Book review: Second Nature by Michael Pollan
Andrea Bellamy |

Second Nature.jpgI read Second Nature: a gardener’s education by Michael Pollan (who has been getting lots of press lately for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) for the February-March 2008 selection of the Garden Blogger’s Bookclub, hosted by Carol of May Dreams Gardens.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pollan’s writing – so much so that I deleted my name off the library wait list for The Omnivore’s Dilemma (number 157) and shelled out the coin for my own copy.

Second Nature is, on one hand, the tale of Pollan’s trials and successes as he tries to put his stamp on his new property – an old Connecticut dairy farm. But in doing so, he educates himself – and the reader – in a collection of essays meditating on the sociological constructs that define a “garden.”

At first, Pollan vacillates between a romantic, Emersonian take on gardening – believing that “natural” is always superior to “artificial” – and a slightly more aggressive approach, particularly in regards to the woodchuck that is devouring his carefully-planting vegetable garden. It is this tension between naturalist (“who gazes benignly on all of nature’s operations”) and if not developer, at least an experienced gardener with “a somewhat less sentimental view” that is at the heart of this book.

At first, Pollan takes the naturalist’s route, planting a wildflower garden and adopting a laisse-faire attitude toward weeds, which he approaches as “not a category of nature but a human construct, a defect of our perception.” But after a year battling bindweed, pigweed, burdock and other assorted thugs in his wildflower bed, Pollan realizes that his “idealized wildflower meadow now looked like a roadside tangle and, if I let it go another year, would probably pass for a vacant lot.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the hungry woodchuck incites Pollan to try everything from attempting to firebomb the woodchuck’s burrow to “an act of terrorism” – bringing home roadkill and shoving into the hole. His fury at the woodchuck makes him realize some of our “darker attitudes toward nature: the way her intransigence can make us crazy, and how willing we are to poison her in the single-minded pursuit of some short-term objective.”

Pollan’s exploration of how we confront the natural landscape is ultimately the theme of this book – and like most things, it doesn’t fall neatly into some predetermined category: “Domination or acquiescence? As developers or naturalists? I no longer think the choice is so obvious.”

Second Nature is full of insightful gems like this, and any gardener is sure to recognize him or herself in Pollan’s musings.

I’ll end with one of my favourite paragraphs from the book:

Domination, translated into suburban or rural terms, means lawn. A few acres of Kentucky bluegrass arranged in a buffer zone between house and landscape, a no-man’s-land patrolled weekly with a rotary blade. The lawn holds great appeal, especially to Americans. It looks sort of natural – it’s green; it grows – but in fact it represents a subjugation of the forest as utter and complete as a parking lot. Every species is forcibly excluded from the landscape but one, and this is forbidden to grow longer than the owner’s little finger. A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.

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