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.
It was fascinating to read about how different groups had their reasons for seeing the tree as they did, reasons that were rooted in religion, daily life, cultural values, patriotism, aesthetics, science, and philosophy. Personally, many of these metaphors are embedded in my thinking. My biology background predisposes me towards the Ecological Tree and the Lung Tree, while the engineer in me leans towards viewing trees as a sustainable commodity. My exposure to nature writing and environmental philosophy has made me more receptive to the Romantic and Divine Tree. I’m sure my thinking will continue to change with time.
It is important to note that at the root of the matter, a tree is a tree; its intrinsic “treeness” is independent of humanity’s attempt to define it. Pollan’s historical research reveals that those ideas are all products of their times, shaped by prevailing values. All of the above metaphors around the tree, and by extension what nature is, are cultural constructs. There is nothing wrong with that: Metaphors are essential in our relationship to nature because they are the filters in which we see the world. But Pollan believes that we should seek metaphors that help us live with nature:
“The history of these trees (or tree metaphors) is worth recounting, if only because it suggests how our own truths about the land might someday give way to new and possibly more helpful ones.”
– Chapter 9: Planting a Tree
I agree with him: When metaphors are no longer useful in helping us live in harmony with our environment, we should discard them and look for new ones. It is on this note that he discusses the major issue in the nature-culture relationship: A problem of alienation.
Wilderness and Alienation
“The notion of wilderness is a kind of taboo in our culture, in many cases acting as a check on our inclination to dominate and spoil nature. It has inspired us to set aside such spectacular places as Yellowstone and Yosemite. But wilderness is also a profoundly alienating idea, for it drives a large wedge between man and nature.”
– Chapter 10: The Idea of a Garden
Drawing insight from his garden and his community, Pollan has come to believe that Thoreau’s perspective, that “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, is a profoundly alienating concept. By drawing a line between what is wild and what is not, by delineating what should be preserved and what can be developed, the ethic promotes the unhealthy idea that nature and culture are irreconcilably opposed. By subscribing to the wilderness ethic, Pollan argues that we implicitly accept that in order for one side to win, the other must lose. Even the notion of balancing our needs with the environment is rooted in separation, as shown in an image made famous by The Inconvenient Truth:
Culture versus nature, economy versus environment, gold bars versus earth: This divide, promoted by the wilderness ethic, extends deep into our collective unconscious. In one of the most powerful sections of the book, Pollan points outs that this binary, black and white, all-or-nothing way of thinking permeates even the language we use to describe nature: Terms of “pristine”, “untouched”, and “virgin” are used to described wilderness. “Tainted”, “despoiled”, and “raped” are used to describe landscapes affected by man.
These terms leads to further alienation from nature. Since humanity will inevitably corrupt nature, we must save nature from ourselves. We must preserve it, because we cannot live with it. We must leave nature alone, only to worship and respect it from afar. We begin to relegate nature as something out there, something that is foreign and not part of our lives. As nature becomes more and more removed from our daily lives, we quickly lose the ability to relate to it. We see this in life. While we preserve stretches of lands in the form of parks and preserves, we are doing a very bad job with the rest of the world.
As someone who deeply admires the writings of Thoreau and many of the transcendentalists, I was surprised to find myself persuaded by Pollan. We need more than preservation in our relationship with nature: We need integration. We need to learn how to live with it. The reality is that this knowledge is needed now more than ever before. We need to understand that we are not apart from nature, but are a part of it. One quote really hammered the point home for me:
“This old idea may have taught us how to worship nature, but it didn’t tell us how to live with her. It told us more than we needed to know about virginity and rape, and almost nothing about marriage.”
– Chapter 10, the Idea of a Garden
It deeply resonated with me. Like a marriage, living day by day with one’s partner is the only way to develop a deep understanding, appreciation, connection, and lasting love for it. Instead of the wilderness, Pollan points to the garden as an ideal place to do that. The garden, along the act of gardening, can help us live with and understand the processes of nature and the values of culture.
