The Michael Pollan book I’m reading reminds me of another favorite author of mine – Witold Rybczynski. Both writers devote themselves to what could easily become unwieldy topics (gardening & cities in these examples), yet they succeed in keeping the information manageable by dividing it into short, entertaining and self-contained essays. I found their writing style to be similar, though Pollan is easily the more poetic of the two. More importantly, both Rybczynski & Pollan display the desire to actively engage the reader’s interest in the topics they, themselves, find so fascinating.
Over a dozen years ago Rybczynski’s book City Life made me care about urban planning. He introduced me to the concept that cities, like living things, evolve. American cities are the way they are for a reason; we adapt where we live to how we live. And because we live differently from Europeans, Africans and Asians – our cities are different from theirs.
Just like there are layers of complexity to the natural world , the same is true of the man- made.
Rybczynski describes the American city in its many incarnations – New York, Chicago, D.C., Boston, etc. He discusses how parks, public transportation and civic art came into being. How the events of history shaped our landscape. He makes connections that aren’t as obvious to the rest of us. For example, Rybczynski discusses the famous visit of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1831 and how the Frenchman did not find the America he had expected.
He had read James Fenimore Cooper’s novels set in the wilderness, and he anticipated that a nation that included pioneering settlers as well as urban patricians would display cultural extremes even more striking than those between the rustic French provinces and the sophisticated capitale. A travel essay he published describes how a visit to the frontier (present day Michigan) confounded his expectations. “When you leave the main roads your force your way down barely trodden paths. Finally, you see a field cleared, a cabin made from half-shaped tree trunks admitting light though only one narrow window only. You think that you have at last reached the home of the American peasant. Mistake. You make your way into this cabin that seems the asylum of all wretchedness but the owner of the place is dressed in the same clothes as yours and he speaks the language of towns. On his rough table are books and newspapers; he himself is anxious to know what is happening in Europe and asks you to tell him w hat has most struck you in his country.” Toqueville continued: “One might think one was meeting a rich landowner who had come to spend just a few nights in a hunting lodge.”
This uniform national “urbanity”, Rybczynski points out, was due largely to the fact that the majority of early Americans dispersed into the wilderness (later into the suburbs) from cities/urban centers. The reverse was true in Europe – the more established peasant class often making their way into the big cities from the countryside. So, a defining aspect of the American character and culture is directly linked to how the country was geographically settled.
Pollan & Rybczynski look at social norms which, for most of us, seem too mundane to question… tending a garden, mowing a lawn, moving to the suburbs, visiting the park. In doing so, they cause us to see and understand our lives in new ways. They lead us to ask questions: Pollan about how we live with nature and Rybczynski about the way we live among our fellow men.