Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

  • Post published:04/01/2008
  • Post comments:7 Comments

When Michael Pollan’s book Second Nature came out in 1991 I remember spending a lot of time reading out bits to my husband with disgusted exclamations – Can you believe he says this?!

Of course, all these years later, I don’t remember the particulars except how my view of the suburban lawn is so different from his. Still, since all this time has gone by, I wanted to reread Second Nature, and see in what ways the world in general, and my world in particular might have changed.

I find that he still irritates me, and it took a while to figure out why – and then it was clear. He makes very sweeping statements about groups of people that I just don’t buy. For instance, “Like most Americans out-of-doors, I was a child of Thoreau.” He may be a child of Thoreau, and I love Thoreau myself (Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!) but I don’t think ‘most Americans’ think a lot about Thoreau outdoors, or in.

Or this, “A society that produces ‘gardens’ (or anti-gardens) like Central Park is one that assumes nature and culture are fundamentally and irreconcialably opposed. . . . . Americans have historically tended to regard nature as a cure for culture or vice versa.” Really? Perhaps my problem is that he is concentrating more on ornamental gardens than I am allowing for. Vegetable gardeners clearly need to work with nature in order to meet the goal of a harvest. But really, even flower gardeners need to work with nature to achieve their goal of a healthy beautiful garden.

And this is not a new and personal view. For a brief time in my checkered career, I was a tour guide in the Stebbins House in the beautiful and fascinating Historic Deerfield. When the tourists were thin on the ground I would sometimes browse through the 18th and 19th century agricultural texts that were among the house’s furnishings. There I was amazed to find that farmers were urged to feed their cattle the best feed possible because that would insure not only the good health of the animal, but good quality manure which could be spread on the fields for a good quality harvest. the interconnectedness of all things and the importance of working with nature was not unknown then, or even earlier.

But about those lawns. Have I changed in my view? No. While it may be possible that developers had a vision of an uninterrupted swath of green lawn ribboning its way across countless suburbs, my own experience of suburban lawns is that fences, hedges, and bordering beds pop up in very short order as homeowners put their own stamp of personality on their blessed plots of land. That is the wonder and delight of the garden. No two gardens or even lawns are the same.

It is true that I have a philosophical position regarding my domestic landscape. I am an organic gardener, continually learning, and trying to live as lightly on my plot as possible. Having arrived at that position I don’t give the moral implications of my garden much thought. I have killed a woodchuck. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

Perhaps it is just a literary style or conceit, but Pollan’s constant moral agonizing gets a bit wearing. There are interesting facts and fascinating digressions, but so many judgements about aesthetics! For me the garden is a place where we can be ourselves, please ourselves, and enjoy ourselves without worrying about anyone else’s opinions.

Though this has been an extended rant, I will say that I did enjoy his book Botany of Desire.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Nan -

    Great review! Since I didn’t read the book, just what is it he says about lawns? I tried reading one of his food books, and found way too much technical information.

  2. Carol

    Hi Pat, I appreciate your frank and honest review. I’ve added a link to you to the virtual meeting club post.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  3. Dee/reddirtramblings

    Pat, that is a great review, and you know, you weren’t the only one who was irritated by Pollan. Others I’ve read were too.

    I did like his comments about trees and how he shouldn’t judge the farmer before him. It was a moment of humility.~~Dee

  4. Larch Hill

    This is a terrific post: you did well to point out the moralizing about aesthetics as opposed to constructive criticism of specific gardening practices. Given that originally Versailles was simultaneously the uber-formal garden AND organic should give Pollan pause. High time someone pointed out Pollan’s tendancy to scold – gardeners, like plants, need all the encouragement they can get. If the root concept of “heaven” and “garden” are the same, surely each of is entitled to our own design.

  5. Pat Leuchtman

    Nan – Pollan’s view of lawns is that they are a blank green river running through the suburbs, but my own experience is that people are very quick to put their own stamp on their front yards, even if they don’t call that area A Garden.
    Carol – thank you so much for providing the link. I love the GBBC!
    Dee – A good point. He isn’t always obnoxious.
    Larch Hill – Thank you for pointing out that Versailles was organic. I’m sure they were up on all the latest practices – and they didn’t have bottles of Sevin or bags of Turfbuilder. I absolutely agree we have our own visions of heaven.

  6. Kerri

    Hello Pat, I didn’t read Michael Pollen’s book, but I suspect, after reading a few of the reviews, that he’d irritate me too. I may borrow the book from the library just to see for myself 🙂
    The description you gave of your lawn could fit ours as well. We have plenty of the same weeds..and we like it like that 🙂
    Thanks for visiting and saying hello. I’m glad you found the container post helpful. I can’t wait until I can make a trip to the nursery and begin planting again! I hope your talk on containers went well.

  7. Martha/All the Dirt

    Thanks so much for this piece and for giving me permission to skip buying and reading another Pollan book.


Leave a Reply