Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

by Michael Pollan


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In his articles and in best-selling books such as The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan has established himself as one of our most important and beloved writers on modern man’s place in the natural world. A new literary classic, Second Nature has become a manifesto not just for gardeners but for environmentalists everywhere. “As delicious a meditation on one man’s relationships with the Earth as any you are likely to come upon” (The New York Times Book Review), Second Nature captures the rhythms of our everyday engagement with the outdoors in all its glory and exasperation. With chapters ranging from a reconsideration of the Great American Lawn, a dispatch from one man’s war with a woodchuck, to an essay about the sexual politics of roses, Pollan has created a passionate and eloquent argument for reconceiving our relationship with nature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802140111
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 08/12/2003
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 136,906
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Michael Pollan is the author of The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, all New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley.


San Francisco Bay Area, California

Date of Birth:

February 6, 1955

Place of Birth:

Long Island, New York


Bennington College, Oxford University, and Columbia University

Read an Excerpt


Two Gardens

My first garden was a place no grown-up ever knew about, even though it was in the backyard of a quarter-acre suburban plot. Behind our house in Farmingdale, on Long Island, stood a rough hedge of lilac and forsythia that had been planted to hide the neighbor's slat wood fence. My garden, which I shared with my sister and our friends, consisted of the strip of unplanted ground between the hedge and the fence. I say that no grown-up knew about it because, in an adult's picture of this landscape, the hedge runs flush against the fence. To a four-year-old, though, the space made by the vaulting branches of a forsythia is as grand as the inside of a cathedral, and there is room enough for a world between a lilac and a wall. Whenever I needed to be out of range of adult radar, I'd crawl beneath the forsythia's arches, squeeze between two lilac bushes, and find myself safe and alone in my own green room.

I think of this place today as a garden not only because it offered an enclosed and privileged space out-of-doors but also because it was here that I first actually grew something. Most of the pictures I can retrieve from that time are sketchy and brittle, but this one unspools like a strip of celluloid. It must be September. I am by myself behind the hedge, maybe hiding from my sister or just poking around, when I catch sight of a stippled green football sitting in a tangle of vines and broad leaves. It's a watermelon. The feeling is of finding treasure — a right-angled change of fortune, an unexpected boon. Then I make the big connection between this melon and a seed I planted, or at least spit out and buried, months before: I made this happen. For a moment I'm torn between leaving the melon to ripen and the surging desire to publicize my achievement: Mom has got to see this. So I break the cord attaching the melon to the vine, cradle it in my arms and run for the house, screaming my head off the whole way. The watermelon weighs a ton, though, and just as I hit the back steps I lose my balance. The melon squirts from my arms and smashes in a pink explosion on the cement.

Watermelon perfume fills the air and then the memory stalls. I can't remember but I must have cried — to see so fine a triumph snatched away, to feel Humpty-Dumpty suddenly crash onto my four-year-old conscience. Memories of one kind or another play around the edges of every garden, giving them much of their resonance and savor. I've spent thousands of hours in the garden since that afternoon, and there is perhaps some sense in which all this time has been spent trying to recover that watermelon and the flush of pride that attended its discovery.

I can't recall whether I tried to salvage any part of the melon to show my father when he got home from work, but I can assume he would not have been greatly impressed. My father was not much for gardening, and the postage-stamp yard of our ranch house showed it. The lawn was patchy and always in need of a mowing, the hedges were unclipped and scraggly, and in summer hordes of Japanese beetles dined on our rosebushes without challenge. My father was a Bronx boy who had been swept to the suburbs in the postwar migration. Buying a house with a yard on Long Island was simply what you did then, part of how you said who you were when you were a lawyer or a dentist (he was a lawyer) just starting out in the fifties. Certainly it was no great love of fresh air that drove him from the city. I have a few memories of my father standing with his Salem and a highball glass on the concrete patio behind the house, but, with a single exception I will come to, not one of him out in the yard mowing the lawn or pulling weeds or otherwise acting the part of a suburban dad.

I remember him as strictly an indoor dad, moving around the house in his year-round uniform of button-down shirt, black socks and tie shoes, and boxer shorts. Maybe it was the fact that he hated to wear pants that kept him indoors, or perhaps the boxers were a way to avoid having to go outside. Either way, my mother was left with the choice of her husband doing the yard work in his underwear, or not doing it at all, which in the suburbs is not much of a choice. So while the boxers kept Dad pinned to the kitchen table, the yard steadily deteriorated to the point where it became something of a neighborhood and family scandal.

