“The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan explores the dichotomy between natural growth and deliberate cultivation. He recounts his gardening experiences, beginning in childhood, and explores ethical questions that arise from altering nature for the sake of personal gain. He insists that “we need to learn how to use nature without damaging it. [Although] that probably can’t be done as long as we think of nature and culture simply as antagonists” (4).
Indeed, the need to dominate the natural world is a prevailing theme in human history, with the idea of conquest, and subsequent rivalry, prominently narrated in the first verses of the bible. As Pollan astutely observes, “[t]he habit of bluntly opposing nature and culture has only gotten us into trouble, and we won’t work ourselves free of this trouble until we have developed a more complicated and supple sense of how we fit into nature” (96). But this is precisely the problem. We do not see ourselves as part of nature, but rather apart from it. We find ways to justify the use of chemicals, deforestation, pest control to further our purposes for the land to which we are entitled. The implications, rich and nuanced, as God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Evidently, “[o]ur alienation from nature runs deep” (97).
Unsurprisingly, whereas American Indians and “many [other]…pre-Christian peoples practiced some form of tree worship…in Puritan eyes the New World forest was a ‘hideous wilderness,’ … in which a person was liable to be lost or killed or, worse still, to fall away from Christ and civilization” (160-161). The difference of perspective is jolting. “The Indian landscape was animated by all manner of spirits, and trees were thought to possess venerable souls one was careful not to offend. In the shade of certain trees one found insight. Trees had feelings, eyes, and ears…and the trees themselves have been regarded as the habitations of the gods” (160). However, “[t]o the colonists deforestation was a synonym for progress” (162). To the Puritans, “[t]he forest, that shadowy haunt of Satan and uncertainty, deeply offended [their] notions of order and light, indeed of civilization itself…To chop down a tree was a supremely righteous act, one by which God’s work was advanced and the howling wilderness set back” (161). The irony, of course, being that man attained wisdom by eating of the tree of knowledge. It was only by uniting with nature that his eyes were opened, a view antithetical to the Puritan dogma, and one that reinforces the punishment God inflicts. “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19).
Pollan’s reflections are more than a recounting of personal experience. They are a provocation inviting us to consider our essence, our being, our contribution to life.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. New York: Grove Press, 1991.