Comic or lyricist, black or white?

I’m in the last pages of Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Published in 1991, much of what it says is relevant today. If you’ve read any of Pollan’s works, you know he mentions Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman quite a lot . I’ve come to view Pollan as a kind of modern day mix of all three of those transcendentalists (Whitman never confessed to being involved with the movement, although his poetry often expresses its tenants, especailly “Song of Myself”).

In Chapter 10, The Idea of a Gardener, Pollan writes:

Compared to the naturalist, the gardener never fell head over heels for nature. He’s seen her ruin his plans too many times for that. The gardener has learned, perforce, to live with her ambiguities- that she is neither all good nor all bad, that she gives as well as takes away. Nature’s apt to pull the rug out from under us at any time, to make a grim joke of our noblest intention. Perhaps this explains why garden writing tends to be comic rather than lyrical or elegiac in the way that nature writing usually is: the gardener can never quite forget about the rug underfoot, the possibility of the offstage hook. (193)

Pollan’s metaphors are catchy and most of the time right on. I’m sure most of us have been grabbed more than once by nature’s “offstage hook.” This summer the rug was pulled out from under me when I bragged about having celosia reseed when in fact it wasn’t celosia at all but an 18-foot long row of loosestrife. I know what you’re thinking, and I feel stupid that I didn’t know the difference, but you know as well as I do how hard it can be in early spring to determine one variety of seedling from another.


I can positively identify some things, for example:

Poison Ivy
Tree

I’m of the school that most things in life, and in the garden, are not always . . .

. . . Black and White
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15 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting passage. I do fall head over heels over nature, and I consider myself a gardener of sorts. But I love the wildness and chaos of nature, and often let things grow where they like. Maybe one can be in-between the two? Maybe that’s why my veggie garden is in such chaos? Makes me think..heheh.. a tree.. funny!

  2. That gorgeous bright red stuff climbing up the trees across the road is poison ivy?? I kept wondering what it was. I better warn my son who is highly allergic to it.

  3. Rose: Thanks for stopping by via my good friend W2W’s blog. I didn’t mention this in my original post, but my wife was also fooled and she’s just as knowledgeable, if not more so, than I about gardening. I ended up pulling out all that “celosia!” We’ve put our garlic in that spot.

  4. Just found your blog through Walk to Write’s; enjoyed this post! Lord knows, I’ve mistaken seedlings before and have let weeds grow to full size before deciding whether they were weeds or flowers, especially when I can’t remember what I planted last fall:)I’ve learned the hard way, too, what poison ivy looked like. I’ve always bragged I was immune to it, but not anymore:)It’s too late for me to do any deep thinking about transcendentalism, but I do love Thoreau and Emerson; I just take a little more realistic view of nature, though.

  5. Flydragon: I started being allergic to it again last year, after a 45 year absence. I’ve heard it’s more potent now due to global warming. Cindy: Thanks neighbor! I’m a big fan of Pollan, but he can veer off the garden path at times. Tina: Thanks for the compliment. I’m a strong believer in lots of straw mulch. W2W: Oh, I think transcendentalists would like us to know a thing or two about them. But we must first transcend their tenets. ;~)Tile Lady: Thanks for stopping by. I’ve often thought of “going native.” I think it would be interesting to grow nothing but indigenous species. I bet it’d be easier too. Susie: You can be sure I keep my distance! Marnie: Pollan says numerous times that he’s learned things the hard way, after being educated by nature. He’s humble enough to admit his hubris.

  6. Seedlings are hard to id if you haven’t grown them before. Then too, don’t we all see what we expect to see?I’ve found in my considerable years of gardening that it’s better to work with nature and try never to oppose her. Pollan’s ‘noblest intentions’ did not coincide with nature’s, that was his mistake;)Marnie

  7. I love the way you look at things! You have quite the dry wit! I wouldn’t have been able to determine that was loosestrife, either!I have decided on a naturalists point of view, in part–and plan to have an all native plant species garden–in PART of my yard. I like too many non-native species not to give them their space, too. I used to have loosestrife….it’s a lovely plant.

  8. I’m not sure if transcendentalism has any tenets. I have always thought that by its very nature, it would eschew the idea of even having tenets (i.e., dogma, doctrine). They would be too common and rabid for such superior thinkers. Maybe like loosestrife? Pollan is too kind to nature. He has that easily seduced, forgiving male perspective of her. The offstage hook is not just a possibility; it’s inevitable. You’re so right about nature. She is most definitely a horse of a different color.

  9. Cute indeed! Celosia for loosestrife? Ha Ha! Poison ivy-better cut it! Mother Nature has dealt us a bad hand down here-no rain and it is so hard to adjust. Yes, I’d agree I am NOT jumping on the bandwagon to be a naturalist. I bet all those naturalists don’t have gardens. btw, your garden looks great even with the loosestrife!

  10. TC ~ This is a great post and you show your comic side with your photo tag of tree, gave me a smile :)I’m a conflicted sort, I want to be a naturalist but practicality makes me a gardener, I guess I’ve experienced too many “offstage hooks” myself.

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