A Gardening Year

The adventures and misadventures of an heirloom gardener

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Garden Bloggers' Book Club

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 ordered my copy of “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education” for the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club. 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.


At 8:41 PM, Blogger Carol said...

OldRoses, Thanks for the candid review. I stalled out on the chapter about lawns and couldn't quite figure out why the book hadn't captured my interest. I did enjoy the story of the woodchuck, and that's what I ended up writing about, sort of.

I think I'll fast forward to chapter 10, that sounds like a good read!

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

At 10:53 PM, Anonymous Tricia said...

It certainly sounds like he almost combined two books into one. Shame that there wasn't more of the more interesting replacement vs restoration topic.

Perhaps garden memoirs don't interest you as much because you read a lot of gardening blogs which essentially are also memoirs in progress. ;)

At 9:51 PM, Blogger kjohnson said...

Yes this is a dated garden memoir, but from an historian's point of view I did find the discussion of Cathedral Woods to be the most interesting and challenging discussion. The vertict is still out and the controversy still continues about period significance, restoration vs. recreation of damaged or neglected landscapes. How we veiw and value landscapes and gardens changes with our world view. It is not static.

Take Pollan's piece for what it is, I say, and enjoy his writing ability.


At 9:17 PM, Blogger Dee/reddirtramblings said...

I also read it, and yes, the beginning gardener stuff was not that enlightening. I liked the part about planting a tree and what trees mean in this country. Perhaps that was a warmup for the Cathedral Woods restoration.

Enjoyed your review. If you don't mind my asking, how may I get on Garden Voices?~~Dee

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Pat Leuchtman said...

I found a great deal of this book tedious and irritating, but the chapter on the woods was good, and I'm sorry I didn't mention that in my own fairly negataive review. I do like his book Botany of Desire.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Aaliyah Aldaco said...

I would have liked to see how he was able to talk about his newbie gardening exploits then move on to bigger talk on society and man's role vis a vis nature. It does sound like a boring ending after the delayed suspense. But I'm not sure there are other gardening memoirs that would barely tackle the same big issue.


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