“Writing and gardening, these two ways of rendering the world in rows, have a great deal in common.”
Disguised as a gardening book, Michael Pollan’s Second Nature is a philosophical and sociological exploration of the relationship between humans and nature. It is a lively and absorbing account that takes the reader through the seasons as Pollan attempts to put his stamp on his new property – formerly a dairy farm in Connecticut. But more than simply chapters about the planting of roses or the necessity to weed, this book contains a collection of essays on the social constructs defining the garden and the unexamined feelings about our place in nature, which inescapably results in an analysis of culture. Pollan discovers two trends in the human attitude towards what we call nature: either we are “better” than nature, in need to control and improve it or we have a romantic view on nature and prefer to leave it alone completely as not to mess it up. Pollan suggests that there must be a middle way which gardening represents: we have already interacted with and impacted nature, even if unconsciously, we are inextricably linked and related and now need to tend to nature, in other words we need to garden.
When Michael Pollan arrives in the garden he leans toward the romantic take on gardening, that proposed by Emerson and Thoreau who believe nature to be sublime and us wrong if we think we can judge about and interfere with its creation. “Natural”, to them, is always superior to “man-made” or “artificial.” But even then, he realises, he came into the garden with the desire to shape and control the natural world in some way, wanting to “make a patch of land more hospitable or productive.” Pollan soon realises that the nature of his garden needs some protection: fences to keep out woodchucks, the hoe to eliminate weeds, the Toro to mow his lawn.
Over twelve light-hearted by profound chapters he discusses the metaphorical and real-life meanings of every aspect of gardening and the garden from lawns – “Lawns are nature purged of sex or death. No wonder Americans like them so much” – over weeds – “simply a plant whose virtue we haven’t yet discovered”? – to trees - “In the Romantic Tree we could find an antidote to our mean commercial culture, and open ourselves to the infinite.”
Second Nature is a book about gardening, about nature and culture, about domination and acquiescence and, finally about recognising that we are not distinct from but part of nature. That we need to protect nature, which does not mean leaving it alone but tending to it. book is full of the humility our species should bring into our encounter with the rest of the natural world; it is full of love for that very world.
“We are one of only a handful of creatures with the capacity to deliberately alter our environment. To simply renounce that power – isn’t that in some sense to renounce our humanity? Our nature?”
A wonderful, original, important book for everyone interested in gardening or the simple question of the human condition; a proposal for reconilliation.
Of course it is only January, but I wouldn't be surprised if Second Nature were to end up one of my 2021 favourites