« Desert Island Discs

Michael Pollan, writer

2023-02-19 | 🔗
Michael Pollan’s award-winning writing about plants, nature and food combines anthropology and philosophy with culture, health and natural history. Time Magazine has named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world and his maxim to ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.’ is a central tenet of the sustainable food movement. Michael grew up in suburban Long Island, USA, and planted his first garden when he was eight-years-old. He was an intern at the Village Voice newspaper in New York while he was a student and after he graduated he joined Harper’s Magazine as an editor where he worked with the writer Tom Wolfe among others. Michael’s first book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education is a collection of essays about gardening and his later titles, including the Botany of Desire and the Omnivore’s Dilemma, addressed modern methods of food production and argued that in an era of fast and processed food, basic cooking skills were being lost. Recently, Michael has written about the use of psychedelic drugs as a potential treatment for some mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Michael is professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2020 he co-founded the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics. Michael is married to the artist Judith Belzer and they live in California. DISC ONE: Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) by Harry Belafonte DISC TWO: The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel DISC THREE: Going Up the Country by Canned Heat DISC FOUR: Cheek to Cheek by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald DISC FIVE: Shady Grove by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman DISC SIX: California by Joni Mitchell DISC SEVEN: Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles DISC EIGHT: Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008: I. Prélude, composed by J.S Bach and performed by Yo-Yo Ma BOOK CHOICE: Ulysses by James Joyce LUXURY ITEM: Dark chocolate CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Cello Suite No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008: I. Prélude, composed by J.S Bach and performed by Yo-Yo Ma Presenter Lauren Laverne Producer Paula McGinley
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
BBC sounds music. Radio, podcasts, hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the desert island discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them. If they were cast away to a desert, island and for rights reasons, the music is water down the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. I my castaway this week is the writer and activist Michael pollen he's a lifelong gardner and is best selling work explores what he described as the troubled borders between nature and contemporary life
It seen him named one of time magazines. One hundred most influential people is books on horticulture, food and farming are central texts in the sustainable food movements, and many followers maxim to eat food not too much. Mostly plants he's a keen participant as well as a chronicler when he was researching the cattle industry. He bought himself, a cow and for his book on architecture. He built himself a writing. Haute recently he's been exploring in several senses of the word plants that can affect not just our bodies, but our minds, primarily caffeine, opium and silo Simon, appropriate enough his lifetime's work. Cultivating big ideas started with the single watermelon seed he planted when he was four years old, growing up in suburban long island. He says the whole idea that you could plant something and create, something of value with sunlight and water and soil? And nothing else to me was a miracle. It still is a miracle michael pollen, welcome to design a disk
thank you learn very eager to be here, as I say, Michael very much in a massive writer when you were right about the cattle industry border care, we built a hot in the garden to right in when you were right about architecture at once? You put yourself through these challenges. You know I think people like to learn with you rather than be lectured add, and I also find that there is equality of wonder that you get when you do something for me, first time that you're never gonna have again, and so it it gives you an opportunity to see something. even more clearly than people who are expert at and do it all the time and that you could interview about it that might involve building a cottage we are buying cow and following through the meat system. It would give me a point of view. I couldn't get any other way, Michael. You ve said many times that that your best ideas come to you when you are in the garden, getting your hands dirty. Why is that? Do you think
there's something about gardening. That leaves the mind very free to wander. Whatever people tell you, it's not that hard, it doesn't take up all your mental space when you're, weeding or seeding her or or dead heading, and say you have a lot of kind of extra space to think you know, I'm you mention. I built this writing house for myself that you can think because you'll lose a finger now, if you're not paying close attention- and I I do good ideas in the garden it. It is a very rich place for me to think about our place in nature. We talked about a massive expiry, says, Michael and not notes it's time to get stuck into your reason. Can your first choice today? What are we going to here and why you taking it with you to the island today? This is the banana boats on which is a works on traditional works on and my
