Sunday, October 14, 2007

Quote of the Week: From Michael Pollan's Second Nature

My quote of the week, which appears near the top of my sidebar, reads:
"In American gardening, the successful compost pile seems almost to have supplanted the perfect hybrid tea rose or the gigantic beefsteak tomato as the outward sign of horticultural grace. What I read about compost gave me my first inkling that gardening, which I had approached as a more or less secular pastime, is actually moral drama of a high order."
It's from Michael Pollan's book Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991). Pollan has become better known since then for The Botany of Desire (2001) and The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). Given my interest in how we think about, and the sources of, our food, I certainly mean to read the latter, but haven't yet. I remember The Botany of Desire particularly for its grim portrayal of chemical-dependent "conventional" potato farming necessitated by the American public's love of perfect French fries, and the freedom from such extreme chemical dependency that is promised by genetic engineering.

In Second Nature, Pollan devotes a chapter to the "moral drama" that's inherent in gardening if we care, and it seems we do, about gardening as more than either a purely artistic pursuit, using plants as our paintbox, or a manufacturing process, in which soil is only a substance that holds plants up while we feed them chemically. He describes the transition in the last century from agriculture that had relied on composted organic waste for thousands of years to the downward spiral of chemical fertilizer use:
At first, yields increase dramatically. But the cost is high, for the chemicals in fertilizer gradually kill off the biological activity in the soil and ruin its structure. Eventually, few organic nutrients remain, leaving crops completely dependent on fertilizer -- the soil has become little more than a device to hold plants upright while they gorge themselves on 5-10-5. And to make matters worse, the more fertilizer he uses, the more problems the farmer has with disease and insects, since chemical fertilizer seems to weaken a plant's resistance. After [World War II] the farmer in this predicament succumbed to a host of new chemical temptations -- DDT, Temik, chlordane -- and it wasn't long before he found himself deep in agricultural hell.

The home gardener, meanwhile, had been walking down pretty much the same ruinous road. .. By the 1960s, the shelves of his garage were lined with the dubious products of America's petrochemical industry... Where one might reasonably have expected to find the logo of Burpee or Agway there were now the wings of Chevron. Somehow gardening, this most wholesome and elemental of pastimes, had gotten cross-wired with the worst of industrial civilization.

This is the wilderness in which [Robert] Rodale [the father of modern organic farming and gardening] found the American gardener and confronted him with a stark moral choice: he could continue to use petrochemicals to manufacture flowers and vegetables, or he could follow Rodale, learn how to compost, and redeem the soil -- and, the implication was clear, himself. [Second Nature pp. 84-85]
After a tour through the history of the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, to Thoreau's bean field at Walden, Pollan sums up:
No less than the nineteenth-century transcendentalists and reformers, we look to the garden today as a source of moral instruction. They sought a way to preserve the Jeffersonian virtues even in the city; we seek a way to use nature without damaging it. In much the same way that the antebellum garden became a proof of the agrarian ideal, we regard our own plots, hard by the compost pile, as models of ecological responsibility. Under both dispensations, gardening becomes, at least symbolically, an act of redemption. [p. 85]
I think there is more to it than that. For me, at least, keeping some kind of garden connects me with the fundamental nature -- or, conversely, the natural foundation -- of life: the seasons, the soil, the miracle of the seed, the renewal that comes from decomposition. We are often so disconnected from nature that apart from the occasional natural disaster we can and often do go about our lives as if they -- we -- were not utterly reliant on sun and earth and air and water. To me, that disconnect is unacceptable: gardening is not just about personal redemption, but a lifeline to all that is real and basic.

But I do view organic gardening as a moral issue, believing that in gardening, as in our other interactions with the world that is the only home not only for ourselves but for all other forms of earthly life, we should do our best to leave things no worse than we find them.

Image credit: Kessner Photography/ Wikimedia Commons.

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