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.