One day, Harper's Magazine editor Michael Pollan bought an old Connecticut dairy farm. He planted a garden and attempted to follow Thoreau's example: do not impose your will upon the wilderness, the woodchucks, or the weeds. That ethic, of course, did not work. But neither did pesticides or firebombing the woodchuck burrow. So Pollan began to think about the troubled borders between nature and contemporary life. The result is a funny, profound, and beautifully written book which has become a classic of American nature writing. It inspires thoughts on the war of the roses; sex and class conflict in the garden; virtuous composting; the American lawn; seed catalogs, and the politics of planting a tree. A blend of meditation, autobiography, and social history, Second Nature is ultimately a modern Walden.--From publisher description.
My first exposure to Michael Pollan’s writing was an article in the New York Times Magazine. I loved his writing style and his point of view. He made me think about the environment in ways that were totally new to me. I love those “aha” moments. Those “why didn’t I think of that?” moments. And then my outlook on life and the world around me is subtly altered.
So it was with great anticipation that I ordered my copy of “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” for the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club. Michael Pollan on gardening. It doesn’t get much better than that, right? Well, um, actually it does. I was expecting a completely new perspective on gardening. What I got was just another memoir of a beginning gardener. Admittedly, he does tell much more entertaining stories than most garden memoirists. No one who reads this book will ever forget his monumental battles with a woodchuck culminating in an attempt at incineration that very nearly incinerated the garden. Hilarious, but still quite ordinary. Can you think of a single garden memoir that doesn’t contain a battle with a woodchuck? Just as Hollywood screenwriters use a predictable formula for their storylines, garden memoirists all stick to the same, tired outline: How I started gardening. How I made all the newbie mistakes my first year. How I tried to correct them. How I learned the “right” way to garden.
Disappointed, I soldiered on until Chapter 10 when I finally had the hoped for “why didn’t I think of that?” moment. The story of the restoration of a woodland area in his town that had been destroyed by a tornado morphs into a discussion of restoration vs replacement vs allowing Nature to take its course and all of the consequences, intended and unintended, that could happen for each option. Now this is a book that I would like to read. The question of what time period a restoration should mimic is particularly intriguing. Colonial, after changes made by European settlers? Pre-Columbian? Taking into account the fact that the indigenous population also had a significant impact on the local ecology, should the area be restored to the state it was before the Native Americans arrived? These are questions that have never occurred to me when thinking about our altered landscape.
Ideally, I would have liked to see the “memoir” part of the book excised and this topic expanded. Where else in the US or even the world has this issue been addressed? What decisions were made and why? Was global warming taken into account? What provisions were made for non-native plant and animal introductions?
And then the book reverts right back to the standard memoir. The last two chapters are the obligatory catalog survey and “What my garden looks like now”. Yawn.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Michael Pollan’s books and his unique perspective. Even if it is only one or two chapters that grab me, they will be well worth it.
As with his other books, I agreed with the ideas in "Second Nature" generally but not always in all the details; he can fall into flippancy when he tries too hard to be witty. However, I greatly enjoyed his discussion of roses, and was intrigued by the changes throughout history in gardening and the attitudes of humans to their environment. I also had to chuckle at his hard-learned lessons in his own garden--discovering that it's all very well in theory to be at one with nature, but then the woodchucks eat all your lettuce seedlings and the thistles take over your perennial bed, and you find yourself feeling suddenly and strangely murderous.
This was a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable book, and made me want to revisit his other writings.
Of course, by now someone has told you that you HAVE to pick up a copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (if you haven’t already). But before The Omnivore’s Dilemma; before “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” was made into a bumper sticker; before he wrote the letter telling the Obama’s to plant veggies on the White House lawn; before all that Michael Pollan wrote a book called Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. And by any standard it was, and remains, a beautiful piece of writing.
"With the harvest moon, which usually arrives towards the end of September, the garden steps over into that sweet, melancholy season when ripe abundance mingles with auguries of the end anyone can read. Except, perhaps, some of the tropical annuals, which seem to bloom only more madly the closer the frost comes. Mindless of winter’s approach and the protocols of dormancy, the dahlia and the marigold, the tomato and basil, make no provision for frost, which might be a month away, or a day. The annuals in September practice none of the inward turning of the hardy perennials, which you can see slowing down, taking no chances, turning their attention from blossom and leaf to root and stashed starch. But instead of battening down the hatches, saving something for another day, the annuals throw themselves at the thinning sun, open-armed and ingenuous. On those early autumn days when frost hangs in the air like a sword of Damocles, evident as sunlight to the lowest creature, is there anything more poignant than a dahlia’s blithe, foolhardy bloom?"
Divided into four parts, conveniently corresponding to the four seasons, Second Nature was chosen by the American Horticultural Society as one of the seventy-five greatest gardening books written. It was the book that put Michael Pollan’s blip on the radar.