My mother's father lived a few miles away in Babylon, in a big house with beautiful, manicured gardens, and the condition of our yard could be counted on to make him crazy — something it may well have been calculated to do. My grandfather was a somewhat overbearing patriarch whom my father could not stand. Grandpa, who would live to be ninety- six, had come to Long Island from Russia shortly before the First World War. Starting out with nothing, selling vegetables from a horse wagon, he eventually built a fortune, first in the produce business and later in real estate. In choosing my father, my mother had married a notch or two beneath her station, and Grandpa made it his business to minimize his eldest daughter's sacrifice — or, looked at from another angle, to highlight my father's shortcomings. This meant giving my father large quantities of unsolicited career advice, unsolicited business opportunities (invariably bum deals, according to my father), and unsolicited landscape services.

In the same way some people send flowers, Grandpa sent whole gardens. These usually arrived unexpectedly, by truck caravan. Two or three flatbeds appeared at the curb and a crew of Italian laborers fanned out across the property to execute whatever new plan Grandpa had dreamed up. One time he sent a rose garden that ran the length of our property, from curb to back fence. But it wasn't enough to send the rosebushes: Grandpa held my father's very soil in low esteem; no plant of his could be expected to grow in it. So he had his men dig a fifty-foot trench three feet wide and a foot deep, remove the soil by hand and then replace it with soil trucked in from his own garden. This way the roses (which also came from Grandpa's garden) would suffer no undue stress and my father's poor, neglected soil would be at least partly redeemed. Sometimes it seemed as if my grandfather was bent on replacing every bit of earth around our house, a square foot at a time.

Now any good gardener cares as much about soil as plants, but my grandfather's obsession with this particular patch of earth probably went deeper than that. No doubt my father, who was the first in his family to own his own house, viewed his father-in-law's desire to replace our soil with his own as a challenge to the very ground on which his independence stood. And maybe there was something to this: Grandpa had given my parents the money for the down payment ($4,000; the house had cost $11,000), and, like most of his gifts, this one was not unencumbered. The unsolicited landscaping services, like Grandpa's habit of occasionally pounding on the house's walls as if to check on its upkeep, suggest that his feelings about our house were more than a little proprietary. It was as a landlord that Grandpa felt most comfortable in the world, and as long as my father declined to think of himself as a tenant, they were bound not to get along.

But probably his concern for our soil was also an extension of his genuine and deeply felt love of land. I don't mean love of the land, in the nature-lover's sense. The land is abstract and in some final sense unpossessable by any individual. Grandpa loved land as a reliable if somewhat mystical source of private wealth. No matter what happened in the world, no matter what folly the government perpetrated, land could be counted on to hold and multiply its value. At the worst a plot could yield a marketable crop and, at least on Long Island for most of this century, it could almost certainly be resold for a profit. "They can print more money," he liked to say, "and they can print new stocks and bonds, but they can't print more land."

In his mind, the Old World peasant and the real estate developer existed side by side; he was both men and perceived no contradiction. Each looked at a piece of land and saw potential wealth: it made no difference that one saw a field of potatoes and the other a housing development. Grandpa could be perfectly happy spending his mornings tenderly cultivating the land and his afternoons despoiling it. Thoreau, planting his bean field, said he aimed to make the earth "speak beans." Some days my grandfather made the earth speak vegetables; other days it was shopping centers.

Grandpa started out in the teens wholesaling produce in Suffolk County, which was mostly farmland then. He would buy fruits and vegetables from the farmers and sell them to restaurants and, later, to the military bases that sprang up on Long Island during the war. He managed to make money straight through the Depression, and used his savings to buy farmland at Depression prices. When after the Second World War the suburbs started to boom, he saw his opportunity. Suffolk County was generally considered too far from the city for commuters, but Grandpa was confident that sooner or later the suburban tide would reach his shore. His faith in the area was so emphatic that (according to his obituary in Newsday) he was known in business circles as Mr. Suffolk.

Grandpa worked the leading edge of the suburban advance, speculating in the land that suburbanization was steadily translating from farm into tract house and shopping center. He grasped the powerful impulses that drove New Yorkers farther and farther out east because he shared them. There was the fear and contempt for city ways — the usual gloss on the suburban outlook — but there was also a nobler motive: to build a middle-class utopia, impelled by a Jeffersonian hunger for independence and a drive to create an ideal world for one's children. The suburbs, where you could keep one foot on the land and the other in the city, was without a doubt the best way to live, and Grandpa possessed an almost evangelical faith that we would all live this way eventually. Every time he bought a hundred acres of North Fork potato field, he knew it was only a matter of time before its utopian destiny would be fulfilled. Grandpa had nothing against potatoes, but who could deny that the ultimate Long Island crop was a suburban development? The fact that every home in that development could have a patch of potatoes in the backyard was proof that progress had no cost.

