I get in the mood for gardening and gardening books about this time every year. The book also suits the mood for early Americana. And reading it I was reminded how integral the land and nature were to the human psyche back then. If nothing else there was so much more of it to contend with, and fewer mitigating distractions.
Wulf’s account explores founding concerns about good stewardship of natural resources, gardening being a means. She focuses on Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. Agriculture was of far greater concern to them than religion; it was the one thing about which they became evangelical. Individual perspectives and approaches varied and make for an interesting examination of personalities and politics.
“The founding fathers have often been cast as the haloed demigods of the American Revolution – some cerebral and literary, others brave and heroic – but what has long been missing from this picture is their lives as farmers and gardeners, which both reflected and influenced their political thinking and patriotism. Consequently their farms, fields, and gardens can be read like their diaries and letters.” p. 103
The book considers the dynamics of land ownership, particularly as a source of personal power, and follows the trail of America’s “founding gardener” John Bartram, who became a world-famous farmer, naturalist, and plant collector. The world got to know America through the plants that Bartram collected and shared.
“John Bartram’s American seed boxes had provided the English gardener with a new palette of hues and shapes that brought variety and color even to the winter garden. The flowering shrubs, trees and evergreens had completely transformed the English garden and by now, Jefferson and Adams saw, the British were obsessed with American species . . . the English garden was in fact American.” p. 55
“As [George Washington] spread manure on his fields or planted a tree that he had found in his forest, he gave physical embodiment to his belief that the future of America lay in the fields and forests. The recent experiments in the utilitarian parts of the estate were aimed at improving agriculture, while the plantations of ornamental native species in front of the house carried a symbolic message . . . Mount Vernon was his private statement of independence and republican simplicity, wrought from the soil and trees of his country.” P. 33
"[Horticulture reflected] the dichotomy of Thomas Jefferson’s own character: his lifelong quest for moneymaking crops and useful vegetables versus his delight in ornamental plants; the contrast between the farmer and the connoisseur; and the tension between his attempts to run a profitable plantation and his insatiable love for beautiful things, just as he idealized a simple agrarian society while indulging in prodigal shopping trips in London and Paris.” P. 40
I liked some founding approaches more than others, but the point seems to be that we (Americans) haven’t followed through on the founders’ commitments. Conflicts over land management were and are inevitable, but we’ve failed to maintain a comparable common concern about stewardship. Early on, private interests and convenience began trumping notions about the general welfare.
“Many American farmers found their (the founders') ideas controversial. Manuring (for example) was labor-intensive because the dung had to be collected, stored, mixed and then carted to and spread across the fields. Their fellow farmers needed to be convinced that it was worth all the effort. One of the problems, the revolutionaries (founders) felt, was that there was no American equivalent to bodies such as the newly established British Board of Agriculture, which encouraged (through medals and awards) and disseminated (through publications) innovative methods and advantages . . .Washington wanted to recommend an agricultural establishment that would serve the national interest . . . He told Congress that it “will not be doubted that with reference either to individuals, or National Welfare, agriculture is of primary importance. It was to no avail.” p. 120
"In no other country, one magazine reported in 1819, would heads of state return to their private lives to promote agriculture, botany and other useful sciences that add 'to the welfare of their country and of mankind in general.' Only in America 'we have witnessed, and still witness, such examples in the retired lives of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison.' " p. 111