I had a lot on my mind this week, and my parents—yes, I’m living with them (so if that’s you too, take heart)—they were very persuasive in convincing me to veg and watch “Firefly” each night instead of reading. So really, it’s their fault I crammed 200 pages of Second Nature, by Michael Pollan (Harpers, 1991), into the last three days of the week.
You remember those days, back in college, when reading was more like selective skimming, a highlighting of phrases and words which—though chosen at random—satisfied you, somehow, enough to take a test on the book the next day. Or maybe you were reading for a paper. Or a pop quiz that wasn’t really “pop.” Anyway, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, felt like one of those books to me. Though I wish I could say differently, it struggled for popularity against the beast that is television.
“Firefly” really is a pretty great show. My brother and his wife lent us the DVD collection—the show only lasted one series—so we watched it each night, often bingeing on two or three episodes. The characters are great! Mal, Inara, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Simon, River, Jayne, Book. . . am I missing any? The ship? Serenity? The show's so memorable, in fact, that I even had a dream one night with Simon in it.
I was running into a room that was closed off like a vault, it didn’t have windows, and inside the room was a pair of women, both of them with massive guns. Like machine guns, or rifles or something. Handily enough, I had a big black trash bag in my hands. So when one of the women shot at me, I used the bag to protect myself. The bullet went through the bag (no, really?) and grazed my side. Then there was blood. A streak of it at first, but then a lot more. Thick as those tomatoes in my mom’s ratatouille. The blood kept getting thicker and spread over my skin, clumpy and dark, like mom's homemade catsup (yes, my mother's exceptional).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t important enough a casualty to make Simon pay any attention. (Simon is the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Tam). No, no, I’m just lying there with blood all over me, and I look up and see Simon in the corner, washing his hands at an airplane-bathroom-sized sink. Strange. (RUDE). The jerk. I was bleeding.
And then I woke up.
What’s my point? And when will I get to talking about the book? My point is this: people draw my attention, I care about people. It's often hard for me to invest myself in the problems of plants--veggies, garden hedges, compost--when the problems of and between people seem much more imminent and consequential. As proof, I can look at my dreams; I've always been a pretty impressionable person, my (sleeping) dreams are usually wild (and wine just makes them wilder), and this week was no exception. It’s the conflict between people which intrigue me.
This said, Second Nature made me think about human's relationship to the land. (I could ask similar questions about "Firefly," too, since most of the show takes place in. . . outer space.) Having spent multiple seasons working in a garden, I am familiar with the questions a garden/landscape designer must make: questions about the land's history, for instance, but also its purpose. Aesthetic wishes are one thing, and then there's the land's capabilities to produce any sort of "crop." Trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals or ornamental hedge, the gardener is tasked with a multidimensional project to both work the soil and respect the identity of each specific plant—respect in the manner of understanding what a plant needs to thrive, and not trying to force it into an environment in which it was never meant to live in the first place.
Second Nature is a hotbed of arguments and discussions on the ethics of gardening, tree cultivation, wilderness preservation and oh, say, species’ hybridizations. I don’t half comprehend half of what Michael Pollan wrote about—I was reading too fast for real understanding—so I’ll just shut up and recommend you read the book. I’ll also give you this quote about gardens (and nature, and beauty), just to chew on:
Proust wrote somewhere that the reason beautiful places sometimes disappoint us in reality is that the imagination can only lay hold of that which is absent. It traffics not in the data of our senses, but in memories and dreams and desires. A garden will move us to the extent it engages the imagination as well as the senses. Among other things, a garden is a passage somewhere else—to the personal and shared past its scents evoke, to the distant places to which its forms allude. Gardens exist not only in the here and now, but in the there and then, too. (243)
One thing I do believe: television does the work that our imaginations learn to do by reading.
I, for one, will try harder this week to let my imagination roam in the pages of books--and in the woods. It seems our culture could benefit—I believe—by doing the same.
Fellow readers? Peace, liberation, contentment. Happy reading.