A Gardener’s Ethic: A Place of Connections
“It is important for a realistic environmental ethic to acknowledge, however sadly, that we humans are not going to leave nature alone. While we can designate preserves and parks to remain relatively untouched, the real crux of the movement is how to treat the greater part of nature which is touched and changed by human hands. The garden, as a site where this interaction must necessarily take place, suggests itself as an appropriate locus to work out an environmental ethic and a kind of textbook situation where humans may learn to treat nature with respect”
– Meyers, Salvation in the Garden, p.224
In chapter 10: The Idea of a Garden, Pollan develops a ten point list of environmental stewardship that revolves around the insights of a gardener. As I read them, I realized that many of them were ideas I have explored on Ekostories:
- An garden ethic would give local answers: It would offer answers that vary according to time and place. Implied in this is the acknowledgement of pluralism, an idea articulated in Climate Voices, advocating small diverse solutions that work within the context of local spaces. This ethic is less powerful and unifying than ones which offer overarching top-down solutions, but imposing our will on a broad basis is generally not a good idea anyways.
- The gardener accepts contingency, his/her own and nature’s: He/she focuses on the task at hand, acknowledges and learns from the past, but doesn’t lament or philosophize too much about why things happen. The garden plays with the hand he’s been dealt. This acceptance of change and contingency is a recurring theme in the Earthsea series.
- A garden ethic is anthropocentric: The gardener can’t afford to be misanthropic. It is as silly to divorce ourselves from culture as it is from nature. We must acknowledge that as humans beings, we are unique in having choice, values, and ethics. This idea is reflected in my exploration of The Farthest Shore, in particular when Ged explains to Arren that with the gift of human selfhood comes responsibility to the world.
- The gardener’s self-interest is broad and enlightened: He/she acknowledges that diversity and interdependency are good things, and that humanity depends on other forms of life for its health and survival. Nature is an immanent quality that is everywhere: in us, in the garden, out there. The gardener is one that appreciates the mysteries of life, an idea that I discussed in my exploration of A Wizard of Earthsea.
- The gardener should not be overly romantic about nature: To us, nature can seem cruel and aggressive. Storms, droughts, plagues cause massive suffering. This is an idea that was explored in The Tombs of Atuan; chaos and unpredictability, death and decay, those processes are also natural. Meaning comes from culture and our relationship with nature, but not nature itself.
- The gardener accepts that there is a constant struggle between nature and culture: That needs to be viewed as a good thing. The struggle is the interplay of two dynamic and ever-changing forces that results a fluid equilibrium of give and take. We play the game of life not to dominate, but to tie. This notion of a shifting balance is central to the second trilogy of the Earthsea trilogy, particularly in Tales from Earthsea.
- The gardener understands that humanity’s impact on nature need not always be negative: This idea provides hope that we CAN do good, and gives us permission to get our hands dirty and to connect with nature. Nature is not a static backdrop to be maintained; it is alive, and humanity is part of it. This idea is explored in my entry on My Neighbour Totoro. The characters in Totoro not only pay respect to the forest, but they also actively engage with it through planting, ceremonies, and exploration.
- The gardener knows there are distinctions between varying types and degrees of human intervention: It is never an all-or-nothing affair. He/she determines what is needed through the experience he/she accrues while interacting with nature, and the skill he/she acquires working with nature. Gardening teaches us subtlety, tact, and finesse. This connects me back to a passage in The Farthest Shore: “The first lesson on Roke, and the last, is Do what is needful. And no more! The lessons in between, then, must consist in learning what is needful.” (p.174)
- The gardener derives methods and goals from nature: Nature has had the advantage of time on its side to work out solutions through natural selection. By careful observation, we can find out what works and what doesn’t in a given space. This links to ideas of permaculture (a topic for a future Ekostory), and the notions of working with the land, not against it.
- Nature provides is one part of a garden ethic; culture provides the other: We need to draw upon both nature and culture to create a more sustainable vision of the future. This last point connects me with the visual imagery presented at the conclusion of Flower by thatgamecompany, a scene that is rooted in harmony.
I would like to leave off with one final quote from Second Nature. In it, I think Pollan captures how a gardener can forge a healthier relationship with nature:
“The gardener in nature is that most artificial of creatures, a civilized human being: in control of his appetites, solicitous of nature, self-conscious and responsible, mindful of the past and the future, and at ease with the fundamental ambiguity of his predicament – which is that though he lives in nature, he is no longer strictly of nature. Further, he knows that neither his success nor his failure in this place is ordained. Nature is apparently indifferent to his fate, and this leaves him free- indeed, obliges him, – to make his own way here as best he can.”
– Chapter 10: The Idea of a Garden
- What tree metaphors resonate most with you? Can you think of any others?
- What do you think of these ideas around a gardener’s ethic? Which ones do you agree/disagree with? Why?
Next week: Think “Starfish”.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Farthest Shore. New York: Simon Pulse, 2001.
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.