Second nature : a gardener's education

by Michael Pollan

Paper Book, 1991




New York, NY : Grove Press, c1991.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Paulagraph
I loved Botany of Desire but trudged through Second Nature. Not finding Pollan's personal gardening history & musings there upon particularly interesting. I did appreciate his notion, however, of Lawn as Television. Perhaps also didn't relate because he's talking about gardening a property in New
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England, which has little in common with gardening in Northern California. Major theme: intersection of nature and culture.
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LibraryThing member nmele
Although I am not a gardener--I joke that I have a black thumb, I do understand the attraction and love to walk through communal gardens and so forth. In this early book, Michael Pollan, known now for his two bestsellers on food (one reviewed by me), writes about gardening, the idea of gardens and
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the false dichotomy we make between nature and culture. A wise, thoughtful book that seems to me to reflect the attitude we need to deal with our environmental problems, from invasive species to global climate change.
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LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Meditation on the role of the gardener in manipulating nature for his own purposes. I'll certainly never look at old-fashioned roses in the same way again after reading this work. I thoroughly enjoyed it - the only jarring note was Pollan's insistence on referring to 'the gardener' as 'he' all the
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time. It felt exclusive, for this female gardener.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
this is a story about one man's adventures in gardening. If you've read Bill Bryson, then this will make sense to you . . . Imagine Bryson's writing (witty, informative, full of mishaps) but instead of travel, it deals with gardening. That's the best I can do to describe. I really did enjoy the
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book, but towards the end, it became focused too much on history and too little on personal anecdotes. I felt that was a weakness. If the book was 50 pages shorter, it would have been a 4 star for me.
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LibraryThing member kdcdavis
I believe I have now read all of Michael Pollan's books, and I like them all for the same reason--he combines his own experiences with lots and lots of research on the subject at hand, and what results is a highly accessible commentary. With Virginia Woolf's description in mind, I would call him an
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excellent essayist.

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.
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LibraryThing member DavidGreene
Pollan's garden is a portal to nature. His wonderful essays include a salacious view of roses.
LibraryThing member tolmsted
Garden books and winter go together. After the garden has been covered over, – first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow – what’s left for a gardener to do until March but read?

Of course, by now someone has told you that you HAVE to pick up a copy of The Omnivore’s
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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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LibraryThing member sturlington
I found this collection of essays on gardening to be a bit more long-winded and dense than Pollan’s more well known later books. While his ideas on the metaphor of the American lawn and the debate over whether we have the right to shape nature are very interesting, Pollan does show a tendency to
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over-analyze. After all, a garden should be the gardener’s private world, to shape and form as she likes. It really is that simple.
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LibraryThing member JeremyPreacher
I like Michael Pollan just fine, although his extremely digressive style gets on my nerves probably more than it should. There were a lot of interesting tidbits in here - I particularly liked the analysis of the characters of various seed catalogs. I'm not quite sure I agree with his overall
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thesis, insofar as I was able to detect an overall thesis, but then, I don't actually garden. Definitely an interesting read on balance, though.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
I came across Michael Pollan's Second Nature by accident. As I was shelving the book, a force came over me demanding that I scan the pages. I did so and placed the book on the shelf, but then, minutes later, I was compelled to pick it up again. Something attracted me. Reading an entire book about
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gardening, however, was not appealing so I returned it to its shelf. I am mildly interested in nature, especially when it comes to making nature more "natural". But to read a book about it? No thank you. Needless to say, by the end of the day I had book in hand and was eager to get started.

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!
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LibraryThing member OldRoses
(This review was originally written for The Garden Bloggers' Book Club)

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member jimocracy
I have liked the authors other books but this one was just too boring for me. If you like gardening, lawns, weeds, fertilizer, mulch, mowing, etcetera, maybe this is the book for you.
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Reflections on gardening and the seasons and our relationships to the earth. Cultivation is bringing culture to nature - some interesting thoughts.
LibraryThing member jimocracy
After re-reading this book, my rating has gone up. I suspect if I became an active gardner I woul ver much like what the author has to say about gardens. As it stands, I enjoyed reading Michael Pollan's ruminations on what is more controvesial than I had first imagined; gardening.
LibraryThing member klburnside
In this book, Pollan attempts to find the happy medium between nature and culture in raising a garden. I identified so much with his struggles right from the start when he expressed his resistance to building a fence to keep a woodchuck out of his garden. Fences just don't seem part of the natural
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landscape, but really gardens aren't either. I also enjoyed reading his thoughts on the American lawn, and how much time and money people spend on them and why no one puts their vegetable gardens in their front yards. I could go on and on about all the things this book made me think about, but I'm having trouble putting it into words. In this book Pollan writes a lot about the proper role of humans in the natural world. How much we should attempt to control it, when we should let nature run it's course. As Pollan's musings tend to go, there is no simple answer, just a lot of general ideas.

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.
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LibraryThing member 2wonderY
This must be one of Pollan's early books, at just the start of his fascination with food writing. His personal history of gardening wasn't particularly engrossing, but his later chapters make up for it.
For example, chapter 3 is all about lawns; their history, sociology, philosophy and so on. Quite
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fascinating. There are lots of good quotes to be mined.
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LibraryThing member idiotgirl
My favorite Pollan book has always been Botany of Desire. And this book is now a close second. I can see how this garden book led to Botany of Desire. The part that human as gardener plays in the evolution and life cycle of earth. Thinking of the metaphor of "garden" versus the influence of the
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notion of "wilderness" in imagining those relations and interactions. Just a wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member detailmuse
{The} garden is a place where {nature’s} ways and {the gardener’s} designs are brought gracefully into alignment. To occupy such a middle ground is not easy -- the temptation is always to either take complete control or relinquish it altogether, to invoke your own considerable (but in the end
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overrated) power or to bend to nature’s. The first way is that of the developer, the second that of the “nature lover.” The green thumb, who will be neither heroic nor romantic, avoids both extremes. He does not try to make water run uphill, but neither does he let it flow wherever it will.

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.
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LibraryThing member Joy_Bush
I love Michael Pollan so this was a fairly easy read. It just was not the type of gardening book I thought it was going to be. Most of it was philosophical and I have no use for that type of stuff.

The only important info I gleaned from this book personally is......

I hate typical suburban
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Lawns/grass in general is pretty useless
Hybrid flowers suck, old world antique roses over hybrids
Heirloom seeds, save your own seeds, seed trade with other ppl is the way to go
A long list of seed catalogs and what makes each one different in flavor and which ones align with myself and I cant wait for them to get here in 6-8 weeks!
I am redesigning my whole front yard to go against the grain, be unique, and a big thumbbing to the typical american yard.
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LibraryThing member KittyCunningham
This is a very nice consideration of man's relationship with plants, both wild and domesticated. His relationship with his own garden is that of a man who can afford to pay other people to do the heavy lifting.
LibraryThing member jennybeast
There are some revolutionary ideas in this book, about how to re-imagine the interaction of humans and nature. However, it felt more like a collection of essays than a cohesive book and as a result there was more repetition and overlap of these ideas than was really necessary -- it verged on
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diatribe at times. I did enjoy it -- as a gardener it tapped into my imagination in a satisfying way and I particularly liked the section on roses.
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LibraryThing member mykl-s
Pollan knows how to take one concept, one aspect of life, riff on it, and leave me full of ideas, history, and concepts


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