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Entries in New York Times (1)

Friday
Dec172010

About Nature and Michael Pollan's Grandfather

A long time ago, during weekends at the beach, I had the luxury of reading the entire Sunday edition of the New York Times. The Adirondack Park location, where I vacationed, was run by the State of New York which supplied three qualified life guards to survey the swimmers. Since the beach was relatively small, I knew that my children would be carefully watched and that I could take my eyes off them to read and relax.

The fascinating thing about committing oneself to a hefty Sunday paper is that one usually ends up learning about topics that are, otherwise, irrelevant. From time to time, I would discover articles that held no interest for me, yet I found my eyes riveted to their pages simply because they were so well written. When finished, I would return to the opening paragraph to check out the name of the author. Time after time, the name Michael Pollan appeared. Eventually, I learned that anything this journalist wrote deserved to be read - he was that good.

When I first began to read TNYT, it was a balanced, almost scholarly newspaper that dealt with subjects in an even handed manner; it displayed intellectual integrity. With changing times, its high standards slipped to a point where I no longer enjoyed it. In addition, the focus of its magazine articles, which once had a smattering of international appeal, had become too local. Eventually, there was nothing in that paper to motivate me to buy it. Thus began my hiatus from reading articles by my now favorite journalist.

One weekend in June, in the early 90’s, I received as a Father’s Day gift, a copy of Mr Pollan’s first published book, Second Nature. My children believed that I would enjoy it because it was about gardening. Little did they know how excited I was to re connect with a writer whom I admired.  By now, Mr. Pollan had moved on from the New York Times and was about to begin a career that would not only bring him to national prominence but would also reward him with many professional accolades.

The gift that I had received was a collection of essays on gardening, many of which had originally appeared as magazine articles. Even though the flow of the book was a bit disjointed, and the author’s knowledge about gardening, at that time, was less than authoritative, I was drawn into the text by Mr. Pollan’s writing, his humor and the manner in which he personalized his philosophical yet infectious relationship with nature. In many circles, this book became a must read.

The author begins with the role played by his grandfather in inspiring the young grandson to take an interest in gardening. Eventually it moves on to describe how, as an adult, Mr. Pollan reconnected with nature after he moved his family to the Housatonic Valley in Connecticut.

The grandfather had been a successful New York businessman, who enjoyed gardening and gentleman farming on weekends. Now the stereotype of “successful New York businessman “is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of “weekend gardener” because each conjures up cultural images that are contradictory. Juxtaposed against each other, they created reader fascination. Mr Pollan had unintentionally stumbled upon an effective literary device which contributed to making the narrative, of quality time spent with a grandfather, all the more interesting.

During the years that followed, I noticed how the author adopted as his themes, various layers of nature - related topics. Subsequent books, all best sellers include,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001).Today, Mr. Pollan is Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, and lectures widely on food, nutrition, agriculture, health and the environment. That is quite a feat for someone whose background is English literature and not medicine or science.

Nevertheless, I am going to always admire Mr. Pollan, not for the essence of his first book or the popularity of the later ones, but for the manner in which he described his relationship with his grandfather. In Second Nature, the discerning reader will notice, stealthily woven into the essay, an invisible thread inferring how much this author loved and admired his grandfather. He never states that out rightly. Yet, it is imbued in every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph that he wrote. I found the inferred affection, of grandson for grandfather, to be so touching that this aspect alone made reading the book a memorable experience.