His own suburban utopia was a sprawling ranch house on five acres of waterfront in Babylon, on the south shore. My grandfather had enough money to live nearly anywhere, and for a time the family lived in a very grand mansion in Westbury. But he preferred to live in one of Long Island's new developments, and after his children were grown he and my grandmother moved into one where the fancy homes on their big plots nevertheless hewed to the dictates of middle-class suburban taste. The houses were set well back from the road and their massive expanses of unhedged front lawn ran together to create the impression of a single parklike landscape. Here in front of each house was at least an acre of land on which no one but the hired gardener ever stepped, an extravagance of unused acreage that must have rubbed against Grandpa's grain. But front yards in the suburbs are supposed to contribute to a kind of visual commons, and to honor this convention, Grandpa was willing to deny himself the satisfaction of fully exploiting an entire acre of prime real estate.

At least until I was a teenager, visits to Grandma and Grandpa's were always sweet occasions. The anticipation would start to build as we turned onto Peninsula Drive and began the long, slow ride through that Great Common Lawn, a perfection of green relieved only by evergreen punctuation marks and the fine curves of driveways drawn in jet-black asphalt. Eager as we were to get there, we always made Mom slow down (Dad hardly ever made the trip) in the hope of spotting the one celebrity who lived on my grandparents' road: Bob Keeshan, known to every child of that time as Captain Kangaroo. One time we did see the Captain, dressed in his civilian clothes, digging in his garden.

There is something about a lush, fresh-cut lawn that compels children to break into a sprint, and after the long ride we couldn't wait to spill out of the station wagon and fan out across the backyard. The grass always seemed to have a fresh crew cut, and it was so springy and uniform that you wanted to run your hand across it and bring your face close. My sisters could spend the whole afternoon practicing their cartwheels on it, but sooner or later Grandma would lure them indoors, into what was emphatically her realm. Except for the garage and a small den with a TV, where Grandpa passed rainy days stretched out on the sofa, the house brimmed with grandmotherness: glass cases full of tiny ceramic figurines, billowy pink chiffon curtains, dressing tables with crystal atomizers and silver hairbrushes, lacquered boxes stuffed with earrings, ornately framed portraits of my mother and aunt. I remember it as a very queenly place, a suburban Versailles, and it absorbed my sisters for hours at a time.

Grandpa's realm was outside, where he and his gardener, Andy, had made what I judged a paradise. Beginning at the driveway, the lawn described a broad, curving avenue that wound around the back of the house. On one side of it was the flagstone patio and rock garden, and on the other a wilder area planted with shrubs and small trees; this enclosed the backyard, screening it from the bay. A stepping-stone path conducted you through this area, passing beneath a small rose arbor and issuing with an unfailingly pleasing surprise onto the bright white beach. Plunked in the middle of the lawn was a gazebo, a silly confection of a building that was hardly ever used. Arrayed around it in a neat crescent was a collection of the latest roses: enormous blooms on spindly stems with names like Chrysler and Eisenhower and Peace. In June they looked like members of a small orchestra, performing for visitors in the gazebo.

The area between the lawn and the beach was twenty or thirty feet deep, thickly planted, and it formed a kind of wilderness we could explore out of sight of the adults on the patio. Here were mature rhododendrons and fruit trees, including a famous peach that Grandpa was said to have planted from seed. It was an impressive tree, too, weighed down in late summer with bushels of fruit. The tree was a dwarf, so we could reach the downy yellow globes ourselves. Hoping to repeat Grandpa's achievement, we carefully buried the pit of every peach we ate. (Probably it was his example that inspired my experiment with watermelon seeds.) But ripe fruit was only one of the surprises of Grandpa's wild garden. There was another we always looked for, only sometimes found. Creeping among the rhododendrons and dwarf trees, we would on lucky days come upon a small, shaded glade where, on a low mound, a concrete statue stood. It was a boy with his hand on his penis, peeing. This scandalous little scene never failed to set off peals of laughter when we were in a group; alone, the feelings were more complicated. In one way or another Eros operates in every garden; here was where he held sway in Grandpa's.

