Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

by Michael Pollan

Audio CD(Unabridged)

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Eight years ago, Harper's Magazine editor Michael Pollan bought an old Connecticut dairy farm. He planted a garden and attempted to follow Thoreau's example: do not impose your will upon the wilderness, the woodchucks, or the weeds. That ethic did not, of course, work. But neither did pesticides or firebombing the woodchuck burrow. So Michael Pollan began to think about the troubled borders between nature and contemporary life.

The result is a funny, profound, and beautifully written book in the finest tradition of American nature writing. It inspires thoughts on the war of the roses; sex and class conflict in the garden; virtuous composting; the American lawn; seed catalogs, and the politics of planting a tree. A blend of meditation, autobiography, and social history, Second Nature is ultimately a modern Walden: a true classic for our time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781469240763
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.40(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


This book is the story of my education in the garden. The garden in question is actually two, one more or less imaginary, the other insistently real. The first is the garden of books and memories, that dreamed-of outdoor utopia, gnat-free and ever in bloom, where nature answers to our wishes and we imagine feeling perfectly at home. The second garden is an actual place, consisting of the five acres of rocky, intractable hillside in the town of Cornwall, Connecticut, that I have been struggling to cultivate for the past seven years. Much separates these two gardens, though every year I bring them a little more closely into alignment.

Both of these gardens have had a lot to teach me, and not only, as it turned out, about gardening. For I soon came to the realization that I would not learn to garden very well before I'd also learned about a few other things: about my proper place in nature (was I within my rights to murder the woodchuck that had been sacking my vegetable garden all spring?); about the somewhat peculiar attitudes toward the land that an American is born with (why is it the neighbors have taken such a keen interest in the state of my lawn?); about the troubled borders between nature and culture; and about the experience of place, the moral implications of landscape design, and several other questions that the wish to harvest a few decent tomatoes had not prepared me for. It may be my nature to complicate matters unduly, to search for large meanings in small things, but it did seem that there was a lot more going on in the garden than I'd expected to find.

I began gardening for the same reasons people usually do: for the satisfaction of pulling bunches of carrots from one's own ground; the desire to make a patch of land more hospitable or productive; the urge to recover a place remembered from childhood, and the basic need to keep the forest from swallowing up one's house. When my wife and I bought our first place in 1983--a sliver of a derelict dairy farm on the eastern edge of the Housatonic Valley--we had been living in Manhattan for some time, in an apartment that receives approximately ninety minutes of sunlight a day, and the prospect of growing a few flowers and vegetables seemed exotic. There was also the matter of the advancing forest, which did in fact threaten to engulf our house, a little cape that had been assembled from a Sears, Roebuck kit in 1929. I had to do something--either mow the weed patch that passed for a lawn, or put in a real garden-if I hoped to keep the woods at bay.

So I guess you could say the forest made me do it. But there was also, mixed in with my motives, the recollected satisfactions of childhood gardens. Growing up on Long Island in the early 1960s, I'd cared for a succession of pocket gardens in various corners of my parents' suburban plot, and had spent many Saturdays helping out my grandfather in the much grander garden he tended a few miles away (Chapter 1 is a reminiscence of these places). Now I had some ground of my own, and gardening it seemed a natural way to spend my weekends, something I might even have a knack for.

Judith had other ideas. Though her position would eventually soften, she started out a sworn enemy of gardening, having been forced as a child to do yard work. I think she was also less troubled by the derelict parts of our property than I was, finding beauty in the march of brush across an abandoned hay field, or the rank, top-heavy growth of an apple tree in need of hard pruning. So she began making landscape paintings and I, with somewhat less striking results, began making landscapes.

• *

It wasn't very long before I discovered I was ill-prepared for the work I'd taken on. The local New England landscape--a patchwork of abandoned farms swiftly being overtaken by second-growth forest--proved far less amenable to my plans for it than the tame suburban plots of my childhood had. Here were large and rapacious animals, hegemonies of weeds, a few billion examples of every insect in the field guide, killing frosts in June and September, and boulders of inconceivable weight and number. But there were obstacles of a very different kind that proved just as vexing: the unexamined attitudes toward nature that I'd brought with me to the garden.

