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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Second Nature: A Gardeners Education by Michael Pollan

“The idea of a flower that never finishes would have struck the Elizabethans as perverse; one of the things they loved most about the rose was the way it held nothing back, the way it bloomed unreservedly and then was spent. But the Victorians bred this sexual rhythm out of the rose, subordinating it to the period’s cult of virginity, as well as its new concepts of economy. From them we’ve inherited a girlish flower, pretty perhaps, but scrubbed to the point of scentlessness, no more alluring or sexually aware than a girl scout.” – Michael Pollan; Second Nature: A Gardeners Education; pp. 95. 

Michael Pollan has written a handful of good books and a wealth of articles about gardening, food and farming. His most famous, "Botany of Desire" was written before this book and made into a popular BBC documentary by the same name. He's also released some books since this was published in 1991; the omnivores dilemma is one that I read recently for school. Of all the works I've read by Michael Pollan, this book has been a most personal journey.

I have so enjoyed his honest, conversant sentiments that seem to flow through this book like a babbling stream through a garden, lol. Second Nature: A Gardeners Education is truly a garden journal…fraught with all the struggles, joys, mistakes, and revelations one man experiences as he enters the world of serious gardening. You get to follow his thought process as he discovers how gardening, like a rose, opens to reveal so much more than originally expected. It brings deep philosophical questions to the surface and often challenges our vision of culture and ‘normality’.
Like most of Pollans food work, this book is written as an amateur and for me that means volumes…as I am an amateur. 
He writes of comical situations, like his battle with a mischievous woodchuck and an internal ethical struggle over how to get rid of it. There are childhood memories of late-night pumpkin snatches, accidental watermelons, and secret pot gardens. He also weaves elements of rich history that pull emotion, like this quote from Thoreau on page 148: 

“How beautifully they go to their graves…How gently they lay themselves down and turn to mold. They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe.” – Waldon

As you read you gradually paint a picture of how American culture and gardening have danced together over the centuries. Such as how a need for a united cultural identity sprung the suburban lawn phenomenon, or how hybridizing an ever-blooming rose seems to reflect a cultural obsession with preserving virginity.
I appreciated the theme of exploring where the line is between the actions of man and the actions of nature. Are our ‘natural’ instincts unnatural? What about cultural instincts? Where does Natural Selection end and Human Selection begin? On page 53 he writes:

“It depends on me acting like a sane and civilized human, which is to say, as a creature whose nature it is to remake his surroundings, and whose culture can guide him on questions of aesthetics and ethics. What I’m making here is a middle ground between nature and culture, a place that is at once of nature and unapologetically set against it; what I’m making is a garden.”

Then later, on page 196, as if we’ve been on a journey he reflects again:

“The gardener in nature is that most artificial of creatures, a civilized human being: in control of his appetites, solicitous of nature, self-conscious and responsible, mindful of the past and the future, and at ease with the fundamental ambiquity of his predicament – which is that thought he lives in nature, he is no longer strictly of nature. Further, he knows that neither his success nor his failure in this place is ordained. Nature is apparently indifferent to his fate, and this leaves him free – indeed, obliges him – to make his own way here as best he can.”

Very insightful as to what it is to be human.I think this book does something wonderful for anyone wondering about how to start gardening or farming. I think it gives us permission to experience feelings toward Nature. Often I feel like people are afraid to express how they feel toward Nature whether it's disdain or unconditional love. As if loving Nature would appear weak, or you as a person would appear distracted from 'more important things' and you don't want to be branded a 'tree hugger.' 
On the other end, farm kids who have developed a loathing for the out-of-doors often feel reserved about expressing that desire to be away from Nature. As if it's a betrayal to their parents way of life or even Nature herself. I think this book by Michael Pollan says that it's ok to feel whatever you feel, and you will likely feel differently at different times. It's a dynamic relationship, a conversation between a culture and a nature. Amazing stuff!

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