Thursday, January 15, 2009

Books I'm Reading: Second Nature

I finished Michael Pollan's Second Nature over the weekend. Have moved on to Walter Piston's textbooks Orchestration, Harmony, and Counterpoint--all over my head at the moment, but I hope something useful rubs off. If nothing else, they'll look good on the bookshelves when I get frustrated enough to shelve them in disgust--although I have no idea where they'd fit. Too many books, never enough shelves.

Pollan is always a good read. This book is a very personal look at what gardens mean to the author, to people today, and to select figures out of the past. I had never thought of gardens as a political statement before. Pollan set me to thinking about that. I've come to no useful conclusions yet, but I'll never look at a lawn the same way again--which is not to say that I'd never contemplated the meaning of a lawn before. Here, in desiccated California, a lawn has come to seem a faintly arrogant extravagance to me. One of the first things we did when we moved into this house was to remove the lawn and replace it with thyme and rocks. Quite a few aloes have crept in among the rocks since then--all plants that tolerate drought. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, lawns weren't part of my daily experience. Asphalt and concrete were. In Ohio, my mother's house had a wonderful wide lawn. Lawns make more sense in a place with summer rain. 

On a less serious note was an analysis of the social and political slants of  plant catalogs (in one of the eerie coincidences that have been haunting me for the past year or so, three fat seed and bulb catalogs arrived in my mailbox the morning I finished reading the book--from companies I've not dealt with in years--as if on cue). 

Pollan's descriptions are hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud at his parade of catalog classes--from the very conservatively augmented East Coast catalogs with their white roses and lilies-of-the-valley to the voluptuous (but somehow still upper crust) catalogs of the southern growers, to the anything-goes-and-bigger-is-definitely-better catalogs still targeting the everyman of an America that hardly exists anymore, to the save-the-planet socially conscious catalogs of the West Coast (and elsewhere). Recommended.   
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