Friday, July 27, 2007

Book review: Second nature by Michael Pollan

I have just finished the book Second Nature by Michael Pollan, a writer famous for his books Botany of Desire and An Omnivore's Dilemma (books I have yet to finish). I was really eager to read this book, written about 10 years ago, but it was a disappointment. Not in the sense that it was bad writing, in fact, it is excellently written, but the thoughts are hard to follow and there are a lot of words and not much analysis. I had to push myself to finish the latter half of the book. But if you are into garden philosophy, and are not too easily bored, then read it!

He talks about things like 'what is wilderness?', 'the American lawn', and the feel in us to control nature. The title of the book comes from his suggestion that a garden is a kind of second nature. There are plenty of historical references and discussion of the difference between American and English gardening mentality, which is quite interesting. The problem is that in the end you are left without any conclusion - it is like a long evening discussion over one or two bottles of wine and the next morning you don't remember what you decided or if you decided anything at all.

He got a lot of criticism for the book, both from ecologists and gardeners. For example, the review in the Library Journal reads:
"Pollan, executive editor of Harper's and self-proclaimed amateur gardener, has written a book that is by turns charming and annoying, insightful and shallow, droll and banal. His collection of a dozen essays arranged by season is based on his experiences over a seven-year period in his Connecticut garden, along with vignettes from garden history. Unfortunately, Pollan's text is characterized by dubious and unsupported generalities, self-conscious humor, and extended, labored metaphors, and his lack of gardening authority dooms the book to superficiality. Experienced gardeners and devotees of garden literature will find little here that is original."

A few quotes from the book itself:
"Without the editing of our perceptions, nature might prove unbearable." (think - the killing of a mouse by foxes, heartbeats of owls, and suffering during droughts)

"Suburban America has been laid out to look best from the perspective not of its inhabitants, but of the motorist. " (He is referring to the omnipresent lawns, lack of fences and hedges, flower borders along the house and the vegetable garden hidden in the back, and I completely agree with this.)

"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. [...] A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule."

The last comment reminds me of the culture of fear here - fear of ticks, fear of snakes, fear of nature, fear of all things unknown, fear of immigrants, fear of terrorism, and so on, and on. Most people around here seem to think that only if you are a conformist and not wander out in nature or into the wild world, you are safe... Of course, nature and the world has a tendency to get into your life anyway, it is just part of their nature.

With American gardens, here are my pet peeves:
* too much lawn!
* no pretty fences along roads
* too little vegetable and herb gardening
* too much leaf blowing
* too many gasoline-powered tools at dinner time
* too many deers and groundhogs
* mulch vulcanoes around trees
* ridiculous landscaping using non-local stone, colored plastic mulch, and plastic edging between borders and lawn
* pink flamingos and stepping stones made out of concrete and bought at HomeDepo...

Also, personally, I think large, hybrid roses are completely overrated, hummingbirds are amazing, and I would love to have a pond for frogs and dragonflies. Anyone want to come here and help me dig?

(The photo is from my idea of a garden, a livable place for people, plants, and creatures and pretty for all. Photo by LS)


PP said...

good writer on the American landscape
LS I have several of his books if you want to take a look.

demyelinator said...

When we run out of oil the grass will be replaced by oak forests once again.

LS said...

I am not sure about that - maybe they will cut down all the forest to grow soybean for ethanol? On the other hand, soybean and corn can be grown on people's lawns too - imagine that. Johnson and Johnson surrounded not by well-manicured lawns but head-high cornfields! That would be a sight! Desperate times need desperate measures. Just like the Victory Gardens, where Britain doubled its production of vegetables during the war by everybody starting their own backyard gardens - maybe we need to start Global Warming Gardens and get rid of the lawns? I read tody that a regular lawnmower uses the same amount of gas as 11 cars!!! It was in Wired so it must be true!

O.K. said...

That is probably for the same distance traveled. If so, Alvin Straight had to fill up a lot of times..

LS said...

I found more info here

"A conventional lawn mower pollutes as much in an hour as 40 late model cars (or as much as as much air pollution as driving a car for 100 miles)."

So, it is not per distance, it is per time period. Lawn mowers don't go very far or fast. Now I feel really bad about mowing our grass.

O.K. said...

Just do it fast. ;)

kate smudges said...

Have you read Pollan's book, 'In Defense of Food?'? I thought it was a good read ... Second Nature is dated, but for a garden geek like me, I enjoyed it. Maybe that's because I replaced all of the lawn in my garden with flowers, herbs and veggies and little pebbles and a pond. Living where I do, my brown lab dog, probably is the only creature that does any damage.

LS said...

Ah, I want to replace at least most of our lawn too! How did you do that? We are in New Jersey, and this is weed heaven and all native plants get eaten by deer and the invasive thickets thrive. We have about 300+ rose bushes to cut down in our meadow, sigh! I was planning to post something soon about 'gardening with clippers' and other dangerous tools. Maybe you are in a more easy-garden area?

"In defense of food" and "Omnivore's dilemma" are on my bedstand to be read very soon. I am looking forward to both. I think I just didn't like some of Pollan's ideas about landscape gardening because there very well researched, but I really like some of his other writing. There is a Swedish garden writer called Lotte Moller who is fantastic, but I don't know if her work is translated. It sounds like you would like her, she is anti-lawn too.