Rossdavidh's Reviews > Sunflowers

Sunflowers by Joe Pappalardo
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really liked it
bookshelves: green

We are, as I have said before, living through the Golden Age of popular science writing. Golden Ages are rarely (if ever) recognized as such while they are happening. But, right now, there are scientists and science journalists who are working away on eminently readable and entertaining books about every topic under the sun (or over it). Not just the big ones like the beginning of the universe or how evolution works, but much more specific ones, like...rats, pigeons, a wide range of diseases, inventions of many different kinds, and yes, sunflowers.

Good science writing not only informs you about the particular topic. It also ties that topic to human history, the natural world, the history of science, and your life today. So it is with Pappalardo, who I have not read anything by, before this. We learn about Mennonites in Russia who moved to Canada, bringing a knowledge of sunflower farming with them. We learn about how sunflowers originated in North America, were first domesticated in North America, and then had to circle the planet to western Europe, eastern Europe, Siberia, before finally coming back to our attention through Canada. We learn how the biases and blind spots of fashion can afflict agriculture and agribusiness just as much as any other field. We learn a lot.

We also meet a lot of people, from all of these places, who try to make their way in the world, by way of sunflowers. Some of them are farmers, some of them are scientists. We learn that the downside of being from here (in this case, "here" meaning North America) is that the parasites and diseases are quite well adapted to you. We watch as 20th and 21st century scientists, grown men with advanced degrees and secure professional positions, gallivant about the place poking their nose into remote roadsides and fields looking for heretofore undiscovered sunflower species.

In the last few centuries, the breadth and variety of a typical human's diet may have broadened, but the variety of humanity's diet has shrunk. That is, while a typical peasant a few centuries ago might have had to eat one or two grains for much of the year, the peasants in different countries were eating different ones, and across different continents there was almost nothing in common. Now, the Big Three of Wheat, Corn, and Soy have nearly displaced all else. We may be seeing a resurgence of other crops in the last decade or so, but it is still the case that our species' plant diet looks much like the distribution of money in a capitalist economy, with a few crops predominant and many, many others with far smaller acreage. Sunflowers are one of those in the middle ground, neither so exotic as quinoa nor one of the Big Three. As we read of its struggles to maintain its position when all the big guns of agribusiness are focused elsewhere, we see a reflection of the struggles of any medium sized business, or medium-sized town, or medium-sized country, to maintain its position amidst the giants.

I cannot honestly claim that it was life-changing to read this much about sunflowers. There is, however, a quiet and altogether pleasant satisfaction to be gained from reading about such a topic in depth, from knowing that each and every part of the world around us has a deep, long, and multifaceted story behind it. I look out my window now, and see finches and cardinal and chickadees and pigeons alight there, eat a sunflower seed or three, and depart. The cardinal nest in the tree right outside my bedroom window, appears to have a fuzzy new resident, who is probably composed of a goodly percentage of sunflower seeds. Thanks to Joe Pappalardo, I know just a little bit more about how that all came to happen.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 2, 2019 – Shelved
June 2, 2019 – Shelved as: green

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