Back out in daylight, you could continue along the avenue of lawn until you came to an area of formal hedges clipped as tall as a ten-year- old, and forming an alley perhaps ten feet wide and forty feet long. At one end was a regulation-size shuffleboard court paved in sleek, painted concrete (it felt cool to bare feet all summer), and, at the other, a pair of horseshoe pins. Some visits these games held my interest for a while, but usually I made straight for the break in the hedge that gave onto what was unquestionably my favorite and my grandfather's proudest part of the garden — indeed, the only part of the property I ever heard anybody call a garden: his vegetable garden.

Vegetables had given Grandpa his earliest success, and the older he got, the more devoted to them he became. Eventually care of the ornamental gardens fell to Andy, and Grandpa spent the better part of his days among the vegetables, each spring adding to the garden and subtracting from the lawn. It's quite possible that, had Grandpa lived another twenty years, his suburban spread would have reverted entirely to farm. As it was, Grandpa had at least a half-acre planted in vegetables — virtually a truck farm, and a totally unreasonable garden for an elderly couple. I have a photograph of him from the seventies, standing proudly among his vegetables in his double-knits, and I can count more than twenty-five tomato plants and at least a dozen zucchini plants. You can't see the corn — row upon row of sweet corn — or the string beans, cucumbers, cantaloupes, peppers, and onions, but there had to be enough here to supply a farm stand.


