About Me
My Photo
Annie in Austin
Welcome! As "Annie in Austin" I blog about gardening in Austin, TX with occasional looks back at our former gardens in Illinois. My husband Philo & I also make videos - some use garden images as background for my original songs, some capture Austin events & sometimes we share videos of birds in our garden. Come talk about gardens, movies, music, genealogy and Austin at the Transplantable Rose and listen to my original songs on YouTube. For an overview read Three Gardens, Twenty Years. Unless noted, these words and photos are my copyrighted work.
View my complete profile

Monday, March 24, 2008

Second Nature by Michael Pollen, GBBClub

This post, " Second Nature by Michael Pollan, GBBClub ", was written for my blogspot blog called The Transplantable Rose by Annie in Austin.

The writer studies literature, not the world. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard’s quote appeared in the bridge column of today’s newspaper – guess she’s relevant everywhere! Those words remind me of my own history with Second Nature. I first read the book when it was new, partly because of an April 4, 1991 review in the New York Times. The yellowed newspaper article paper was still clipped between the end sheets of our copy.
I remember enjoying the book tremendously but didn’t feel the earth move – by that time Philo and I had owned 3 different houses with landscapes and gardens to tend. We’d already had our own battles with groundhogs, squirrels, raccoons, invasive plants and the tyranny of lawn as we tried to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of in each successive, pre-owned suburban yard.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to find this book as a beginning gardener looking for a guidebook. Reading Michael Pollen felt less like life lessons and more like the tales of a companion in the garden – a very well-educated, extremely articulate, confident, slightly bratty companion who was a few years younger, and who grew up on the East Coast, with different weather and plants, a lot more land, from a family with a great deal more money. It was fun to hang around with him, even when he did things that made me shake my head in disbelief – planting a Norway Maple? On purpose?

But I liked many of his ideas and his book influenced me to try a few things. At that third Illinois yard I mowed a path from the gated square garden behind the house out to the vegetable garden, past the fruit trees, leaving the grass to grow on the sides of the path all summer as a symbolic meadow. Few meadow flowers appeared but I noticed that the groundhog was so happy with the green and juicy clover growing along the path that he seldom bothered to go all the way back to the vegetable patch.

I loved the way Mr Pollan pondered the many possible consequences of actions in the garden – trying to guess what could happen. We bonded over the idea that Nature has no set plan for an area, that randomness was more true than Disney tales, that there is no way to be a gardener without making decisions, taking sides, choosing favorites and sometimes destroying trees and plants in order to make things better.

In the real world, all the trees may want to be the only tree and some plants will kill to be the main plant, but we don’t see the strife and battle because it all happens in slow motion. That Coral honeysuckle and Lady Banks rose make a lovely blend of color and leaf on the arch but they are engaged in deadly combat and only I with my garden shears enforce the peace.

After 17 years in publication, Second Nature is still lively, funny, thoughtful and worth reading – not as a road map for gardening but as a very personal account of one young man’s journey in the garden. As Annie Dillard warned, reading this book has influenced my own writing, and maybe some of my thinking.

One chapter in the book tells of a wild forested area destroyed by a monster storm and what could happen if it were left untouched, or was partly repaired, or bulldozed or treated like a garden. That led me to consider my own yard. Left to itself what would my own garden become? I’ve heard that the land around here was graded and filled many decades ago and that not much remains of the original landscape. Whenever I weed the borders it appears that my garden wants to be a pecan grove choked with understory invasives like Nandina, Waxleaf Ligustrum and Asiatic jasmine. If any open spots are left after those plants take over there may still be room for the native Ten-petalled anemone, Cooper’s Lily and Copper Lily, all of which popped up here on their own.

But most of what seeds or spreads here didn’t start out in Texas but in Asia.
Most of the native flowers in my borders are here because I, the gardener, planted them and because as a gardener I prune back trees to give the native plants sun and keep aggressive plants from overwhelming them.

This new front bed has tough garden plants like the ‘Mutabilis’ rose, cannas, Verbena bonariensis and larkspur , It also has Texas plants like salvias, bluebonnets, lantana, Gaura lindheimerii, Gregg’s mistflower and Anisacanthus wrightii. My managed landscape may not be “Nature”, but there will be something here for birds, butterflies, insects, lizards and humans.

Although the land in my neighborhood was probably changed a lot, I think Central Texas author Susan Albert’s land was altered less and it didn’t lose its wild plants and wildflowers. Susan’s Nightshade Blog Tour will stop here in a couple of weeks to talk about “Unbecoming A Gardener”, about her relationship with wild plants. The first stop in this Blog tour was today’s post at Carol/May Dreams Garden.

Carol is also the founder of the Garden Bloggers Book Club. For the February/March meeting Carol wrote about the Rabbit War Rules – these musings on Michael Pollan’s book will be my contribution to the book club.

