Customer Reviews: Second Nature: A Gardener's Education
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on March 14, 2000
I read this book for a college course, "Religion, Ethics, and the Environment." Most of the books were (as the course title suggests) very heavy texts...yawn. However, when assignments from Pollan's book came up, I would laugh out loud while reading. My classmates & I would discuss the book at any given opportunity, and the bookstore sold twice as many copies as there were students in the class, because we recommended it to everyone. How many philosophy books can you say that about?
Pollan makes his philosophical points with vivid stories from his childhood on Long Island and his adult experiences in his garden. His garden-centered view of nature provides an excellent counterpoint to most environmental philosophy, which has been written from a preservationist's point of view.
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on November 24, 1996
Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that our relationship to the land must be one of either two choices: either we ruthlessly exploit it, with no regard for any but short term use, or we refuse to "meddle" in it at all, letting nature do what it will. _Second Nature_ explores the third alternative, that of working with nature respectfully to produce something that we intend. Believing that our relationship with nature can not be broken down into simple nature versus culture arguments, Pollan explores the overlapping of nature and culture. To that end, he discusses Americans' historical and contemporary ideas of what makes a garden a garden and attitudes toward gardening and wilderness. There is wonderful, thought-provoking commentary on the tyranny of the American lawn, the sexuality of roses, class conflict in the garden, privacy, trees, weeds, and what it means to have a green thumb. Pollan's stories of his own adventures in the garden are interesting and often amusing. His writing is thoughtful and his insight frequently unexpected, as when, in the chapter " 'Made Wild by Pompous Catalogs' ", he points out that garden catalogues are selling not merely seed but their ideas about gardens. Pollan is also highly readable. It is hard not to like an author who says things like "...the Victorian middle class simply couldn't deal with the rose's sexuality" or "...there is a free lunch and its name is photosynthesis". _Second Nature_ is well worth reading
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on December 5, 2005
I really enjoyed this book. I grew up in a family which gardens, and have my own garden today. I also grew up in an agrarian family, and went on to get a master's in cultural anthropology - all that to say, I suppose I am well-suited to enjoy Pollan's perspectives.

I don't agree with everything he wrote, but I do agree with most of it. And the book is very well-written, very entertaining, and it really makes the reader pause to consider choices made in their own life.

So much of the information about gardening is "how-to", and this book delves into the philosophy, the motivations, the rationales, and the environmental impacts of gardening .... It's written on a higher level, and as worthwhile for readers as the "how to" books, too.

I highly recommned this book - for those who enjoy gardening, and also for those who are concerned about the environment. Pollan will be a good read for both.

I absolutely disagree with the previous reviewer who disparaged Pollan's take on the environmental movement as a whole. Perhaps that person is so deeply enmeshed in environmental causes that he can't see the big picture- but for me, the big picture looks much more as Pollan describes it, than not.
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on December 7, 2005
This was probably the first book I read that dealt with relations to nature on a practical and philosophical level. I'm not sure if Pollan counts as a philosopher, but the views he presents are very accessible and bring a lot into question.

I've heard his writing described as piecey, which surprised me. I will agree that the seperation of the chapters into seasons didn't really seem to fit, but ignoring the headers fixed that problem. Overall it was an enjoyable and informative read. There's a very strong sense of humor that runs through the whole book and many good points are made.

Anyone interested in gardening would love this book, and I think that anyone interested in environmental issues or ethics would too. It's a good place to start off if you've ever wondered about societal attitudes to the land but wavered on learning more by the writing style of people like Emerson or Singer.

