Just as we wonder guiltily whether the food we put in our mouth is good for us, so we now wonder just as guiltily whether what we do in the garden is good for the planet. It was not so much that way back in 1991, when this book was published. In fact, I am pretty sure that Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education was my first introduction to the existence of gardening philosophies. Sure, I had realized there were practical considerations (will this help my plants grow?) and aesthetic considerations (does this look pretty?) but ethical considerations? Right or wrong? What a concept!
I was already averse to using poisons because, well, they were poisonous, but the idea that there was a certain view of the world behind the ubiquitous lawn was mind boggling. And I had to face the fact that my concepts of natural and native were actually moving targets, depending on the underlying philosophy of the definer for their meaning. And so I was challenged to start defining for myself what a native plant was and what made a landscape natural. Yes, I had to start working on my own philosophy of gardening: What exactly is my relationship to nature? To what extent are we partners, and to what extent adversaries?
I read Second Nature for the first time over ten years ago, shortly after it first came out. Reading it again recently, I was struck by how much our ways of gathering information have changed. Think of it: in 1991 there was no email, no websites, no search engines, no blogs. Yes, there were gardening books, but you had to know they existed before you could read them. If they weren’t in your local library or your local bookstore, you’d have to come across a magazine’s book review to learn of them. There was no searching Amazon to see what’s “out there” on a topic, and if you happened to have access to a bookstore’s or library’s expensive set of Books in Print–well, searching through the subject listings was like looking through an unabridged dictionary.
What seems like common knowledge in this book was closer to esoterica back then. Second Nature not only got me thinking, but made me aware of others who were thinking, such as Eleanor Perenyi. It made me aware that gardening touched not only botany and soil science, but reached into history, art, and yes, politics.
I wonder if Michael Pollan would come to the same conclusions, knowing what he knows now. Of course, this book was the starting point for his further thoughts on plants: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Visit May Dreams Gardens to find other reviews of this book for the Garden Bloggers’ Book Club.