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.
Second Nature’s narrative chronicles Pollan’s adventures as a gardener and contains a series of personal anecdotes ranging from his childhood escapades in a suburban backyard to his frustrations tilling the rocky soils of his home in Connecticut. These stories serve as a starting point for his exploration on the significance of gardens in humanity’s relationship with nature. He draws upon a wide array of disciplines to examine the meaning of the American lawn, his attitudes towards the pests and weeds, even the sexual politics of the rose. All of these strands of thought fit within the overarching narrative of Pollan’s adventures in the garden, and serves to stimulate thinking around the role of the garden and the act of gardening in our everyday lives.
My exploration of the themes and ideas in Second Nature will be broken up into two parts. Part one will explore the meaning and the idea of the garden itself. Part two will focus on the metaphors we use for nature and Pollan’s articulation of a garden-based environmental ethic.
A Place of Meaning and Experience
The garden, Pollan notes, is not merely a patch of land for growing plants and food. It is also a space full of meaning, meaning that is contingent on how we perceive ourselves, our culture, and our relationship with nature. Different generations and cultures have conflicting ideas and metaphors about what is desirable; even what is beautiful and desirable is open to interpretation.
Gardening isn’t just a fanciful hobby to Pollan: It is an activity that fundamentally shaped his life. To his four-year-old self, the garden represented his first refuge from the prying eyes of adults and acted as an “enclosed and privileged space out-of-doors”. His initial experiences with the garden were so strong and significant that he could still recall them in vivid detail; he is able to cite the exact moment when he realized that tiny seeds could transform into great green watermelons. From the garden, he learned a lesson of biology that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
His childhood reminiscence struck a chord with me; I also have fond memories of exploring the garden as a child. Everything appeared so new and wondrous when I saw my uncle’s backyard for the first time. The space engaged all of my senses: I still remember smelling the stems of a tomato plant, feeling the heft of an overgrown zucchini, hearing the quiet squeaks of guinea pigs, and picking Chinese wolfberries for dinner’s simmering soup. I can still recall being astonished at the sheer volume of fruit provided by the plum, pear, and cherry trees. With some embarrassment, I can still remember my seven-year-old self proudly exclaiming that my new home in Canada was “most definitely a thousand times better” than my old home in Hong Kong, mostly due to my time in the garden. The garden of my childhood meant exploration, discovery, fun. It served as a space for experiential learning, reinforced my connection to place and home, and cultivated my present appreciation for the natural processes of life.
Chinese Wolfberries. Image from wikipedia.
To Pollan, the garden also served as a connection to the previous generations of men in his family, each of whom grew up with different forms of appreciation for the outdoors. The most interesting character was Pollan’s grandfather, who made his living growing vegetables. It was fascinating to read that there was little romanticism behind his relationship with nature: Security, prosperity, order, and control were the values the old man coveted. He loved land and soil only as a “reliable and somewhat mystical source of private wealth” (Chapter 1: Two Gardens). In one memorable section, Pollan attempts to show off his own thriving garden in an effort to impress and connect with his grandfather, only to discover how differently they each perceived the same space:
“But Grandpa never even saw the garden I had made. All he saw were weeds and disorder. You call this a garden? He barked. It’s all too close together – your plants are going to choke each other out. And where are your rows? There have to be rows. This isn’t a vegetable garden – what you’ve got here is a weed garden! The big red beefsteaks, the boxy green peppers, the watermelons now bigger than footballs: everything was invisible to him but the weeds. He looked at my garden and saw in it everything about me – indeed, everything about America in 1970 – that he could not stand. He saw the collapse of order, disrespect for authority, laziness, the unchecked march of disreputable elements. He was acting like a jerk, it’s true, but he was my grandfather, an old man in a bad time to be old, and when he got down on his knees and started furiously pulling weeds, I did feel ashamed.”
– Chapter 1: Two Gardens
Gardens as Partnerships
One of the most interesting ideas I took away from Second Nature is Pollan’s claim that the creation of a beautiful and/or productive garden is in reality a partnership between humanity and nature. This is a recurring theme throughout the book. He uses the terms “under-” and “over-cultivation” to describe imbalance in that partnership. If the garden is under-cultivated and left to natural processes, it can become an unproductive and undesirable space for humans. Too much cultivation renders the garden utterly dependent on constant human intervention, and the space becomes deficient in biodiversity, robustness, and resilience.
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Image from website gallery.
I think successful gardens exhibit cooperative relationships between nature and culture in which each imagines the other. Several places immediately spring to mind. The first is a nearby Chinese garden located downtown. The second is the Japanese Garden at my old university campus. The last is a garden in the park near my home. They are all very different from one another, but they all share some key characteristics: They are all meticulously crafted, comprise a diverse assortment of plants and animals, and have tremendous cross-cultural appeal.
Hatley Park – Japanese Garden. Photo by author.
Within each space, gardeners painstakingly create, imitate, and distill down the essence of nature (or what they perceive it to be), adding in aesthetics derived from culture. Nature on the other hand dictates form, sets limits on what can and cannot be done, and sculpts the landscape through processes of growth and decay. The garden is an artificially created space, but takes on a life of its own once left to its own devices. Its beauty is a result of a unique and mindful blend of human creativity with natural processes, culminating in the creation of a space that is both appreciable and mysterious.
Spaces for Environmental Understanding
In his essay Salvation in the Garden, Jeffery F. Meyer states that “much Western ecological writing is theoretical and analytical, advocating ideals that are not grounded in the communal and ethical context of any actual society” (p.232). The garden on the other hand, is tangible, concrete, and exists as a place that can be appreciated and understood. Its very existence represents a genuine synergy of nature and culture, and it represents an interface in which these two dynamic forces can interact and shape one another through time.
Queen Elizabeth Park Main Quarry Garden. Photo by author.
In Second Nature, Pollan describes a master gardener as one who has learned to walk the boundary between nature and culture. To garden or to make one beautiful is to mingle human ideals with life’s processes. It is this mingling that allows us to be active participants, rather than distant observers, with nature. In the creation and appreciation of an enchanting rose garden, a peaceful Zen garden, or a productive vegetable patch, there is room for environmental reflection, awareness, and understanding.
- Do you have any vivid childhood experiences associated with gardening?
- How do you or your family members view gardening as a hobby or as a profession?
- What qualities in a garden are attractive to you?
- A Landscape’s Story: The Nitobe Memorial Garden
- Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World
Meyer, Jeffrey F. Salvation in the Garden. Daoism and Ecology: Ways within a Cosmic Landscape. Edited by N. J. Girardot, James Miller and Liu Xiaogan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Kindle e-book edition. New York: Grove Press, 1991.