Parents were a huge harry belafonte fan. He was a major figure in the in the late fifties. Early sixties. I think they were very attracted to his activism and harry belafonte. It has always been a powerful human rights advocate, and my parents were political and and involved in civil rights struggle at the time, and I just remember as a little kid dancing in the dan as they would put on this lp work. All I drink are wrong. nah. Monica is that early man alienated by now Is that barely one highly me by the benign
boat sown by hurry buffoons, a huge smile across your face. During that I can follow. It is wonderful to see. So. Let's go back to the house where that means it would be emma thing from from the stereo than you were born in nineteen. Fifty five, you got three youngest sisters. Tell me about family life batman, so we grow been a suburban house, a ranch house in some urban long island. It was a new neighbourhood. It had just been sort of carved out of some farmland and forest. I think we were the first people to live in this house and I had an eye. My first garden to along the foundation of a house. I call it a farm. However, I was only eight and so in a farm, because, to my mind it was a business enterprise and I would grow vegetables. I was not interested in flowers that they seem pointless and you know what you, what can you do with the flower, and so I grew peppers and stir worries and carrots, and then, whenever I got a harvest again, I was
years old. I really didn't know what I was doing. I would put four strawberries in a little paper cup and sell them to my mother, for you know a quarter or whatever. So that's why it was a farm, your mother cookie, I think, you've described ten minutes. Permissive, what was she like? My mother was a brilliant mother. Is a brilliant mother, she's still alive, but she was not a big believer in discipline and I should say that each of my sisters might tell a slightly different story, but at least in my case she was. was confident that things would turn out all right. Whatever I did without a gift to you. Do you think it was a huge gift? Your parents, believing in you, is so important to taking chances and risks and failure, and my father
to who was a lawyer who hated the law. Would you just put no kind of career pressure on me to do this thing or that cause he felt he had chosen badly in some ways, partly because of the pressure he fell from his parents and they put enormous pressure on him to be the student council president to go to law school You know he just had it and it was he hated it and he wasn't gonna make the same mistake with with us. He said, Michael at that your mom had a really great sense of style back then in, and she still does today. How does that show itself? When does come into its own? Oh she's? Well, when it's your birthday, you get the best gifts You know she was a journalist and worked for new york magazine and she had a column called best bet which let what she did for seventeen years. It was an institution in new york and basically told you where you could find
in cool, you know tableware or clothing or various food items. She is ninety three and she can still pick out cooler clothing for me, then I can it's time for disc number. Two: what's it going to be the sound of silence, by Simon and garfunkel in middle school. I had a couple teachers who urge is brilliant english teachers and in this class, with mrs ass low wheat, she played us the sound of silent, and we read it as a poem, and it was my first kind of recognition, and that music and literature had this close connection and that you could find poetry in places other than books, hello, darkness. My old friend I've come to talk with you because a vision, softly left
sees, while sleeping that was planned still the sound of silence, Simon and garfunkel, Michael pull, Ass. We ve heard your father, Stephen was a lawyer and writer. Now he said he let you find One way to some extent, would it be fair to say you didn't like to follow the cried himself? Oh yeah, he was really a nonconformist. He had a great independent stricken and he was a kid. Ariane and the means the most memorable example of that was when I was. I was only four or five and we hadn't moved to the house had described in which was in woodbury. We still lived in a much more kind of working class, sub development
division in farming dale where everybody had a little turkey techie house in a long- and you know in america the front lawn is a very important institution. In amerika we have this democratic idea that all long should connect like one beautiful park. But everyone has to move their long for this conceit to work. And my dad was there a nonconformist or lazy, and you can put either interpretation on this, but he just wouldn't moas lawn and he couldn't afford that panny one else to an addison. Point one summer. The lawn was like two feet: high. It was a meadow and it was the only one and everybody else had the little crew cut and then she and then you had the meadow and a little crew cut and we could feel the hot breath of condemnation from the neighbors and there were parents who wouldn't let their kids lay with me, because this was the house because it now accept. Yes, it's a
