Monday, April 29, 2013

Book review: Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Having established himself as a titan in the world of food writing, Michael Pollan’s most famous works are about the food we eat: where it comes from, why it matters. But Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan focuses on gardening – as art, as sustenance, as culture.

I was interested in this book on gardening in particular because I wasn't the primary gardener in our house for the two summers we've lived here. I helped primarily in the cooking and preservation steps. But this year, I want to get my hands dirty and actually learn more about how to nurture and take care of the food we grow. (Also, we want to add another raised bed to grow food specifically for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which will accept produce donations this summer.)

The book goes back to Pollan's childhood experience with gardening - both on his own and in the shadow of his grandfather, who was a dedicated and prolific gardener. It follows him through the establishment of his own gardens (flowers and vegetables, as well as trees) on his own property. 

One of the most fascinating topics he covers is that of the American obsession with lawns. In many places, HOAs and city officials can fine you if you don't mow your grass according to their standards, and people across the country have been fined or cited for turning front lawns into vegetable or flower gardens. We don't have much of a front lawn, and being in the city if we grew veggies in our front yard, people would swipe tomatoes as they walk by. But our back yard is sizeable for the area in which we live, and we have no shame in covering grass with compost bins, chicken coops and raised beds. We have no use for large swaths of grass where we just have to burn gas mowing it all summer. I wondered as I listened to this section whether or not I'd have the guts to fight an HOA that would try to tell me what to do with my lawn. (Probably not, which is why I refuse to live anywhere with HOA oversight.)

I was happy that composting was featured in the book as well. We have two compost areas in our yard in addition to several bins. Getting the chickens last year has helped the compost area become more robust, since they are prodigious waste producers. It's hard to think of compost as a "way to give back what we have taken," as Pollan describes it, when you mostly see a pile of pine shavings and chicken waste, but on the microorganism level, it is definitely true. 

The statement in the book that resonated most with me was that "improving the land strengthens one's claim to it." As of this weekend, we have lived in our house for two years. We've started gradually turning it into a homestead - which to me is that exact feeling: this is my land and my home, so I will work to be a good steward of it and the resources it provides.

This is not a book that will give you step by step guides to gardening. Rather, it's a pleasant and almost lyrical philosophical examination (interspersed with lots of interesting facts) of gardening that if nothing else makes you want to go out and put your hands in the dirt.

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