I was so pleased reading this book that I bought Pollan's A Botany of Desire, as well, and though the check-out girl gave me a funny look because of the title, it was well worth it.
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HALL OF FAMEon February 16, 2001
SECOND NATURE by Michael Pollen is a collection of esays that are not always well-connected or well-written. Mr. Pollen has won awards for his essays and some of them are quite good, however, the book is uneven. I think many of the readers who provided glowing reviews must have concentrated on the front half of the book which is autobiographical and hysterically funny.
NATURE contains several distinct sections Pollan calls "Spring-Summer-Fall-Winter" but his essays do not "follow" the gardening year. For example, "Fall", the third section of the book is about the destruction of Cathedral Pines, a nature preserve owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. Mr. Pollan thinks the local town folk (he is one) should have decided "what to do" in the aftermath of the storm which toppled the old pine trees that had inhabited the Cathedral Pines since the days of the American Revolution. Pollan would have done better to call this section "Why I think I understand Mother Nature better than the Nature Conservancy." And, maybe he does, but his essay is angry, and his anger affects his argument. After reading his essay, I am not persuaded the Nature Conservancy failed since Pollan fails to provide their side of the argument which might have been quite reasonable.
The best part of Pollan's book contains his autobiographical essays about life with his father who refused to mow the lawn much to the consternation of his upscale neighbors; life with his maternal grandfather who made mega-bucks as a professional gardener and green grocer; and Pollan's own attempts to take up gardening as an avocation. Anyone who has ever gardened will enjoy these sections because as all good gardeners know, most folks learn through trial and error. Mr. Pollen says there are few "Green Thumbs" i.e. Green thumbs exist, but they are rare.
The book is laced with historical factoids--an eclectic assortment of information Mr. Pollan gleaned from many articles and books by garden/nature and other writers including James Frazier, Thoreau, Emerson, Alexander Pope, Henry Mitchell, Eleanor Perenyi, Allen Lacey, Elizabeth Lawrence, and Katherine White who wrote garden essays for the New Yorker magazine. Mr. Pollen is advertised on the jacket of his book as an "Executive Editor" of Harper's magazine, and as I read his book, I formed an image of him snipping bits and pieces from the various articles and books he edited over time and sticking them together, i.e. a cut and paste job. Mr. Pollan's book needed a better editor, and I haven't read such an entertaining, provocative and frustrating book in a long time.
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on March 7, 2002
This is a favorite that I've returned to at least twice. Pollan engages with his skill in writing, but also his interesting thoughts on the mundane that make them seem intriguing. Essays are easy to read in any order, yet are connected. Much more than a garden book, will inspire not just planting and pruning, but thinking. Worth the read, regardless of whether you have dirty fingernails or green thumb.
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on September 18, 2001
I had to read this for a college course. I didn't know what to expect, but half way into the book I was enraptured. Literally. Pollan is a very adept writer, and he has a lot of depth to what he writes. He piles metaphor on top of symbolizm on top of metaphor. If you don't pick up on everything, that's alright because the book is simply enjoyable. His anecdotes about life and gardening are the icing on this book, and I'd recommend it simply for that pleasure. But there is substance here. Pollan is making a statement about the relationship between culture and nature. He writes about how we, as a species, as a culture, try to seperate what we live in (culture, cities, whatever) from what we live near (nature, the environment, wildness). He says that that is more detrimental than any polution or destruction we could possibly do to our earth. We, as a culture, need to learn to live not simply "in" nature, but "with nature." In response to the chapter on Cathedral Pines, he uses that to illustrate how the Conservationists, the people who owned the land, were trying to save this little "virgin" land. This little area in this New England community that was untouched by humanity. It was destroyed by nature (in the form of a tornado) and they, as a community, should let nature do with the forest as it wanted. Nature knows best. What Pollan says is that that forest wasn't untouched by man. Man had inhabited the area for over two hundred years (not including Native Americans - which no one ever does) and the trees they were saving WERE affected by civiliztion. That forest, as the community knew and loved it, was destroyed by nature. The community could've possibly planted knew trees, cleaned out the old dead ones, and made everything back the way it was. The Conservationists didn't want that because "nature knows best." But it depends on how you look at it. In a way (and I'm not going to further in depth, because it's all in the book) the forest WAS a garden, it was created, changed by mankind. There was nothing truely "nautral" about it. Therefore, why couldn't they, as a community, make the decision on what to do with it? If the tornado ripped through the town and destroyed houses, people would rebuild. It's that simply. No one would throw up their hands and say, "Well, nature knows best!" But when it comes to Cathedral Pines, they left the fallen trees there to rot, cleared a wide swath around the forest to protect the community from possible fire, and called it a "preserve." This benefited no one, and time will tell what course nature will take. Maybe the fire that will burn the brush and dead wood will be too strong and damage the soil. The forest wouldn't grow back, and instead of a beautiful forest you'd have a field of brush and "weeds." Sure, nature took its course, but it's not as important as one may think.
This is long winded, and you may not understand it all, but if you read the book and pay more attention to what Pollan says, and less on how he says it (how well it's written and how entertaining it is), you'll pick up on the philosophical stuff. You'll pick up on the meaning. And I suggest that you do, you'll rethink a lot of the thoughts you may have on the environment and on culture.
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on February 4, 2002
I don't intend to question Pollan's ability as a writer, nor do I care to check up on his interpretation of the history of hybrid roses or British garden design, but as a gardener who entered this endeavor from the ecologist/naturalist end of the spectrum, I found plenty of bones to pick with him.
A previous reviewer mentions Pollan's rant about The Nature Conservancy, which -- much to his chagrin -- declined to harvest, clean-up, or replant the trasured Cathedral Pines after they were damaged by a tornado. Pollan is clearly very comfortable with his position about how gardens fit along the spectrum between wilderness and human culture, but too often he relies on straw-men and oversimplified truisms to represent the views of those with whom he disagrees.
Examples abound, but some that galled me the most were his conclusions that: (1) the American environmental movement is too hung up about preserving Wilderness to care about the other 90+% of our lands (absurd! ever hear of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts? the Endangered Species Act?); and (2) the moral and scientific bankruptcy of this philosophy has led to the 'degradation' of Yellowstone National Park, as exemplified by the forest fires of the late 1980's (or could this just be an example of the renewing power natural process, without the hand of human 'gardeners'?).
I accept that Pollan is a journalist and a (fine) writer, not a scientist, but a little more effort to gain an deeper understanding of both the science and the philosophies of those whose view differ from his would have been greatly appreciated.
Of course, it is Pollan's book, and a popular non-fiction, not an academic treatise, so some hand-waving to help justify his mostly-sensible views is his prerogative. I appreciated the humor and passion of Pollan's writing, and I am sure I would greatly enjoy a walk down his garden path.
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on January 25, 2009
SECOND NATURE is not your normal gardening book. There aren't a lot of "how to" instructions here for planting, nurturing and harvesting. There are, however, innumerable more important things here.

