Thursday, March 20, 2008

Second Nature

My first exposure to Michael Pollan's writing was an article in the New York Times Magazine. I loved his writing style and his point of view. He made me think about the environment in ways that were totally new to me. I love those "aha" moments. Those "why didn't I think of that?" moments. And then my outlook on life and the world around me is subtly altered.

So it was with great anticipation that I oopened my copy of "Second Nature: A Gardener's Education". Michael Pollan on gardening. It doesn't get much better than that, right? Well, um, actually it does. I was expecting a completely new perspective on gardening. What I got was just another memoir of a beginning gardener. Admittedly, he does tell much more entertaining stories than most garden memoirists. No one who reads this book will ever forget his monumental battles with a woodchuck culminating in an attempt at incineration that very nearly incinerated the garden. Hilarious, but still quite ordinary. Can you think of a single garden memoir that doesn't contain a battle with a woodchuck? Just as Hollywood screenwriters use a predictable formula for their storylines, garden memoirists all stick to the same, tired outline: How I started gardening. How I made all the newbie mistakes my first year. How I tried to correct them. How I learned the "right" way to garden.

Disappointed, I soldiered on until Chapter 10 when I finally had the hoped for "why didn't I think of that?" moment. The story of the restoration of a woodland area in his town that had been destroyed by a tornado morphs into a discussion of restoration vs replacement vs allowing Nature to take its course and all of the consequences, intended and unintended, that could happen for each option. Now this is a book that I would like to read. The question of what time period a restoration should mimic is particularly intriguing. Colonial, after changes made by European settlers? Pre-Columbian? Taking into account the fact that the indigenous population also had a significant impact on the local ecology, should the area be restored to the state it was before the Native Americans arrived? These are questions that have never occurred to me when thinking about our altered landscape.

Ideally, I would have liked to see the "memoir" part of the book excised and this topic expanded. Where else in the US or even the world has this issue been addressed? What decisions were made and why? Was global warming taken into account? What provisions were made for non-native plant and animal introductions?

And then the book reverts right back to the standard memoir. The last two chapters are the obligatory catalog survey and "What my garden looks like now". Yawn.

I'm looking forward to reading more of Michael Pollan's books and his unique perspective. Even if it is only one or two chapters that grab me, they will be well worth it.

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