Book review: Second Nature

I like to read. I can’t think of many (or any, off the top of my head) days where I don’t read something. In a way, my mind needs to consume words or information on a very regular basis, much like my body needs food. A good chunk of what I read is fiction, but I also read in order to learn new things (and I recommend everyone do that, at least occasionally). So, I’ve decided to add a new ‘feature’ and do a book review now and again, but only for books that relate to the main topics of this blog. So if you want my commentary on the latest historical fiction or sci-fi thriller, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

The book that has the honor of being first is Second Nature, a gardening book by Michael Pollan (he of the In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame). I’ve read and enjoyed some of his works on food – In Defense of Food really got me thinking about what and how we eat, and helped push me further down the rabbit-hole to real and local foods – but I didn’t know he had any earlier books (Second Nature was published in 1991; when I received it for Christmas, I thought it was something new he had written). In any event, I didn’t know he was also into gardening, so I was excited to dig in.

Second Nature is not really a how-to kind of book. It’s more conceptual, more of a treatise on gardening philosophy. I know that sounds terribly dry, but don’t worry. His introduction starts with the idea that we who garden really have two gardens: the first, “the garden of books and memories, that outdoor utopia… where nature answers to our wishes…” only resides in the gardener’s imagination. The second is reality – in my case, a couple acres of clay soil, inconsistent weather, weeds, and the resident wildlife. This idea is what the majority of the book is based around – how we learn from each of those two gardens, one real and one metaphorical. Pollan’s basic premise boils down to the question of what it means to garden. Are humans, with our superior intellect and technology, entitled to do anything and everything in their desire to conquer the land? Or are we to follow the romantic ideals of Thoreau and Muir and be environmental pacifists, letting nature run its course and not doing anything to interfere? Eventually, I think he decides it has to be somewhere in the middle.

The first chapter of the book talks about his gardening background and influences – his Bronx-born father, something of a rebel who refused to cut the grass in their suburban neighborhood; and his Russian grandfather, who maintained the most orderly, weed-free garden he had seen. He also touches on some of his earliest gardening memories, including his discovery of a watermelon born from a seed he had spit earlier. From here, the book is split into four sections (each named after a season, starting with Spring) which deal with the evolution of his ideas, starting at the time that he and his wife bought a house in the country and he returned to gardening.

Spring starts with Pollan discussing his first experiences gardening at the new house, how he had an overly romanticized view on how to interact with nature, and how those views quickly started to change with the arrival of the first woodchuck. He delves into the suburban American concept of a yard and how the American garden is so different from its European predecessors. Americans are all about their lush, green front yards, and his anecdotes about those who would dare to defy this mindset were entertaining (particularly the one about “noxious weeds” – at our old house, I once received a letter threatening swift action if my small front yard with its “noxious weeds” was not cut quickly. The “noxious weeds” consisted of 6″ tall grass with a few dandelions and ground ivy interspersed. Far from what I’d consider “noxious” but it’s funny to see how we’re forced to conform to the American suburban ideal). He moves onto a chapter about compost, the development of chemical fertilizers, and a metaphorical discussion of gardens, anti-gardens, and how Americans tend to see nature and culture as diametrically opposed. He does tend to wander, but it’s fairly easy to follow.

With Summer, we move into a discourse on roses. The classic old varieties and their supporters, the advent of the new hybrids (and their perceived inferiority by the “old guard”), and the sheer sensuality, or lack thereof, that comes to mind when experiencing the old vs. the new. Interesting commentary.

Into the next chapter, on what it is to be a weed, he starts by recalling an early experience with creating a “natural garden” – free-form, toss the seeds anywhere, almost no weeding (only one mention of pulling out some pigweed early on). The first summer, he says, things worked out reasonably well, with him being able to tolerate the unplanted guests. Predictably though, by the second year, the weeds took over and squashed his romanticism. He does eventually reach some kind of middle ground, which is kind of where I fall, in agreeing that there are such thing as “weeds,” though the definition is fairly gray and ambiguous, and really, weeds are a human construct. What is native in one area may indeed become an invasive “noxious weed” in another. For the most part, I don’t mind some weeds if I’m not doing anything particularly useful with some area of land, but in the vegetable patch, all bets are off. No quarter asked, and none given.

Fall is announced with the season of harvest – plants beginning to wind down, changing colors, animals marauding in a last-ditch effort to pluck what they can from our carefully-tended plots, and the rot that comes with the fungi, the cool, damp weather, and the ripening of produce. Pollan speaks of the fight we have with autumn, the tug-of-war that we play, but always lose in the end. Eventually, the killing frosts come nightly, the green is turned to black, and even the color from the trees begins to wane. At this point, we’re getting into the acceptance phase, realizing that nature itself needs to take a breather. As Pollan puts it, “A garden that never died eventually would weary… the garden winter doesn’t visit is a dull place, robbed of springtime, unacquainted with the extraordinary perfume that rises from the soil after it’s had its rest.” Indeed.

The subsequent chapter then delves into what is really at the heart of the book. He tells the story of Cathedral Pines, a local landmark of old-growth white pines, and the disastrous tornado that ravaged the trees. In the aftermath, there was much discussion over what to do – let it lie and have nature take its course? Remove the fallen trees and replant more pines? Or oaks? Bulldoze the area and put in condos? Sell the lumber? Throughout this process, foresters discovered that the pines dated only back until about the 1780s, so the “virgin forests” weren’t so virgin after all, and actually were likely the result of the first settlers clear-cutting the area. Turns out, Cathedral Pines wasn’t really a “wilderness” – and truly, there isn’t much actual wilderness left. Inevitably, man has left his fingerprints on the natural world, and has been for millenia (whether we realize it or not), so the question then becomes, what kind of fingerprint do we leave now? Do “nothing” (although “nothing” is really impossible, because we’ve already modified it in some way; it’s really, don’t do anything more), overdo it, or intervene in a way that considers both our own interests and nature’s? Pollan then dives into some ideas for what he calls a “new ethic” based on the idea of a garden. Again, lots of different points, references, and anecdotes, but interesting reading.

Finally we reach Winter. He starts us with a discussion of seed catalogs – how gardener’s wait in anticipation, and the different types; some parroting the latest and greatest hybrids, others more refined, almost to the point of being elitist. Then a dive into seeds themselves – hybrids, heirlooms, histories, and the reverence that different groups of people throughout the ages have had for seeds. In the final chapter of the book, Pollan ties up most of the loose ends with a summary of his gardening philosophy. It’s here that I found a brief passage that rings true to me, dealing with what a garden really is, and how we’ve taken something grand and turned it into a patch of ground. “What everyone else in the world would call a garden, we call simply, plainly, our ‘yard’,” he says. “Gardens and even yards in America are not places for being in but for looking at. We admire our beds from the lawn, and arrange our unfenced front yards for the admiration of the street… Suburban America has been laid out to look best from the perspective not of its inhabitants, but of the motorist.” How true, and how sad that we’ve all fallen into that trap. When you think about gardens in literature (think The Secret Garden), or see pictures of well-known or even unknown gardens from England, or France, or Italy, it’s something much more substantial than what we call a garden today, an actual place, not just a 20 x 10 piece of tilled ground.

So can it be more than just a yard? We’ve kind of taken steps in that direction – the entire yard on one side of the driveway has been turned into an orchard (or at least the start of one), with more and more flower beds popping up. Granted, my vegetables are still in a neat, enclosed space, lest the animals get to them. And I still want some flat, open spaces, at least enough for the kids and dog to run around (and hopefully, wear themselves out), but I have no strong attachment to having a big, luscious, green patch of grass.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and it was a fairly quick read. He goes off onto lots of tangents, and quotes several people profusely, but it’s not overly difficult to follow where he’s going, and philosophically, I’m on the same page most of the time. I don’t know that I’d agree with him much politically, but he does a good job of not bringing up those views too often. It’s more of a pleasure read than educational, but I did learn a few things, and it is quite thought-provoking and makes you consider things a little differently. Anyway, it’s good to read for fun now and then.

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So, apparently I like to write too. I think the last book report I did was in high school, so I’m sure I’m breaking lots of rules, and not following any legible format, and probably rambling quite a bit. I’ll try to keep any future reviews a little more concise, somewhere between this and what they do in the newspaper. I don’t want it to be too brief, because in my personal opinion, I’d like to know a little about what I’m reading before I devote any significant amount of time to a book, so I want to summarize the basic premise to some extent. Feedback? Anyone?

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One thought on “Book review: Second Nature

  1. Tonight I finally got the courage to skip back in your blog and conquer your book on a book. I actually enjoyed your book review, I feared it for too long.

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