huge deal on the american mine last on the east coast and there's a back started this, which we were the only Jews and in a very catholic community. So I'm sure there was an anti semitic interpretation. What was coming, but so we had one neighbour that we were friendly with george hackett and one day george, he came over any said. Looking birds are really upset about the long. So my add goes out to the garage crank up the lawnmower, this old toro that hadn't been used. All season and starts making a line through the meadow and then turns and comes back, and we can see that it's the letter S and then he makes an m. And then he makes him p. He these are his initial empty, and that was- and he did that for the neighbours It was like screw, you were out of here and we moved the following year. So it was another data point in
I fancy nation with the landscape and what the landscape could do. In this case, the landscape could be this incredible. Political protest see you're an activist, and both your parents had a social conscience to what what kind of changes that they want to say. It was a time of racial tension in the suburbs we were in a community called the gates, and it was this new community. As I said, anne It was a black family that moved in, and my parents welcome them and had a cocktail party for them, and it became clear that by the people who wouldn't show up to the cocktail party and and people who are rude to them, that many people The community didn't want them there and made them feel very unwelcome, and my parents did what they could to make them feel welcome. They extended themselves in all sorts ways, but in the end the family left and this caused their relationship with many of the neighbors. There were very few families that were willing to engage
with us, so we felt a little alienated again in this community. It's time for your next piece of music, Michael this number three. What have you got for us? Can heat had a song a big hit called going up the country around the time. I was thirteen after the summer of love, which was nineteen sixty seven, the, kind of urban hippy experienced turns sour in many ways and there are a lot of drugs and overdoses and crime, and so on. People moved to the country and moved on to communes, and- and this is kind of an anthem of that movement, which I was even though wasn't ready to move to the country. I was very intrigue by the dream.
I can't eat and going up the country, my cupolas, while you were saying since you got a job as an intern for the village voice newspaper in new york. Now you work with an editor on a section that ran stories about what to do in the city. What you remember about the experience? She was a wonderful boss in part because she was in the midst of a torrid affair,
was gone for like three or four hours every day, so she left me at eighteen to my devices with this section. So remember my for my first piece I was so excited. I was gonna write, a piece about pick up basketball and soft ball games around new york, but it was of course, wait too long. I was so exuberant My writing, so it didn't fit in the slot we had, and so I had this brilliant idea. I'll shrink the type size and are we had total artistic control of these two page, so I specified that it would be like six point type and so I fit it all in, but at six point on newsprint it was unreadable. Nobody could read my brilliant pearls of wisdom, so I actually got. Called in by the managing editor like what
You do and do so. That was a disaster, but there was something thrilling about publication. I still feel I'm to see your work in print or even on a screen, but to just see it in that type is still a thrill to me to hold a book that you've written. I just have that print fetish, yeah and I've learned that you really should cut things if they don't fit it's time for your next desk. What are we going to hear we're going to hear song played at our wedding, and this was the first song. This is our first dance. We love the out by louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, so it was obvious to us that cheek to cheek would be the first song and in nineteen eighty three. We bought this house in cornwall law connecticut and it was a run down house honestly. What what had been a big dairy farm now is just five acres, but five acres in we build
barn, and this is where we decided to get married- we wanted to get married on our property on our land so The barn was done, Judith filled it with her paintings and she's a painter, and we had a fairly small wedding. Like seventy five people khazar, we could set an I have such memories. I mean it wasn't just played at our wedding, but we we would listen to this. While we worked cause in this barn, Judith paint downstairs and there was a loft upstairs where I would write and we had trouble agreeing on music further in that artists and writers have very different brains, and so an artist can listen to anything, including books on tape, while working because their use the other side of their brain, whereas a writer will be distracted with language that he hasn't heard her before. So, if a piece of music was familiar enough, we didn't have to listen to irix anymore. I can listen to it. While I worked but nothing new, we could never put on new music.