Excerpted from "Second Nature"
by .
Copyright © 1991 Michael Pollan.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Second Nature 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
amckenzie4 More than 1 year ago
This is, without a doubt, the worst edited ebook I've ever seen. "Modern" is consistently rendered as "modem." The author just referred to some trees being "fully 8edged." Italics are there one word, gone the next, and back the word after that. None of that is true in the paper version. I have, I admit, downloaded a few scanned books from free sites: in general, they've been better quality than this. Don't get me wrong; I love the book. That's why I bought it -- my paper copy is wearing out, and I figured this would be an easier way to take it around with me. Pollan's writing is wonderful, and he approaches the whole subject of gardens from a wonderful perspective, that of someone who, in the beginning, has read too many essays by Thoreau and Walden, and believes too firmly that distinctions between "weeds" and "plants" are terrible. By the end, he's learned somewhat better, at least as affects his garden. He's funny, and has good references throughout, and makes the reader think. It's a brilliant book; go buy a paper copy, and save yourself the pain of this bad editing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Second Nature overflows with humor and serious ideas about dealing with many of the worst (grubs, egad) of early gardening concerns. The only drawbacks are, with the barest of contexts, the author introduces controversial Native American barbaric practices and the n-word flower. We could all have better enjoyed this reading without those freakish images. As well, he seems to be one of the few intelligent beings who never heard of Live Trapping. His attempt to burn a woodchuck alive is simply chilling.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is always a pleasure to read of someone's experience in being a begining gardener. It is very helpful for the novice to realize that he is not alone in his ignorance and sometimes in his frustration. What makes Pollan's book special however is the change in point of view that he brought, at least for me. Prior to reading this I had tended to keep my environmental consiousness on one level and my gardening delights on another. The title here gives the plot away as Pollan does see gardening as 'second nature' and advances the concept of stewardship. The book helped me bring these areas together and sent me back to read Wendell Berry. Although I remain far away from Berry's vision of self sufficiency, I do have a clearer feel for the concept of man on the land and the rightness of his being there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not only did the book make me laugh out loud, it made me think of the world and of my garden in a whole new way. Michael Pollan is terrific.
Guest More than 1 year ago
NJMetal More than 1 year ago
"Second Nature" is Michael Pollan's first book (and the last of all his offerings to date that I have read.) It is a book of the author's attempt to more deeply understand his connection to his gardens on his (now former) property in rural Connecticut. The story travels from his boyhood exposure and fascination to his grandfather's suburban garden. It all culminates in a tour of his own gardens as an adult. Along that form he discusses the many stops we all take in our own gardens. In typical Pollan style, the simplest of topics is more deeply explored for its factual, historical, cultural and philosophical content. Weeding or not weeding to be ecologically correct. The class war implications of plantig roses. The historical musings of planting a tree. Even the marketing strategies of seed catalog companies. Pollan helps us see our gardens and landscapes in ways we've never thought of looking before. Read this book and discover the Versailles that could be hidden in your own garden.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not what I expected . Although I love the authors way of expressing his ideas , some of the topics were not really interesting to me. I wanted more practical ideas to help me become more inspired.
bobbieharv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reflections on gardening and the seasons and our relationships to the earth. Cultivation is bringing culture to nature - some interesting thoughts.
AJBraithwaite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meditation on the role of the gardener in manipulating nature for his own purposes. I'll certainly never look at old-fashioned roses in the same way again after reading this work. I thoroughly enjoyed it - the only jarring note was Pollan's insistence on referring to 'the gardener' as 'he' all the time. It felt exclusive, for this female gardener.
tolmsted on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Garden books and winter go together. After the garden has been covered over, ¿ first by autumn leaves, then frost, and finally a dusting of snow ¿ what¿s left for a gardener to do until March but read?Of course, by now someone has told you that you HAVE to pick up a copy of The Omnivore¿s Dilemma (if you haven¿t already). But before The Omnivore¿s Dilemma; before ¿Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.¿ was made into a bumper sticker; before he wrote the letter telling the Obama¿s to plant veggies on the White House lawn; before all that Michael Pollan wrote a book called Second Nature: A Gardener¿s Education. And by any standard it was, and remains, a beautiful piece of writing. "With the harvest moon, which usually arrives towards the end of September, the garden steps over into that sweet, melancholy season when ripe abundance mingles with auguries of the end anyone can read. Except, perhaps, some of the tropical annuals, which seem to bloom only more madly the closer the frost comes. Mindless of winter¿s approach and the protocols of dormancy, the dahlia and the marigold, the tomato and basil, make no provision for frost, which might be a month away, or a day. The annuals in September practice none of the inward turning of the hardy perennials, which you can see slowing down, taking no chances, turning their attention from blossom and leaf to root and stashed starch. But instead of battening down the hatches, saving something for another day, the annuals throw themselves at the thinning sun, open-armed and ingenuous. On those early autumn days when frost hangs in the air like a sword of Damocles, evident as sunlight to the lowest creature, is there anything more poignant than a dahlia¿s blithe, foolhardy bloom?"Divided into four parts, conveniently corresponding to the four seasons, Second Nature was chosen by the American Horticultural Society as one of the seventy-five greatest gardening books written. It was the book that put Michael Pollan¿s blip on the radar.Pollan¿s attraction, in part, is his laid back take on the environment. Consider: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. Not exactly the rallying cry of St. Crispin¿s Day, is it? Pollan has always struck me as the X-Generation¿s environmentalist: Eating his sushi at Nobu. Planting a tree only to find out after the fact he¿s put in an invasive species. Refusing to bow down at the altar of composting (an act he admits borders on heresy in some circles). Or, my personal favorite, smirking at the pretensions of Thoreau playing at hermit in the forest. Pollan makes environmentalism accessible to the masses.Second Nature is the rare gardening/environmental book in that it is concerned with the real work of gardening. What many see as mundane tasks ¿ mowing the lawn, weeding, composting and planting ¿ these gain greater social and political significance in Pollan¿s hands. He shows them to be more than simple acts which result in pretty landscapes or homegrown tomatoes in summer. Second Nature calls upon readers to form a backyard environmental movement.At the same time it provides a visceral scrapbook of what happens inside of a garden, embracing the Sisyphean cycle of planting, growing, harvest and death that is repeated yearly in backyards across the country. Pollan¿s genius is that he views the garden as both a micro- and macrocosm. Like Voltaire, he urges us to tend to our own garden. But he also applies this same philosophy to our greater environmental concerns. He points out that, having taken the step to cultivate the earth, we have taken on the responsibility of managing it. We have insinuated ourselves into nature, irrevocably altering the ¿natural¿ course, which means we cannot step out and expect an anthropomorphized version of ¿Nature¿ to step back in as if there had been no interruption. We cannot make the mistake of romanticizing nature, the virgin forest or the primeval landscape. We must learn to work with what we have
sturlington on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this collection of essays on gardening to be a bit more long-winded and dense than Pollan¿s more well known later books. While his ideas on the metaphor of the American lawn and the debate over whether we have the right to shape nature are very interesting, Pollan does show a tendency to over-analyze. After all, a garden should be the gardener¿s private world, to shape and form as she likes. It really is that simple.
Sean191 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
this is a story about one man's adventures in gardening. If you've read Bill Bryson, then this will make sense to you . . . Imagine Bryson's writing (witty, informative, full of mishaps) but instead of travel, it deals with gardening. That's the best I can do to describe. I really did enjoy the book, but towards the end, it became focused too much on history and too little on personal anecdotes. I felt that was a weakness. If the book was 50 pages shorter, it would have been a 4 star for me.
DavidGreene on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pollan's garden is a portal to nature. His wonderful essays include a salacious view of roses.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not even close to my favorite by Michael Pollan, but if you find the history of the American garden (as opposed to the ideas and designs of European and British gardens) this is an informative interesting read.
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