Pollan takes his reader on a journey of discovery, asking cogent questions about man's relationship to nature, about the proper way to conserve wilderness, about the social strata of contemporary seed catalogs, about the best way to design a garden to achieve our spiritual goals (although his way of expressing it isn't nearly as hokey-sounding as my wording), about the sexual metaphors of roses, about the quasi-religious movement of composting, and about the historical evolution in the way we have looked at trees.

His writing is often humorous as well as something most of us can relate to in our own experiences. In his early battles with garden-eating rodents, his ill-considered attempt to napalm a woodchuck makes for absolutely hilarious reading, and the story of his father's rebellion against the neighbors' edict that he mow his lawn is exhilarating. Throughout much of the book, we do, however, come to learn a serious lesson. The realistic gardener does not attempt to subdue nature nor to surrender to it, but to work with nature as a part of it, to be realistic in determining what can and cannot be accomplished, and to influence rather than conquer (especially since conquering is not really possible after all).

For both the neophyte and the experienced gardener, SECOND NATURE is probably more important and useful than a "how to" book for it will reveal the overarching philosophy that drives the gardener's actions. For the suburbanite whose gardening is pretty much limited to manicuring his portion of The Great American Lawn and planting a few decorative shrubs here and there, it is utterly indispensable for it will reveal the shallow artificiality of such kowtowing to social "propriety."

Pollan's lessons are painless. He never preaches. He never rants. He never proselytizes. His writing is both humorous and instructive. It unveils historical trends in man's relationship toward gardens, wildlands, and lawns that most readers, with our limited visions of life in the 17th and 18th centuries, never suspected. Most importantly, the reader finishes his book with a genuinely new appreciation of man's place in nature, with an understanding that it is okay to make his mark upon nature (because he is part of it), and with the knowledge of how to make that mark positive, non-destructive, and productive.

I heartedly recommend SECOND NATRURE to everyone who has ever planted a garden (productively or otherwise), who has ever thought about planting a garden, who has ever mowed a lawn, who has ever wondered about the best methods of protecting wilderness areas, who has ever written a letter in support of or opposition to environmental activists, or who, though city-bound and surrounded by asphalt, has ever wondered about man's proper place on the earth. SECOND NATURE has, if not universal, then at least very widespread appeal to all sorts of readers.
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on July 21, 2006
Pollans description of what is a green thumb and the sysiphean art of mowing reminded me how therapeutic gardening can be and why it cures depression. Thank you Michael for making me look at my roses in a totally different way. You will love this book if you tend to think in pictures and love the art and hard work of gardening.
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