So we would get in these rats, but one we love to play with this album, and the song in particular has always meant a lot to us and I seem to find the happiness moves as women reach out to give dance cheek to cheek cited. and made so that I can louis Armstrong and Anna Fitzgerald with cheek to cheek Michael Poland? As you mentioned, you move to at connecticut with you. Wife, Judith and son Isaac in the eighties, and it was there that you wrote your first book called second nature: a gardener's education, Did you learn when you were writing it in wild nature, you're, a spectator, you don't have to do anything. You just have to have profound thoughts where
in the garden. You have no choice but to engage so hat. What's the word if you engage that doesn't destroy things, it's a place where ethics become very important. Well, not notes. I I do want to ask about sam one of you what you've I think referred to as your misadventures and, in particular the in people in quite bitter enmity between you and gravity. It was actually embarrassing after I planted. My first got in connecticut and laid out the rows of broccoli and kale, and all those early early crops planted it and then came out the next day to see. Look at my garden and every thing I had planted had been mowed down in the course of one night I replanted same thing happened, and I found this woodchuck burrow and then I started in a series. Escalating moves that got a little out of control. I went to war with this woodchuck. I found a dead woodchuck
on the road roadkill, and I thought, if I stuff the dead woodchuck into the hall, how my that would, I know I told you I wasn't proud that would terrorized the woodchuck and he would go away. Was there were moments of clarity during time where you thought wait, it's about to come. Okay, a moment of clarity came I had this great idea. I was going to smoke them out. I was going to pour gasoline down the burrow and light a match. Now I was an english major, not a physics. Major in this mountain of flames comes right up at me. It doesn't go down into the earth, it comes at me and it throws me back and it was at that moment. I realized had to be a better way, but I realized I was acting the way my civilization is acting right and we have a sense of entitlement. We have the big brain. We should be able to control this and if we can't we're gonna use,
heavy artillery right to subdue nature and that's essentially what we do so that was just one example of the kind of lessons I was learning as a gardener. After gardening, Michael, your books began focusing on food specifically how it's produced and- and why, in your view, we've we've forgotten how to cook and and and really enjoy it. Some of the the the writing that you did particularly the maxim eat food, not too much, mostly plants. You know, that's become a kind of central tenet of that and how did you make the switch from being an observer and chronicler of what was going on to becoming a full on campaign of lobbyists? Did you have any idea that that your role would
in that way, it's an interesting thing that happens if you specialize in an area, as I did for several years, eventually you're going to come to conclusions right you and it becomes kind of disingenuous to write as the person who doesn't have an opinion. I saw how our food was produced and some of the way it was being produced was simply wrong. It was unhealthy. It was bad for the animals, it was bad the land and was bad for the eater, so I started becoming somewhat more opinionated in my writing and fortunately, the editors of the new york, times were willing to. Let me take a stance on some of these issues. Part of that was the industry.
still asleep. They didn't realize that this criticism was building and they would eventually fight back, and then we had a a backlash from the industry that made me really feel like a campaigner. While I want to find out exactly what's happened in a moment. First, though, we've got to get to the music gets your fifth choice today. What have you got for snacks, Michael and while you take it with you to the desert island, I want play shady grove by jerry, garcia and david Griezmann, and while I was working on these pieces, Isaac was born and you know when you have a little kid. Music becomes an issue in the car or you can be able to listen to your music or you're, going to have to listen to their music and jerry garcia, of course, from the grateful dead- and I was a big deadhead and dave Grossman, did this the full collaboration that isaac loved. So this was our common denominator and I can hear the sun without thinking of car trips, with isaac in the back seat. Choosing
and the girl, sharing shady shady grove. We garcia and David Grossman, Michael Poland, as we ve heard, you ve, been very critical of intensive farming, and that has made you pretty unpopular with some of the big agribusiness corporations we prepare Add for their reaction. I know, and it was kind of a very sudden- and I think it was a documentary that I worked on called food inc- that really got their attention and suddenly you know I used to get invited to speak to AG. Schools to talk to people who are gonna become farmers in those are really important audience for me to reach suddenly
