A Gardening Ethic That Prepares the Mental Soil

SECOND NATURE: A GARDENER'S EDUCATION. By Michael Pollan, Atlantic Monthly Press, 258 pp., $21.95.

`SECOND NATURE'' is to gardening what Isaac Walton's ``The Compleat Angler'' is to fishing. Combining humor, natural description, and advice, it's not so much about compost, seeds, seasons, and pests as it is about human nature.

Michael Pollan, executive editor at Harpers Magazine, writes with the fervor of the reformed. He once hated gardens, now he sees in them our only hope in bridging the abyss we've created between nature and culture in the United States. Thoreau is his whipping boy. He attacks the notion that in wilderness is the preservation of the world. As he began to build a garden on his New England farm, he saw that wilderness is out to destroy culture. His run-in with a persistent woodchuck makes delightful reading .

When he had fenced out the woodchuck, he could relax. It was in his garden as he planted vegetables and trees that he pondered the clich'es he attacks so brilliantly in the book. ``Entropy is the great faith of our time,'' he writes. ``Those who are most awed by it preach `limits to growth' - that we should consume our fixed, unreplenishable stores as slowly as possible. On a spaceship, this makes good sense.'' You can see where he is taking you. He does it so charmingly you follow. ``Plants ... are en ergy returned to matter - entropy undone, at least here on Earth.''

Like most gardening books, ``Second Nature'' unfolds with the seasons: the compost piles of spring, the roses of summer, tree planting in the fall, reading catalogs in the winter. Against the warp of time is the woof of one man's unfolding concern for the truth. He thinks of his father, who preferred his garden on the other side of a window and who, though a denizen of a self-respecting suburb and the son-in-law of an order-loving patriarch, never mowed his lawn.

If Pollan is like Walton in his graceful mixture of personal and social and natural topics, he's also witty, analytical, profoundly committed to winning. The war with the weeds is partly a war with ourselves, we learn. Weeds take over gardens, because they grow best in gardens. He learns to win the war against weeds. Americans love lawns, we learn, the way they love TV: like TV, lawns are the lowest common denominator. Pollan is funny and even savage about the new hybrid roses, and notes that the Dolly Parton rose reflects certain values not all of us hold dear. He prefers an older rose called Madame Hardy.

A wonderful and instructive chapter on tree planting includes reflections on the cultural history of the tree, the tree of tradition in England, the romantic tree, and the political tree. He notes how in the early days of the Intifadah angry Palestinians set fire to several Israeli-planted forests.

``Second Nature'' introduces a man, a garden, and an ethic. Such is the skill and grace of the man, his garden and his ethic will soon become part of a tradition of writing that teaches not love for wilderness, but respect for it, a tradition that helps us clear our minds of cant so that we can get on with the important things in life, like gardening.


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