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Sierra Magazine
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Sierra's January/February 2005 Let's Talk book selection:
Second Nature
A book by Michael Pollan

What it's about
Plumbing the deeper meaning of bugs, lawns, roses, compost, seed catalogs, and even wilderness, this collection of essays explores "a gardener's education." At the old Connecticut dairy farm he bought, journalist Michael Pollan fancies having a "natural" garden. When the weeds and the woodchucks take over, though, he has an epiphany: "What I'm making here is a place that is at once of nature and unapologetically set against it." Pollan suggests that "romantic" ideas about wilderness at times get in the way of good land stewardship. Is that heresy? Read on, and test your own ideas against those of a thoughtful, entertaining environmental writer whose authority comes not from hiking but from hoeing.

Where to get it
Second Nature is available in bookstores for $13.

About the author
Hands-on personal reporting is Michael Pollan's specialty. Take, for instance, his March 31, 2002, article in the New York Times Magazine, "Power Steer." It's a sad tale of the state of the U.S. beef industry, based on Pollan's own experience as the owner of a steer. He's also told the harrowing tale of building a house, in A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (Dell, 1998). Pollan is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and worked for many years as executive editor for Harper's. A professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, he's got a foot in academia, too. His most recent book is The Botany of Desire (Random House, 2001).

Discussion questions
Are you a gardener? If so, what do you think of Pollan's advice? Would you want Pollan poking around in your backyard?

How much can gardening teach people about the environment? Does it have limitations as a guide to understanding nature? How have you learned your lessons?

On page 135 of the Delta paperback edition of Second Nature, Pollan says, "Thoreau and his many heirs among contemporary naturalists and radical environmentalists assume that human culture is the problem, not the solution. So they urge us to shed our anthropocentrism and learn to live among other species as equals." Pollan goes on to counter this idea. What do you think?

Pollan says (on page 173) that "our environmental problems may have more to do with our technologies and habits and economic arrangements than with the planet's inherent limits or the burden of our numbers." What do you know that supports or weakens the validity of this statement?

On page 204 the author lightheartedly discusses whether trees should have standing. "I'm not sure I like the ideas of my tree growing up to be litigious," he says. "Though the proponents of nature's rights surely have the best interests of my tree and the rest of nature at heart, I worry that a world in which trees have rights would probably be a world in which human rights have been substantially diluted." Do you agree?

On page 212, Pollan says, "I began to wonder if perhaps the wilderness ethic itself, for all that it has accomplished in this country over the past century, had now become part of the problem." What has the wilderness ethic accomplished? Does it, as Pollan suggests, have a downside? Here's another provocative example of Pollan's thinking on the topic: "The notion of wilderness is a kind of taboo in our culture, in many cases acting as a check on our inclination to dominate and spoil nature. It has inspired us to set aside such spectacular places as Yellowstone and Yosemite. But wilderness is also a profoundly alienating idea, for it drives a large wedge between man and nature."

Pollan says that there's a "crucial ambiguity" about humans' role in nature: "We are at once the problem and the only possible solution to the problems." Do you agree or disagree with his statement? If humans are the solution, how should we change the way we are living?

Read about Michael Pollan's writings and transcripts from some of his TV and radio appearances.

Learn about the Sierra Club's wilderness work.

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