“Founding Gardeners” author to speak at Polly Hill on Saturday

“Founding Gardeners” author to speak at Polly Hill on Saturday

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“Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation” by Andrea Wulf. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011. 349 pp. $30.

Andrea Wulf found a timely topic, has done excellent research, and has written a wonderful book to demonstrate the thesis. Today’s United States is awash in patriotic rhetoric referencing the Founding Fathers at every rally: but what did they themselves have in mind?

Brother Gardeners,” Ms. Wulf’s previous book, was such fascinating reading that I slowed down as I anticipated its ending. In “Founding Gardeners,” she neatly continues the historical thread of the previous work: its blend of history and gardening is as interestingly written as before.

Mining previously ignored terrain, “Founding Gardeners” follows the public and gardening lives of four iconic Americans — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison — with cameos of many of their contemporaries. Ms. Wulf demonstrates, through their correspondence and diaries, the importance these figures placed on aspects of American life and politics that have renewed relevance today.

Ms. Wulf details the Founding Fathers concern with the question of how to grow the nation, as it might be put in today’s jargon. What kind of country should it be? Which public and private virtues does a republic require? How to maintain the civic conditions necessary for a republic? How should the citizenry view agriculture, personal independence, and the role of business?

The first five chapters cover the period in which the discussions would grow to become the great debate between the Federalists and Republican interests that backed Jefferson and Madison. These struggles proved to be personally bruising for all protagonists. Soil and commerce, mercantile and agrarian interests, are the political poles that twist throughout the early era’s great debates.

It is no secret, from the sources cited, that the four Founding Fathers scorned commerce. Throughout, their pithy comments are forceful. “Madison was appalled by the ‘eternal buzz [of] the gamblers’ and Alexander Hamilton’s ‘Bank-Jobbers’ — men who made their money by shifting paper rather than soil,” Ms. Wulf writes. “Banks, Jefferson warned, would sweep away the fortunes and morals of the people.”

Further, she writes, “As long as a man had a piece of land of his own that was sufficient to support his family, Benjamin Franklin had said, he was independent…A man who cultivated his own soil was immune to moral corruption, Jefferson said, unlike the deplorable merchants who ‘have no country’ and therefore no real attachment to their nation…. Adams equally disliked merchants because they were ‘living in Such Pomp and Such Expence [sic] upon Property of others, giving Charities, making feasts, Signing Subscriptions, blaring away with Furniture, Equipage &c.'”

“Founding Gardeners” convincingly shows us how Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, throughout the course of service to their country, devoutly wished for nothing more than to be home farming and gardening. The lure of their home places and agricultural and botanical interests was balm, and they viewed these connections as sources of strength and consolation.

John Adams’s quotations are animated, many of them having been drawn from the prolific correspondence between him and his wife, Abigail. “Oh my farm when shall I see thee, there will be no end of my tragic Oh’s and tragic Ah’s.” Not born a wealthy landowner like the Virginians, Adams added acreage to his farm whenever he had money.

James Madison has been short-changed in the hagiography of American independence. Although fully involved in the nation’s founding, as fourth president his terms are slightly removed from the stardust of the first years. In “Founding Gardeners” he appears throughout its historical record but comes into the spotlight as a model farmer, gardener, conservationist, and early ecological thinker after leaving office.

When Madison’s turn as president arrived, the wonders and potential of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase were beginning to make a dent in the American consciousness. Possibilities seemed endless and more and more settlers chased west after them, leaving behind a trail of farmed-out land.

Virginia was no exception. By the end of his two terms in office, Madison realized that the depleted soil would soon rob Virginia of its independent yeomen — the foot soldiers of his and Jefferson’s republic — as well.

Despite the preoccupation of the Founding Fathers themselves with manure, soil fertility, and model farming techniques, the plantation system, in particular tobacco farming, had robbed Virginia of its deep, fertile soil in less than two centuries.

“In May 1817, a group of progressive Virginia farmers met and established the [Agricultural Society of Albemarle] in order to improve agricultural practices and the Virginia soil…it was as much a political act as an agricultural one because the goal was to stop Virginia’s economic downfall,” Ms. Wulf writes.

Shortly after leaving the White House, Madison was elected as the society’s first president. Later, in an address to the society based on his wide expertise, he presented an agricultural philosophy that was a program for ecological renewal, one stressing the balance of nature. He “did not see nature through a romantic lens… but as a fragile ecological system that could be easily destroyed by mankind,” according to Ms. Wulf.

“‘Overcrowding of one species always resulted in its eventual reduction through epidemics and the demise of its food supply and habitat..,'” Madison said. Printed in pamphlet form, his address was widely disseminated throughout the United States and abroad.

“Today, Madison’s thoughts on nature’s balance and ecology are all but forgotten, but at the time his approach was radically new,” Ms. Wulf writes in a summary passage of her extraordinary book.

Author’s Talk with Andrea Wulf, 4 pm, Saturday, May 28, Polly Hill Arboretum, West Tisbury. $10. 508-693-9426; Karin@pollyhillarboretum.org.

Abigail Higgins is the Garden Notes columnist for The Times.