This post, " Second Nature by Michael Pollen, GBBClub ", was written for my blogspot blog called The Transplantable Rose by Annie in Austin.


  1. Annie, You never know if a book will withstand the test of time until, well, some time has past and you can recall and reflect on it again. I really enjoyed this review of the book and your reflections on your own gardens.

    Especially interesting is thinking about what our gardens would become if we weren't around keeping nature away. Mine would, I supppose, revert back to a field where rabbits freely roamed and then later "easy" trees like cottonwoods and mulberries would start to shade out the grasses.

    Thank you for joining us for the book club again!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  2. Hi Annie, I just got the book from my cousin so now I am ready to read it. I hadn't even looked at it yet but after reading your reivew I am anxious to read it.

    My garden is certainly not native but I do encourage some native plants and I want all little cratures and we humans to be comforatable in my garden.

    If I let our garden go back to nature I am not sure what would happen. This area was an orchard before it was scraped and houses built here. I imagine the creek would reestablish itself, mulberry, walnut and oak trees would pop up.

    It seems to me that we are about ready for an ode to spring set to some music. ;)

  3. Good morning, Carol - thank you for giving me the chance to recall and reflect. I wonder if those rabbits would be accompanied by bobcats and/or foxes?

    Hello Lisa - I think you'll like Second Nature a lot - both the intelligence and the humor in it. It's interesting that you and Carol both expect mulberries.

    No time for YouTubes now - too much to do outside!


  4. It's funny how differently we can view the same book. I guess I'm too set in my ways to be influenced by this book, I viewed it more as an entertaining look at the follies of a novice gardener. I did enjoy his philosophical discourses also. I've got to finish writing my GBBC post soon.

  5. I often wonder what would happen in my garden if all gardening came to a stop...that will make a fine topic for a blog post!

    I've thought about reading Second Nature, but if the earth isn't going to move, I'm not sure that I have the time.

  6. Very lovely pics and great writing. I know what would happen to may garden if left untended-overrun with Eastern Caribbean xeriscape scrub and introduced wild moses, which I have to keep removing. Not a pretty picture!

  7. Thanks for reminding me that I need to post my review. I like it when you start first because it is always easier for me to write something if it is the continuation of a conversation someone's started in my head. And, as usual, you've given me plenty to think about.

    What remains in memory of my first reading, what struck me most at the time, was the influence of his family on his feelings about lawns and gardens. What I enjoyed most was his essay on garden catalogs. That was at the beginning of my gardening. Now 16 years later, I wonder what I'll think of it. I better get reading.

  8. Hi Annie. Greatly enjoyed reading your post for GBBC. Our garden would definitely be quite frightful if left to revert to its "natural" inclinations. I'm certain we'd be choked out of our house by all that damn ivy!

  9. Second Nature is one of my most favorite books, not on gardening, but on my place in and with nature. Another book I like to tell people they should read or I'll hunt them down, is Scott Russell Sander's Staying Put. For some reason, I can't think of the one without the other, though Staying Put isn't about gardening, it's about the idea of being in one place fora long time, nurturing and being nurtured by it--something gardeners do, ya know.

  10. A very thoughtful review Annie, which makes me want to read the book. My reading list is growing! I need to take a break from blog reading (or at least cut down) to read some 'real' books. There's not enough time for both...although I have read a couple lately.
    I often think of what my garden would be like if I left it alone...and shudder. There would be little maple seedlings and scrub trees everywhere.
    I love your arch with the Lady Banks and honeysuckle. They actually look like they're duking it out in that photo if you use your imagination :)

  11. Annie,

    I like your new front flower bed. It will no doubt attract some nature. Have your camera handy for some butterfly and bird photos :o)


  12. what a post!

    Yes... I'll get the book. Your Illinois gardens give me hope. Snow here still.

  13. Annie, your review was great. I liked how you thought about what your land would look like in its natural state, something Pollan ponders a great deal.

    Now, I have to finish the book and get it reviewed on my site.~~Dee

  14. Michael Pollan has been on my wishlist for sometime now. But I thought I would check out "The Omnivore's Dilemma" first, but now after this review I may pick up Second Nature instead.

  15. i'm writing my review now and should have it up a little later today. i just read it for the first time.

  16. Hi, Annie, Mulberries are a common weedy tree across Indiana & probably the midwest. The birds eat the ripe purple berries and then wherever those purple bird droppings land, if there is even a hint of fertility on that spot, up springs another weedy mulberry tree. And if the purple bird droppings end up on driveways, sidewalks, house siding, lawn furniture, etc., then you have a purple mess to clean up.

    So, weedy trees to dig out or purple bird droppings to clean up... doesn't gardening in Indiana sound fun!?