those dates, got either got cancer, older, weird thing started happening, and so it gotta see me. How did you feel about that we're having a debate? This is what we should have, so I thought it was a healthy thing. By and large I mean the effort to shut me down, wasn't healthy thing necessarily, but I got my point of view out there. I I still you know I no longer get invited to those kinds of schools which I think is really unfortunate- that young farmers are not hearing this critique young industrial farmers anyway, but now this is the way politics works, Michael, you believe quite strongly that people should each home cooked high quality meals and try to- see clear of processed foods, but what would you say to someone who says well I'd love to do that, but I don't have the time or the resources were utter. with those resources are, I mean, if you have a, if of have a pot and pan it's pretty
Much all you need, I mean you, don't need a lot of resources to cook. I think what you need is time. I think, though we have lost the skills. There are very satisfying and inexpensive meals. You can make in twenty minutes, but also cooking is about communion. It's about family there's so much else that happens at the at the dinner table, so with a full understanding that people can't do it every day. I think if you can put a meal on the table home cooked once or twice a week, you ve struck a blow for your health if struck a blow first animal agriculture and you've struck a blow for a happier family. It's time for your next piece of music. What are we going to hear Michaela and why are you taking it with you today? Well, I thought I would play one of my favorite artists, which is Johnny Mitchell and a song means a lot to me and it did way back when when I first heard it in college, that's california, you know we move to california. This was a big change in our lives when Isaac was,
eleven and we were going out just to try. It we'd never lived on the west coast and I've just gonna, rediscovered joanie Mitchell more. Finally- and I listened to her a lot, but this one is just so up and I can see California sunshine when I hear the sun shone mad, give peace a chance It's just a dream. Some of us had to say, but I wouldn't want to stay here, it's too old and cold and settled in it's way, easy I'm gonna see that both I dig juny, mitchell and california
so Michael pulling. Your recent work addresses the current research around the use of psychedelic drugs is a potential treatment for some mental health conditions, including depression and post traumatic, stress disorder. Why did you want to look into this area of medicine? My basic underlining interests which grows out of my gardening is implants and all the different ways we use plants. and they use us along the way I started hearing about this research that so Simon, which is the chemical and magic mushrooms, was being used to treat people for mental illness. In one particular study I read about, it was being used with cancer patients to help them deal with their the comment and their fear of death in their fear of recurrence, and they were getting these wonderful results. The idea that psychedelic could be used to treat
mental illness. With such a mine blowing idea to me that I decided I should write about this. So Michael S, we fed you like to be part of the story yourself, but you one able to get on the medical trial, so you actually took the jokes illegally. Now there are risks involved in and taken psychic alex in their effects can be very harmful. We find by trying them oh yeah. I was terrified. I didn't know what I would discover about myself. I had always been afraid of second alex. I hadn't use them when I was a teenager and you know bad things can happen, but I also felt that I could not understand what these patients were telling me. Without having the experienced myself, I had to try it and see what it was like. So I tried his best. I could to imitate the what was going on in the drug trials, which is to say I didn't do it on my own. I work with a guide very experienced person who trained as a therapist too. Yes was working underground. What did you discover that isa.
Well, what was most striking, I think, was I had at the peak of this experience. Something called ego dissolution, and this is something the psychiatrist talk about, where your sense of self just kind of dissolves. In my case, I felt myself explode in a cloud of blue posted notes like confetti. And then it all fell to the ground and most into this puddle of blue paint, and that was me, but I was observing this from some perspective. I never had before well, I think most of us think we're identical to our ego and we listen to that voice in our head, which can be highly self critical or mean or whatever you know. It's. It's very selfish voice very often- and I learned from that experience that I'm not identical to my ego- that there are other perspectives in my head and that I can ignore my ego sometimes- and I can just say,
You know what that's the ego up to his old tricks, I'm going to ignore that. But it's a very exciting revolution. And then mental health care that may be coming, and it's worth pointing out that, yes, there are psychological risks to taking psychedelics, I think they're very powerful substances and that it has to be used with great care and with guidance. I think that's critical time for your next piece of music, Michael, if seven, choice today. What are we going to hear? Well, it's a song song tomorrow. Never knows the one that is sometimes cited by psychedelic researchers in preparing people for their experiences. The b. those were used for me. I actually had a nehru jacket at the time that sorry
