 200 years, to the Gothic gardens and the landscape gardens. I was just in England this spring. I went to Stourhead, and Dyrham Park, and some of the other 18th century landscape gardens. One of the things that really strikes you about those gardens is that they're designed to change consciousness, almost like a drug.

Question: How could a garden feature, like destination or path, alter your mood?

Answer: Grottoes, for instance.

Question: Aren't grottoes just a folly?

Answer: There's a great grotto at Stourhead. They use a limestone that they get from the coast. You know how coastal rock has these holes, washed away, eroded. It looks just like skulls; it looks like eye sockets. It's just like bone. And the color is bone. These grottoes were meant to scare the hell out of you.

Question: What would be the point of that?

Answer: To make you think about death. One of the assumptions of gardens then was that they should, like a novel, reflect the full range of human emotion and experience, not just bourgeois pleasure, not just comfort.

You had this freaky moment in history where the best minds of the culture _ Alexander Pope, Capability Brown, the great brains of England _ focused on gardening. It was the most important art form. They felt that there was nothing a garden couldn't do. It should take you through a story, and it should have an underworld experience, because they were steeped in the classics, and in Virgil and Homer you had to go confront death, your own mortality, the ghosts of those departed.

Question: How have you introduced those kinds of ideas into your own garden?

Answer: I've always had parts of the garden that I don't control, that I let go. Letting the landscape, the forest and animals take over.

Question: How does that make the garden a less tame experience?

Answer: Last night, up on the hill, there were screaming coyotes _ a terrifying sound. You import that into your garden, by leaving part of it woodland. They set up a chorus, calling to each other, and you feel surrounded, and your cat starts to cower. It's not life and death, but it's scary.

Question: Any advice for people who don't have coyotes?

Answer: You do it symbolically _ you do it with black plants (Pollan grows several, including black hollyhocks). Some people do it with dead things. William Kent, the 18th century architect and landscape designer, left a dead tree in his garden. And then there's scary-looking plants. I grow castor beans _ one of my favorite plants. It's a plant that in one season gets to be 12 feet tall, and it's got a very Dr. Seuss kind of flower _ hot pink with sharp spikes coming out. It's a totally bizarre plant.

Question: Is a garden's power simply metaphoric then, to the visitor?

Answer: You go back again, in history, and you have another kind of powerful garden. You have the apothecary garden _ and we see this in medieval cloisters _ where you grew things not because they were beautiful, but because they were useful. These were plants that could change you, literally. You didn't just look at them _ you ingested them. You took them up into yourself, and they changed how you thought, they healed you if you were sick, they woke you up, they put you to sleep. There was this respect for plants and their power then, that we've completely lost touch with in the garden _ we think it's a little-old-lady pastime.

Those apothecary gardens _ witches' gardens _ were nothing to look at, but if you had an educated eye and you understood what all those plants could do, they were pretty mind-blowing, in every sense of the word. "Flying" ointments, based on hemp seed, crushed to oil; adding to that all these psychoactive plants _ witches' "flying" was about tripping. Paracelsus, the first doctors in the Western tradition, they learned everything they knew from the witches and sorcerers.

Question: Give me examples of this then in your garden.

Answer: Drug plants stand for this. I mean they literally are powerful plants that can change us. When I talk about drug plants I'm talking about my hops vine, too, that we make into alcohol _ I'm not just talking about illegal plants. These are plants that, if you ingest them, you will feel differently and think differently. A lot of them are perfectly legal and have symbolic resonance. I grow Papaver somniferum _ opium poppies. I don't make opium, but at some primal level when we look at an opium poppy, we still connect to its old power.

We've gotten so divorced from the operations of nature _ the fact that your grandmother could go out outside and pick this flower or that leaf, and make a tea, that would help her sleep or relax her. This was a very natural thing. Now we go to doctors and now we have professional herbalists. People used to have a much more immediate and intimate relationship with this pharmacopeia outside their doors. In a way, we're working our way back to a knowledge that was once very common.

Question: It sounds like a cooperation, in the garden, not cultivation, that you've discovered.

Answer: To say, "Plants or people, which is more advanced?" We automatically assume we're more advanced, but it depends on what advances you value. We value what we got good at _ consciousness and locomotion. They've been evolving just as long, on this other road, and they came up with these miracles of organic chemistry, that can actually plant images in our brains, that can actually change our moods. And they did it strictly for their own purposes. It's a very humbling idea.

I think the plants have more figured out than we do. They're very good at what they do.