Pollan’s attraction, in part, is his laid back take on the environment. Consider: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Not exactly the rallying cry of St. Crispin’s Day, is it? Pollan has always struck me as the X-Generation’s environmentalist: Eating his sushi at Nobu. Planting a tree only to find out after the fact he’s put in an invasive species. Refusing to bow down at the altar of composting (an act he admits borders on heresy in some circles). Or, my personal favorite, smirking at the pretensions of Thoreau playing at hermit in the forest. Pollan makes environmentalism accessible to the masses.
Second Nature is the rare gardening/environmental book in that it is concerned with the real work of gardening. What many see as mundane tasks – mowing the lawn, weeding, composting and planting – these gain greater social and political significance in Pollan’s hands. He shows them to be more than simple acts which result in pretty landscapes or homegrown tomatoes in summer. Second Nature calls upon readers to form a backyard environmental movement.
At the same time it provides a visceral scrapbook of what happens inside of a garden, embracing the Sisyphean cycle of planting, growing, harvest and death that is repeated yearly in backyards across the country. Pollan’s genius is that he views the garden as both a micro- and macrocosm. Like Voltaire, he urges us to tend to our own garden. But he also applies this same philosophy to our greater environmental concerns. He points out that, having taken the step to cultivate the earth, we have taken on the responsibility of managing it. We have insinuated ourselves into nature, irrevocably altering the “natural” course, which means we cannot step out and expect an anthropomorphized version of “Nature” to step back in as if there had been no interruption. We cannot make the mistake of romanticizing nature, the virgin forest or the primeval landscape. We must learn to work with what we have… what in many ways we have wrought. Ultimately, the habits which make a good gardener, he believes, will make good environmentalists.
"The gardener doesn’t take it for granted that man’s impact on nature will always be negative. Perhaps he’s observed how his own garden has made this path of land a better place, even by nature’s own standards. His gardening has greatly increased the diversity and abundance of life in this place. Besides the many exotic species of plants he’s introduced, the mammal, rodent, and insect populations have burgeoned, and his soil supports a much richer community of microbes than it did before….
The gardener doesn’t feel that by virtue of the fact that he changes nature he is somehow outside of it. He looks around and sees the human hopes and desires are by now part and parcel of the landscape. The “environment” is not, and has never been, a neutral, fixed backdrop; it is in fact alive, changing all the time in response to innumerable contingencies, one of these being the presence within it of the gardener. And that presence is neither inherently good now bad."
By constantly shifting his perspective from the forest to the trees and back again, Pollan provides a larger action plan which can be implemented at a truly grass-roots level. The genius is that he does so without ever stepping outside of his own garden. In Second Nature he is not an environmental prophet, but another pilgrim on the journey. Sometimes misstepping, yet still doggedly making his way. Trowel in hand.
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In the vein the Thoreau, a much more contemporary Pollan addresses humanity's relationship with nature. He includes many personal anecdotes that are both comical and touching. He dives through the history of gardens from Europe to America to provide insight on our current perceptions of nature. With language that would rival many poets, Pollan examines the natural world we so often fail to recognize. He disputes the preconceived notion that the relationship between man and nature is irreconcilable. From the doctrine of weeds to the tyranny of the American lawn, Second Nature is filled with commentary that challenges everything we've ever known about the natural world.
Written in 1991, Second Nature will likely never be one of Pollan's more popular titles. Having read The Omnivore's Dilemma, I strongly believe Pollan's gardening manifesto to be the better of the two. The Omnivore's Dilemma is great if you're looking for an exposé on the agricultural and food industries; Second Nature fills in everywhere else, being a work of ethics, history, comedy, religion, literature, and, even more than being a book about gardening, philosophy. It is even romantic, as is found in the chapter on the sexuality of roses: "the hybrid roses don’t give more bloom, really, they just parcel their blooms out over a longer period; they save and reinvest. So instead of abandoning herself to one great climax of bloom, the rose now doles out her blossoms one by one, always holding back, forever on the verge, never quite... finishing (95)."
The book is conveniently divided into seasonal sections, and I do feel that Second Nature would be best enjoyed spread out over a year's time. There is much to consider, and I rather like the idea of using this book as a gardening devotional. It truly is a powerful book!
I don't know if I would have enjoyed this book as much if I wasn't attempting to grow my own garden for the first time as well, and I'll admit that part of the reason I liked it was probably because I agreed with most of Pollan's ideas and I got to feel a little self-righteous along with Pollan about my theories of nature. Otherwise, I think the tone may have been a little annoying.
I thought the book was well written, but sometimes a little too flowery for my tastes.
I’ve loved Pollan’s work since The Omnivore's Dilemma, including going into his backlist for The Botany of Desire and now this one. It’s a collection of 12 essays, about nature and gardening and philosophy, organized by season. It being February, I turned first to “Winter” and read about the annual perusal of seed catalogs and how their products (and their customers) markedly differ. (Then I picked two from the dozen he described and ordered them and have them here, ready to look through!) The essays are gentle and “wondering” and show no sign of age despite more than 25 years having passed since initial publication.
For example, chapter 3 is all about lawns; their history, sociology, philosophy and so on. Quite fascinating. There are lots of good quotes to be mined.