Have you ever read something where the author articulated precisely the ideas that you’ve been trying to work out in your own mind for ages? Have you ever felt that flash of recognition, that chill of goosebumps, and obeyed that urge to nod along and shout “yes!” out loud? And once the giddiness subsides, have you ever felt that sinking realization that someone managed to conveyed those ideas better than you ever could have?
I recently had that experience with a piece from Orion Magazine. “Out of the Wild” features a conversation between authors Michael Pollan and William Cronon as they chat about many of the ideas I’ve been grappling with on Ekostories: Concepts of nature and culture, the power of stories for change, the importance of personal sustainability. Regular readers will know that I’ve written a few essays on Pollan’s work, namely on Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and The Botany of Desire, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed his contributions to this piece. But in my opinion it was Cronon, an environmental historian, who made this exchange a must-read. I’ve included a few of his thought-provoking comments below.
Spring is in full bloom in my corner of the world; it is impossible not to notice the explosion of plant life all around. In the city, pink blossoms burst forth from ornamental cherries, enjoying brief moments of glory before cascading down as a silent snow of soft petals. In the suburbs, neighbourhood lawns and gardens are enlivened by vivid hues of yellows and violets from blooming daffodils and tulips. On nearby trails, star-shaped flowers from salmonberry bushes dot the flush of new growth, fuchsia markers intended to attract the eyes of hungry pollinators. In my small container garden, dainty green tendrils of scallions and sweet peas reach ever upwards, while planted pieces of potatoes seem content for the moment to slumber in the dark black soil.
Perhaps it is this invigoration of growth that compelled me to reread Michael Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire. Pollan’s work has played a significant role in my personal perceptions of the connections between nature and culture. Although he does on occasion go overboard with his metaphors, he has an uncanny gift for transforming mundane observations into intriguing insights that are grounded in science, history, folk-lore, and philosophy. His knack for storytelling has pushed me, on more than one occasion, to make unforeseen connections and to come away from his works to view the world a little differently.
One of his earlier bonafide successes, Botany explores the relationship between humans and the natural world from a unique angle: It asks the reader to consider the world from the plant’s point of view. Through the exploration of a common fruit, flower, drug plant, and staple food, Botany stitches seemingly disparate ideas from social and natural history into absorbing tales about humanity’s eternal dance with the natural world.
Several years ago, I spent a month volunteering at Koke’e State Park on Kauai, Hawaii. I was there to enlist in the “war against invasives”, learning to identify and remove plants that threatening to overtake Garden Isle’s native ecosystems. Armed with a machete, a foldup saw, and two squirt bottles of herbicide, a group of us proceeded to take out the primary offenders – fields of kahili ginger (Hedychium gardnerianum), groves of strawberry guava (Psidium cattleianum), and towering Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi).
The work itself was satisfying, but in the back of my mind there grew a sad realization that our collectives efforts made little difference in the big picture. Vast areas were already covered with dense stands of invasives and were beyond salvaging. We worked triage, investing our energies on areas where gingers and guavas had not yet gained a significant foothold. But I was forced to accept that the ohia lehua and koa dominated forests we worked so hard to protect will eventually be relegated to existence in small and intensely managed patches. The rest of the landscape would be home to very different ecosystems, dominated by a different assemblage of species.
As I learned more about the native plants I was attempting to save, I also began to realize that many were brought over during the Polynesian colonization. This realization led me to think more deeply about ideas of invasive species, pristine ecosystems, and even the essence of nature itself. Are these naturalized species more natural than current invasive species that were spread by hurricanes? Are some complex ecosystems worth more than others? How do we decide which species and lifeforms are good or bad? On what basis does one use to assess what to save and what to kill?
These questions were in my mind when I came across a book that explored these issues. In Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, environmental journalist Emma Marris asks the reader to think deeper on the ideas we have of nature and the cultural perceptions we have towards human-influenced lifeforms and ecosystems.
Welcome to part two of the analysis on Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: a Gardener’s Education. In this entry, I’ll focus on my two favourite chapters of the book: Planting a Tree and The Idea of a Garden.
The meaning of a tree
In Planting a Tree, Pollan explores the fascinating and ever-changing cultural significance of a tree. Once again, his reflections come out of his horticultural adventures; the chapter chronicles his thoughts as he decides on the right tree for his yard. The act of tree planting prompts Pollan to delve deep into American history to explore the meanings people have come to attach to the tree:
The Divine Tree: Native Americans saw and treated trees as divine spirits, only to be cut down in need.
The Tree of Evil: Puritans despised them as symbols for pantheism, danger, and darkness.
The Tree as a Weed: New England subsistence farmers regarded them as obstacles to settlement. To them, the clear-cut landscape was viewed as a sign of progress and civilization.
The Tree as a Commodity: The Americans and the British saw trees as resources to be shaped into ship masts and barrels.
The Political Tree: English aristocrats planted trees to demarcate borders and boundaries and came to view them as signs of a stable society. The act of tree-planting became an act of patriotism; chopping them down was an act of defiance.
The Romantic Tree: The tree of Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir. To the transcendentalists, trees conveyed spiritual virtues and provided sustenance to the soul.
The Ecological Tree: Scientists came to see trees as being components in defined ecosystems that followed the laws of forest succession.
The Tree as world citizen: Ecocentric thinkers and activist groups have come to believe that trees should be imbued with rights, along with other organisms.
The Tree as the lungs of the world: In this metaphor, trees are viewed as being connected with the planet. As such, they can serve as barometers for the ecological health of the planet.
The significance of narrative in non-fiction is easy to overlook. There is traditionally an emphasis on content: Are there enough facts? Does the author get the information right? Does he/she make a logical case for his/her argument(s)? But delivery matters too. A strong narrative, conveyed through a unique and authentic voice, has the ability to linger in the minds of readers long after they have put down the book. When it comes to exploring the relationships between nature and culture, Michael Pollan is an excellent storyteller. Second Nature, despite being one of his earlier and less consistent works, is no exception.