Comments 14

Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Part 2

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

Oak Tree Symbolism

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:

Economy environment Scale The Inconvenient Truth Balance

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

Kauai Taro Cultivation Fields


“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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)
  9. 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.
  10.  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.


  1. Issac, wonderful post! I’ve read other books by Pollan, but not the one you review. As far as the gardener’s ethics, several resonate with me as I constantly observe and experiment with my urban space. What works in a given small space, with varying soil types, sunlight, and potential pests, has been fascinating to see. I have shallow raised beds, some used tire beds for tomato plants (full sun, out back near alley, they do well:). I’ve learned that my chicken run and raspberries is a give and take situation. The chickens take their dirt baths under the raspberry patch, inhibiting the growth of new shoots. They also peck at low leaves and berries. But it provides them shade during the brutal Kentucky summer heat.
    I think your post has inspired me to write my own about this very topic. Keep up the thoughtful work.

  2. Pingback: Tires, Tomatoes, and Gardening Ethics « Mindful Stew

  3. Hi Paul,

    I find Second Nature to be one of his more underappreciated works. It’s also really neat that you’ve sussed out the relationship between the chickens and the raspberries. I personally find the garden becomes a very rewarding place if I’m in the right frame of mind to observe and learn.

    Thanks for the feedback and the link!

  4. Interesting stuff. In my work here in Vermont I find myself having to alert people to the difference between a lot of trees and forest. Many people don’t realize that a bunch of trees is not a forest, despite a forest being defined, at least in part, by the presence of trees. A tree can stand alone, but a forest is about the relationships between the things within it. I suppose this is in part, the ecologist in me combining with my native ancestry trying to listen to the stories all those living things tell to each other.

    The other thing you mentioned, wilderness, is a peculiar thing, a modern thing really. Any place humans lived there was no such thing as wilderness, people everywhere throughout time managed their landscapes extremely effectively, in ways that we are only just now beginning to rediscover and understand. The concept of wilderness really emerged in the US as a result of the diseases that devastated the indigenous population in advance of the wave of settlers. When the colonizers moved into an area the empty land devoid of people and active management was a recent development and was an indication of severe ecological disturbance.

    There is an interesting book, Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians, that explores some this and discusses some o the nearly insurmountable difficulties in trying to rediscover the knowledge that was lost.

    Two other excellent, and more readable, books are Paradise Found by Steve Nicholls, and 1491 by Charles C. Mann.

    • -Yes, the relational aspect of the forest or any ecosystem can be a challenging concept to convey, as is the idea that the system is greater than the sum of its parts.

      -Good point about the notion of wild and empty land in American history, and that it really was never wild nor empty in the first place.

      -This relates to a point that Pollan stresses in the book: wilderness doesn’t really exist. Humans have been altering their environments since time immemorial; we just do it on a much greater scale now than ever before. Even the most pristine and untouched jungles had been affected by our actions due to our influences on the atmosphere. Pollan notes the pitfall in thinking that undisturbed wilderness exists “out there” is that it almost gives us permission to do what we want in the rest of the areas.

      -Thanks for the book recommendations, I’ll definitely check them out!

  5. Isaac, excellent blog, I have never heard of this book by Pollan so I can not speak as an expert but I find it interesting that he would discuss the idea of “tree” in American history and not deal with the African American perspective in light of lynchings and slavery. Kimberly Ruffin actually begins her book “Black on Earth” by recalling the Jena 6 and the noose that was hung from “The White Tree.” She discusses both the beauty and burden of trees within the African American community. Of course this opens up pandora’s box regarding wilderness and alienation. It is difficult if not impossible to discuss African American environmentalism without taking into account forced labor to the land, humiliation in death by being hung from trees and even the lack of the right to land ownership. It is unfortunate that these critical conversations are often overlooked for a “prettier” and more “politically correct” telling of nature and ecology.

    • Thanks very much, and I appreciate your thoughts. I’m not American, but I also found the lack of discussion outside of the white European perspective to be a little disappointing. There was only a briefest of blurbs from the perspective of Native Americans.

      Thanks for reminding me of the different narratives and facets of environmentalism that exist. Even as someone that thinks about the relationships between nature and culture quite often, I tend to forget about other perspectives. I’ll definitely check out that book.

  6. Coincidentally, I have been writing about trees in my own blog, so I can answer unequivocally that the “romantic” tree appeals most to me. But perhaps Pollan is a bit too negative about folks like me. I live on a farm, yet likely I am “overly romantic” about nature. I do find spiritual sustenance in it. Yet as I sit here watching the male cardinal swooping out of our twenty-foot tall holly tree to bang his head against the window for the 300th time this spring, I certainly recognize the lack of control I have over nature and the damage it can do. I see it in the dead ash trees in the fence row. In the vole runs in my asparagus bed. In the red-tailed hawk staking out the quail that live in the grass field we never mow. Yet such things invoke wonder, not fear, and certainly not indifferent acceptance. And it is this kind of romantic appreciation of the natural world that allows us to integrate it in our lives.

    • Thanks for the comment. In the book, Pollan actually admits that he is a child of Thoreau and Emerson, and that the Romantic Tree is the one he gravitates most to. I think his experiences in the garden has just shifted his thinking about nature from a strictly abstract and academic fashion to a more rounded and tangible understanding of it.

  7. I found this post searching on “Second Nature” and am so glad I did! This is a wonderful take on the book, which I read years ago when it first came out. I was looking for Pollan quotes to possibly use on an interpretive sign I’m designing for a botanical garden, but found myself browsing your blog instead. Very interesting!

    • Hi Denise, thanks for visiting. I find it to be a lesser well-known work of Pollan’s, but it contains many intriguing ideas that have stayed with me. Best of luck on signage for your botanical garden!

  8. Pingback: Why I Can’t Romanticize The Lives Of Our Chickens | Mindful Stew

  9. Yvette says

    I am new to this blog (and any other blog) but I found your talk about balance between urban and natural to be well thought out. I also noted that many people commented with references to further material, which all seemed non-fiction. I would like to point you into the direction of a very interesting Korean web comic I found called KissWood. It deals with the ideals about the romantic tree and urban/natural relationships. you can find the comic by visiting

    • Thank you very much for reading, and for the recommendation of the webcomic. I’ve never heard of it before, but the premise is intriguing, so I’ll definitely check it out!

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