  17. What a nice review - and honestly, reading of one's gardening 'travels', rather than a 'how-to' book sounds more appealing - and this isn't a book that I have read (but I'm sitting here thinking that I should).

    I have a good chunk of my backyard that just 'is' - I've seeded it in clover - and there are fruit trees - but I would love for it to be little else. It takes patience, and perhaps rose-colored glasses - and some luck I think. I liked that you didn't mow that area - that is indeed a true compliment to the author.

  18. Seeing your copy of 'Second Nature' alongside the newspaper clipping was a perfect introduction to your review. I enjoyed reading your book review and seeing your new front bed.

    What struck me most in Pollan's discussion about the idea of letting our gardens return to their natural state, is that it wouldn't be returning to its original state because humans have altered the landscape for centuries. I found that concept pretty interesting to digest. Letting nature take its course now has a different meaning to me ... what state of nature exactly?

    Your comment this morning got me checking my blog comments - I fixed it so all the comments now should be showing.

  19. Annie,

    Wonderful review, I find I want to order it right now!

    I do love the way you speak about your garden, pruning back the trees so natives can thrive, dealing with a landscape that was drastically altered before you got there. I see you mediating between the rose and the honeysuckle.

    Enjoy the day,


  20. Hello Mr McGregor's Daughter - I'll be interested to read what you think - as I said, it was fun to hang around with him as he experimented.

    You should put a motion sensor camera out there if you take a gardening break, Chuck - bet there will be a grand battle!

    Nicole, so much of our gardening is keeping invasives under control, unfortunately!

    I await your review, MSS! I loved the family stories. The catalogs have been dissected by so many garden writers that it's almost an expected part of a garden book!

    Good evening Weed Whackin' Wenches - I wonder how many garden bloggers live where patches of the original land still exists? Your ivy sounds pretty bad!

    I haven't read "Staying Put", Benjamin but it sounds interesting. I lived at my parents' house for 13 years...the longest time I stayed put. We've been at this house only 3 and 1/2 years, one reason I find it so interesting to read blogs by people who've been gardening in one place for 20 or 30.

    Thank you Kerri - I think it's still worthwhile, but don't forget it was written in 1991!

    Last year I let some cypress vine grow on that arch for the hummingbirds and it killed off the top of the rose and the honeysuckle! Ev'rybody's gettin' into da act.

    Mary, with Spring Fling less than a week away, my camera has started to act weird. It takes photos, but I can't make it focus!

    Thank you, Clerk Hank - as I said to Kerri... just remember this is a 1991 book by a young gardener!

    Thanks Red Dirt Dee - I remember thinking that in Illinois it would be all Elms and dandelions!

    I haven't read "The Omnivore's Dilemma", Anthony. Sometimes reading books in the order in which they were written works better, but not always!

    Hello Bill - I read your review and will go over and comment on it soon. It was very interesting to see what reaction you had when reading "Second Nature" for the first time. Michael Pollan was quite young when he wrote the book and it was a long time ago.

    Thanks for popping back in, Carol! We had some mulberries in IL, too - mostly under the telephone wires!

    Actually, gardening in Indiana sounds an awful lot like gardening in Austin! I dug up dozens of oaks, pecans and hackberries today, and something that the white-winged doves are eating has made the front sidewalk horrid.

    Hello Pam in SC - Pollan gets on his soapbox at times, but most of the book is about his becoming a gardener over an 8-year time period, beginning when he was 28 years old. In the time since this book was published he's become "THE Michael Pollan", but he wasn't such a hotshot back then!

    Hello KateSmudges - I have a habit of tucking newspaper clippings inside old books... at least this was a review. Other times, sadly, I've paper-clipped an author's obituary into a book.

    I'm not sure about Saskatchewan, but a lot of the prairie was purposely burned by Native Americans. In Illinois prairie restoration usually required periodically setting fires.

    I think my part of Austin was grazing land - lots of the housing developments around here bear the name of the original ranch to which they once belonged.

    Wow, you're fast at learning how to manage your blog's new location, Kate!

    Thanks for commenting Gail - I like the shade of those trees in summer but want some sun, too. It's a balancing act, for sure. I hope your day Gardening on Clay and Limestone was a good one, too.

    Thank you for all the comments,


  21. Annie, your knowledge of gardening amazes me. And your gardens always look so fabulous. It takes a special kind of heart to love gardening so much. You definitely have it!

  22. Hi Annie, I view Second Nature as a period piece. Our views and understanding of nature change - it's what makes garden history facinating to me. But I agree, when I re-read about the choice of a Norway Maple for his front lawn, the professional gardener in me screamed "What are you thinking!"

    Very thoughtful piece, thank you.


A comment from you is like chocolate - maybe I could live without it, but life is more fun with it. I'll try to answer. If someone else's comment piques your interest, please feel free to talk among yourselves.