Like most Americans out-of-doors, I was a child of Thoreau. But the ways of seeing nature I'd inherited from him, and the whole tradition of nature writing he inspired, seemed not to fit my experiences. In confronting the local woodchucks, or deciding whether I was obliged to mow my lawn, or how liberal I could afford to be with respect to weeds, I was deep in nature, surely, but my feelings about it, although strong, were something other than romantic, or worshipful. When one summer I came across Emerson's argument that "weeds" (just then strangling my annuals) were nothing more than a defect of my perception, I felt a certain cognitive dissonance. Everybody wrote about how to be in nature, what sorts of perceptions to have, but nobody about how to act there. Yet the gardener, unlike the naturalist, has to, indeed wants to, act.

Now it is true that there are countless volumes of practical advice available to the perplexed gardener, but I felt the need for some philosophical guidance as well. Before I firebomb a woodchuck burrow, I like to have a bit of theory under my belt. Yet for the most part, Americans who write about nature don't write about the garden--about man-made landscapes and the processes of their making. This is an odd omission, for although gardening may not at first seem to hold the drama or grandeur of, say, climbing mountains, it is gardening that gives most of us our most direct and intimate experience of nature--of its satisfactions, fragility, and power.

Yet traditionally, when we have wanted to think about our relationship to nature, we have gone to the wilderness, to places untouched by man. Thoreau, in fact, was the last important American writer on nature to have anything to say about gardening. He planted a bean field at Walden and devoted a chapter to his experiences in it. But the bean field (which I talk about in my chapter on weeds) got Thoreau into all sorts of trouble. His romance of wild nature left him feeling guilty about discriminating against weeds (he rails against the need for such "invidious distinctions") and he couldn't see why he was any more entitled to the harvest of his garden than the resident woodchucks and birds. Badly tangled up in contradictions between his needs and nature's prerogatives, Thoreau had to forsake the bean field, eventually declaring that he would prefer the most dismal swamp to any garden. With that declaration, the garden was essentially banished from American writing on nature.

I think this is unfortunate, and not just because I happen to stand in need of sound advice in the garden. Americans have a deeply ingrained habit of seeing nature and culture as irreconcilably opposed; we automatically assume that whenever one gains, the other must lose. Forced to choose, we usually opt for nature (at least in our books). This choice, which I believe is a false one, is what led Thoreau and his descendants out of the garden. To be sure, there is much to be learned in the wilderness; our unsurpassed tradition of nature writing is sufficient proof of that. But my experience in the garden leads me to believe that there are many important things about our relationship to nature that cannot be learned in the wild. For one thing, we need, and now more than ever, to learn how to use nature without damaging it. That probably can't be done as long as we continue to think of nature and culture simply as antagonists. So how do we begin to find some middle ground between the two? To provide for our needs and desires without diminishing nature? The premise of this book is that the place to look for some of the answers to these questions may not be in the woods, but in the garden.

• *

Though this book is not a polemic, it is full of argument: between me and this vexing piece of land, and also between me and some of the traditional ways of looking at nature in America; I find I spend a lot of time arguing with Thoreau. Many of these arguments don't get settled; this book is an exercise in discovery rather than truth telling. It is, as I say, the story of an education, and, as will be clear from the high incidence of folly in these pages, I remain more pupil than teacher. I know more at the end of my narrative than I did at the beginning, and for the most part I have followed the logic of my experiences, as they unfolded season by season, rather than that of any thesis. Even so, there is, I think, threading through this book (and spelled out in some detail in Chapter 10), a single underlying argument: that the idea of a garden--as a place, both real and metaphorical, where nature and culture can be wedded in a way that can benefit both--may be as useful to us today as the idea of wilderness has been in the past. This might strike readers as a rather unfashionably optimistic notion. In fact I share the general sense of alarm about our environment; I do not, however, share the gathering sense of despair. I find, in the garden, some grounds for hope.

What are my qualifications to write such a book? Certainly I am no expert--not on gardening, or nature, or much of anything else, for that matter. This is very much the enterprise of an amateur. My sole qualification (if it may be called that) is the wager I decided to make at the beginning of this project: that gardening might be worth taking seriously, and that, closely attended to, it might yield some good stories and helpful ideas. Yet I suspect that once I began to garden, this book was probably inevitable. As most gardeners will testify, the desire to make a garden is often followed by a desire to write down your experiences there--in a notebook, or a letter to a friend who gardens, or if, like me, you make your living by words, in a book. Writing and gardening, these two ways of rendering the world in rows, have a great deal in common. In my part of the country, there comes each year one long and occasionally fruitful season when gardening takes place strictly on paper and in the imagination. This book is how I've spent the last few such seasons in my garden.

Table of Contents


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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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