Friday, September 2, 2011

"Tho' an old man…”

“ …I am but a young gardener."  – Thomas Jefferson

If you've read much about the founding fathers you hear a lot of little 'mentions' about their gardens. George Washington took time even while fighting the British to send instructions to his plantation manager regarding Mount Vernon. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson spent weeks touring gardens while in England, and Jefferson and James Madison later did the same in America. And the gardens at Jefferson's Monticello and Madison's Montpelier are still famous and visited by many today. But all you get in most histories are the little 'mentions,' and it's always left the subject tantalizingly vague for me.

Washington was perhaps the most efficient gardener or farmer, abandoning tobacco early in favor of crops that weren't so destructive to the soil. He also experimented extensively with manures in an effort to replenish the soil. Adams returned home after the presidency and was happiest working on his humble Massachusetts farm. Jefferson was always on the lookout for seeds and plants that might be beneficial in America and traded continually with a large network of friends (as did Benjamin Franklin). Jefferson was especially interested in the new species brought back by Lewis & Clark when they explored the Louisiana Territory and spent much of his time experimenting and trying to grow new and better plants.

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American NationAndrea Wulf explores this aspect of the founders that we seldom see except in glimpses in her new book Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. All were extremely interested in the land almost to the point of obsession, and saw nature as a symbol of America's strength and potential. Wulf is clear from the beginning that she makes no distinction between "gardening" and "agriculture," and this occasionally makes it sound like she's forcing connections in presenting her thesis. But 200 years ago there wasn't as much of a difference between the two as in our day when we are much more divorced from the soil. She also acknowledges the large role slave labor played in the extravagant gardens built by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison (although Washington wasn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty), and looks at their different attitudes towards slavery. But overall, this is a fascinating look at their thoughts toward gardening and farming, and shows very convincingly just how fascinated they were in working with the soil. And it gives an interesting and more full perspective on who they were as people – beyond all their other accomplishments.

No comments:

Post a Comment