Thursday, September 25, 2008

What I'm Reading Now-Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

Alright already! The library is sending me hate mail, so I guess I should get on the ball and get this book reviewed so I can take it back along with the library's standard check in the amount of $7.50 (the maximum fine they will levy against one item...THANK GOD!)

So, I've changed the format a little; instead of "What I'm Reading Now-(today's date)" I've decided to just do "What I'm Reading Now-(book title)." I think one post per book will be a better way of doing this since I tend to get a little wordy and more than one review per post can be a bit overwhelming for both my readers and me!

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan-Here's the thing that I've come to notice about Michael Pollan: His books are full of small fonts and they don't have any pictures. They read a lot like text books. On the one hand, I admire the fact that he really gets into whatever he's writing about and gives the reader a lot of information and doesn't just do the easy, glossy, feel-good write up about whatever it is, in this case working the neglected land of his property, which used to be a farm, and in the process trying to discover man's place in nature. What does it mean to garden? Gardens have had a lot of different purposes and definitions throughout history. When and how much should you garden? Is it "ok" to garden purely for aesthetic reasons, or should a garden be functional? Can it be both? What defines a weed? One man's beautiful tree can be another's eyesore and a strain on the local ecology. Where and how much should man interfere in nature? How "wild" should we allow our wilderness reserves be? Once we interfere, are they still considered wild?

Pollan delves into all of these questions and does a good job of exploring all of these issues. I don't think he comes to many definitive answers, but he does give the reader a lot of good information to digest in order that he may come up with his own answers. Oh, and I guess I should finish my "on the one hand..." statement that I started earlier. On the one hand I appreciate his thoroughness and his willingness to really get into a subject and study it from a lot of different angles. On the other hand, I feel his books are always more work than I expected them to be. I'm interested in what he writes about. I want to read his books. I want to enjoy reading his books, and I do-o-o-o...I just really have to commit to it. I'm not complaining, I'm just saying.

Something that surprised me about this book is that it left me wanting a lot of follow-up information. The book was published in 1991, and one of the things that Pollan writes about is his decision to plant a tree, a real tree, not a wispy willow or a fruit tree, but a mighty oak or a sturdy maple, something that will be there for generations to come. He quotes Russell Page, who said, "To plant trees is to give body and life to one's dreams of a better world." Indeed. If you are going to plant a tree which might not even reach a good, solid, shade-worthy size until it is 25, 50 or even 100 years old, you must have faith that it is worth planting in the first place, faith that future generations will A) be around to appreciate it and B) appreciate it, not to mention C) that the tree will survive that long in the first place. This requires a lot of faith in both humanity and Mother Nature. Pollan finally decides on a maple, a spindly little maple that will take years and years to come into all of its maple-ness even though he has a hard time seeing 20 years down the road, when he might see "a bit of shade." You can read Pollan's first-hand account in The New York Times Magazine article here. It's almost 2010 already, the time allotted for his tree to grow to adequate shade-producing size; I would like to know how it is doing.

Along the lines of the "how much should we interfere in nature?" question, Pollan tells of Cathedral Pines, a large stand of old-growth white pines that was wiped out one year by a massive storm. The big question was what to do with it after the storm. There were people who wanted to leave it exactly as it was because to do anything else was to mess with nature. To these folks, clearing out the fallen trees would be akin to building condos-human intervention is human intervention. Clearing the fallen wood, replanting the pines, introducing wolves, building condos, making it a nuclear waste site, clearly all of these things are on the same level. To these people, I would like to say, "Get over yourselves, you giant blowhards," but that is way more confrontational than I am comfortable with, so I will just think it quietly to myself over here behind my computer. Anyway...others worried about all that dead wood becoming a fire hazard to nearby homes, and others saw the fallen trees as resources-cabinets, flooring, tables, firewood, etc. Some wanted to replant, to try to restore it to its former glory, and some said let nature take its course. Ah, "let nature take its course"...what does that mean? In the case of Cathedral Pines, it could very well have meant allowing brambles and vines and who knows what else, to take over. Returning to the old-growth pine forest that it once was was probably not in the cards, and if any of the plants that were hypothetically going to take over this recently denuded, now-sunlight-flooded patch of land were to get out of control and spread to neighboring areas or start threatening other existing flora or fauna, then what? Then would it be ok to interfere or not? Well, the final solution was to leave it exactly as it was and then to clear-cut a huge area around it to create a fire break. That way none of the dead wood would be touched and the nearby homeowners could sleep at night. This sounds like the worst possible solution to me, but what do I know? Anyway, the storm was back in 1989, so again I would be curious to see what has become of Cathedral Pines. Is the forest slowly recovering or is it becoming something altogether new and more beautiful than it was before, or is it turning into a giant wasteland? Or has it been struck by lightening and burned up completely? If so, did the firebreak do its job? If anybody out there has any intel on this, please let me know.

Finally, Pollan makes the point that,
"Indeed, the wilderness ethic and laissez-faire economics, antithetical as they might at first appear, are really mirror images of one another. Each proposes a quasi-divine force-- Nature, the Market--that, left to its own devices, somehow knows what's best for a place. Nature and the market are both self-regulating, guided by an invisible hand. Worshippers of either share a deep, Puritan distrust of man, taking it on faith that human tinkering with the natural or economic order can only pervert it." (p.188)

Wow. Is that timely or what??

I have noticed lately that there tend to be a lot of coincidences between my reading and what is going on in the real world. I got this book thinking that it would be all about gardening in the "traditional" sense, if indeed there is one. You know, hoeing, planting seeds, harvesting vegetables, fighting off deer and ground hogs, and all of that was in this book; but it went so much further with an entire treatise on trees and their relation to society and the land. Since we just got back from our big tree adventure (which I will write about soon, I promise!) this was particularly timely for me, particularly reading about Pollan's maple. Also, the thing about human tinkering perverting The Market-I think I read that on 9/22 or 9/23, just on the heels of the announcement that investment banking as we know it is dead and that the government wants to give $700,000,000,000 to a bunch of companies as a bonus for failing. Oh, is that not what they're saying? I'm sorry, I might be a little fuzzy on the details. Anyway, I think Pollan hit it right on the head, and I think it's a bad, bad idea.

*Edited 7/27/12-I DID finally write about my big tree adventure (warning: it's a looong post, but I put a lot of pictures in it to make it more fun!)

No comments: