BOOK REVIEW: Second Nature by Michael Pollan

Second Nature: A Gardener's EducationSecond Nature: A Gardener’s Education by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This isn’t simply a discussion of lessons of gardening, though it does tread that ground. However, Pollan uses that topic as a jumping off point to explore a couple of broader topics. First, what defines the American approach to lawns and gardens, which is clearly distinct from that of our Old-World ancestors / comrades? Second, what does it mean to say some approach is more or less “natural” in an ecosystem that has been shaped by the hand of man? As a neophyte balcony-container gardener, I was attracted to the book for its gardening lessons, but I found myself most provoked to thought by these other questions.

This book starts with an Introduction to set the stage and a first chapter that contrasts two approaches to lawn and garden that Pollan saw within his own family. The other eleven chapters are divided into seasonally themed parts. These parts – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter – touch upon the life of a gardener during each, respective, season.

The section entitled Spring discusses the challenge of getting plants to grow against the onslaught of competitors and consumers: animal, vegetative, and other. It also discusses mowing, the open approach to lawns found throughout America, and what the latter means for the former. (It has long intrigued me that many Americans who will pledge liberty or death, often aren’t so big on their neighbor’s liberty if said individual’s lawn gets to about four inches of shag.) Lastly, Pollan educates the reader about the gardener’s passion for compost.

The three Summer chapters explore what happens through the middle of the growing phase, including the need to weed. Though Pollan explores the criticisms from the “keep it natural” camp. There’s a lot of discussion of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau, and how they represented a change from previous thought on the garden. However, the first chapter in this section is about Pollan’s experiences with growing roses, a provocative subject among gardeners, apparently.

Fall is harvest season, but the chapter in this section that I found most intriguing was one about planting a tree. This is where Pollan brings the question of what it means to be “natural” to a head. He discusses a nearby piece of protected forest that was decimated by a tornado. There was an ardent debate between those who thought that nothing should be done with the land and it should be allowed to grow back however nature saw fit and others who thought intervention was necessary. The argument can end up turning a position on its head. What if one does nothing and the land is overtaken by a non-indigenous invasive species?

The last section has an amusing chapter on garden catalogs and how companies’s style and emphasis varies in an attempt to corner a segment of the market.

I enjoyed this book, and would highly recommend it not just for gardeners, but for individuals who have an interest in the interplay between nature and humanity.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide by O.T. Oss & O.N. Oeric

Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin EnthusiastsPsilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin Enthusiasts by O.T. Oss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This booklet, at around 80 pages, offers step-by-step guidance about how to grow mushrooms – specifically psilocybe cubensis, which are referred to as stropharia cubensis throughout this book. (The book was published in the 1970’s and the mushroom has since been reclassified.) This species is known to induce hallucinations, euphoria, and altered perception in those who ingest it because of the presence of psilocybin, which – converted to psilocin — interacts with serotonin receptors. Most of the information presented could be applied to cultivation of any mushroom (excepting information about identification in Ch. 1, which applies to that one species, and the information about dosage in Ch. 5 that doesn’t matter for edible mushrooms.) The authors did specifically develop this process, but I think that had more to do with the need for a process in between the vagaries of foraging and the large-scale agricultural approach that couldn’t be exploited for the “hobbyist,” than it had to do with the specific needs of this fungi.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters, which follow the progression of steps required to cultivate mushrooms. The first chapter covers locating and identifying psilocybe cubensis as well as how to collect and germinate the spores. The second chapter is about growing mycelial cultures on sterile agar. One of the major challenges presented in the book is keeping mold and other undesirable species from growing on or amongst one’s mushrooms. In the third chapter one learns how to grow the mycelia on sterilized rye. The penultimate chapter explores covering the mycelia infused rye with soil in a process that commercial fungi agriculture calls “casing,” which ultimately results in the generation of the fruiting bodies that we traditionally think of as mushrooms (though in the wild most of the organism is below ground.) The last chapter is about harvesting the mushrooms, preserving them, and determining dosage.

There is a substantial amount of front and back matter book-ending the aforementioned chapters. The front matter gives the reader some history of psychedelic mushrooms as well some insight into their effects. (The Preface and Forward are explicitly written by Terrence McKenna, but it’s said that the entire book is written by McKenna and his brother, Dennis.) The Forward and Introduction are where the book feels less like an agricultural how-to manual, and more like a guide to psychedelics, but the reader should be aware that this book is – first and foremost – a how-to guide. The back matter includes a range of helpful appended sections including a glossary, a bibliography, a timeline of psilocybin mushroom happenings, and a section to help one make conversions — particularly between volume and weights for various materials that are used in cultivation.

There are many graphics employed throughout the book. Most importantly, there are several series of black-and-white photos that help clarify the process being described textually. There are also some line-drawn artworks that depict psychedelic mushroom in their cultural context – both in the ancient shamanic tradition and the more recent wave of use.

This is a quick read that gets into all the processes needed to cultivate mushrooms. The authors compare it to canning preserves in terms of the degree of complexity. (That rings true as both processes rely heavily on sterilization.) It is a how-to guide, and if one isn’t interested in the process of cultivation, one might find the book a bit dry. I found it interesting to learn about the cultivation process as well as the information from the Forward, Introduction, and Chronology about psychedelics, specifically. If you’re interested in cultivating mushrooms or are very curious about fungi, I’d recommend this book.

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