4.18.2012

Second Nature by Michael Pollan

A few years ago, I had a series of food and consumer epiphanies: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.  It was all good stuff.  Though I hadn't read anything else of Pollan's, I remained familiar with his work and have remained a fan.  I don't remember how or when I got a copy of his Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, but it has been on the TBR shelves.  When it was announced back in the fall that he would be coming to town this Spring, I decided to time my reading of Second Nature with his visit and see how they enhanced one another.  Also, I am in the early stages of trying to figure out the yard/garden spaces at our once and future home, so my mind is aflutter with all things plant.  Very good timing, indeed.

Second Nature purports to chronicle Pollan's education as an at-home gardener.  It is not completely true as he already knows a great deal more than the average Lowe's plant department shopper.  He starts by describing his father's disregard for suburban yard conventions and his grandfather's stunning discipline in the garden.  These background pieces provide a nice backdrop for watching Pollan discover his gardening identity.

Pollan uses the word garden as the English would, and as I prefer to.  In fact, it is in the distinction between yard and garden where I find my easiest alignment with this book.  He defines America's obsession with the lawn, that great grassy expanse, as part of our democratic foundation, a shared cultural experience with no harsh boundaries or divisions.  He describes the lawn as a sweeping stage upon which we can best display our houses.  He explains how he began to grow tired of "pushing the howling mower back and forth across the vast page of my yard, recopying the same green sentence over and over: 'I am a conscientious homeowner.  I share your middle-class values.'" (61).  Later he expands upon this distinction:
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.  What other possible purpose could "foundation planting" serve?  Rather than create any habitable outdoor space (which is what the same planting out along the road would accomplish), it merely adorns the house, showing it off to advantage like the setting for a gemstone.  Suburban America has been laid out to look best from the perspective not of its inhabitants, but of the motorist. (230)
As I continue to work the garden at my new home around in my mind, it is these habitable spaces that I am after.  Even if it means stepping out of the democratic ideal of those identical swaths of green.

Of course, lawns are not the only thing he writes about.  Compost, tree planting, weeds, and gardening catalogs also get ample coverage.  There's also history, philosophy, politics, and literature sprinkled in there.  This is definitely the well-read gardening manual.  You just don't see inchoate or synecdoche used that often in Organic Gardening.  This book was Pollan's third, but it was before his acclaim in the food world.  At this point in his career, he was focusing on landscape and architecture (his A Place of My Own is really high on my list right now.  I wonder if the library has it?  Yes!  Bring it on, Read-a-Thon!), and if Second Nature is any indicator of the others, his writing had not yet reached the polish and readability I saw in The Omnivore's Dilemma.  As a contributing writer for Harpers and The New York Times Magazine, he was accustomed to the magazine-length essay, and several of these chapters originally appeared as such.  The problem with the book is that his editors did not take seriously enough their task to eliminate the redundancies that would naturally appear across a series of stand-alone essays.  There were several times during my reading when I would pause and think, "didn't I just read that?  Why is he repeating himself?"  It was a mild distraction from an otherwise thoughtful and often beautiful book, but it was a distraction.

Overall, an interesting read but not a favorite.  I'm looking forward to hearing him speak tomorrow and will report back at some point in the near future.

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