pepper came out. That was the fashion. They had started that fashion because of the cover him on John sergeant, pepper and my mother for hanukkah get got me a narrow jacket that I was so proud of, and this very mysterious song. It would take me years to understand it. I was probably just eleven. I don't really understand on this, but I can tell you that I love that even the beat
and tomorrow never knows, Michael you, ve thought law and written a lot about the social Can a food you know how it bonds us with with friends, family and as a community and I've got away keep what you like as a dinner companion. What do you like to cook for people must be intimidate it wasn't they too? They must be terrified if they're hosting a dinner party, and they invite you, you know it is true, I think I get invited to fewer dinner party since I started writing about food, but I'm you know I'm a very happy eater, I'm not critical! So please in me and I mean- is that every day when you rushing between jobs, on a long journey and give pick up a burger. Is there any? Convene only pizza, love, pizza and burgers too would rather be grass fed and fact and not off, of a feed lot. Just
as I have images now. I've been on feed lots. I've seen how the chickens live, I've seen other pigs are confined and I can enjoy that food very much, but when I meaning so Thing that's been grown by a farmer who knows what they're doing in his treating his animals well or her animals. Well, I can eat me with great pleasure, while Michael it's almost time to send, you to the desert island, you are one of the better equipped castaways us next bearing a gardener for this adventure and really I should be bring seeds in music. How do you feel about what you might be able to cultivate there? What are you? What are you? A man in your facing. Oh god, I don't know you know, tropical soils are tough because there they they drain, they have so much water coming through them. So I'm gonna have to figure out what grows in that particular place, and I hope that their cocoanuts on top of that the palm trees, what picturing, while one more track before we send you that your last choice today, Michael? What's he gonna, be box, cello, sweet and de minor
number two indy minor, played by yo yo ma. I listened to this piece while I was dissolved. While I didn't have a self when your ego dissolves, there's no wall between you and the world you merge with whatever is around. You and at various moments I felt like I could feel yoyo mars, bow the horse hair bo going across my body I was inside that that vault of space inside the cello- and it was just this experience- of complete oneness with a piece of music and I- and it was the most profound listening experience I had before, because I became music and I know how crazy that's a huts. I play this for my dad when he was dying. We sat him for those last couple days and the communication that took place was was through music and I knew he loved
yo yeoman and and cello music. So I I this brings me back to that room. You know in january of two thousand and eighteen, it's a very profound piece. the
the bach's cello suite in d minor, performed by yo yo ma michael pulling him away to cast your way to the islands. I'm going to give you the bible, the complete works of shakespeare. You can also take another book of your choice. What will that be,
well. I guess I would want a book, that's going to last a long time, so I might bring Ulysses. You can also have a look item for pleasure or sensory stimulation. What you fancy it would be dark chocolate, seventy five percent brought out like a little square a day? Yeah I would just do a little square. Are none of those fancy ones that they do with? You know the salted caramel and the chili and everything? No? No! No! No! No! That's very distracting. I just want straight dark chocolate. I'm going to give it it's going to be huge. It's going to be like a one cabal, sized, okay, enormous and finally, which one track of the eight that you've shared with us today. Would you to save from the waves if you had to. I think it would be the cello sweet, there's so much to think about that peace. Michael pollen. Thank you very much for letting us here, your desert island discs, regular and who is a great pleasure,
the hello I hope, be enjoyed. My conversation with Michael I'm quite sure, he'll be able to cultivate a wonderful garden on the island. Let's hope there are no ground hawks there, though we ve castaway any goddess and food lovers, including monti, to hone hugh funding waiting, still Helen browning and James reeboks. You can find their episodes in a desert, island discs, programme archive and three BBC's the studio manager for today's programme with Jackie marjoram, the assistant producer was is sergeant and the producer was poorly mckinley next time. I guess we'll be the climate scientists, professor Coren look very, I do hope will join us
the is batman, actually abide. A wayne enterprises have a huge carbon footprint. What's really going on with Marvin Gaye. The moment you play everyone's raising eyebrows was cleopatra snake or a savior she's manipulate the latest. Maybe she had a great personality. I'm russell kane- and this is evil genius- is where I joined a panel of comedians to reveal surprising things about historical icons, nor even the hobbits are safe. I'm on board. Have you got any evil genius with may Russell K, listen on BBC sounds.
Transcript generated on 2023-02-20.