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The Founding Gardeners

It’s been quite a week. First, here in Massachusetts, we celebrated Patriot’s Day which commemorates “the shot heard around the world,” the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

On television there was a program about John Muir, born in 1838, naturalist, conservationist, and moving spirit behind declaring Yosemite a national park, and a founder of the Sierra Club.

Yesterday we celebrated the 41st Earth Day on which we could be reminded of any number of ways that we could save energy and protect our fragile environment.

All of these things came together for me as I finished reading “The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation” by Andrea Wulf (Knopf $30). Wulf’s earlier book, “The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession” tells the tale of John Bartram (1669-1777) who has been called the father of American botany in Philadelphia and the way he helped British botanists, gardeners and nobility bring the glory of American trees and plants to the romantic British garden.

She describes the personalities, ideals and farms of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the men who shaped our Constitution and government. Wulf describes the way their philosophical and political views are demonstrated in the way they managed their farms and gardens.

Even during the Revolutionary War Washington kept up a regular correspondence with his estate manager and cousin who ran Mount Vernon during his absence. Over the years the gardens around his Mount Vernon home were transformed from a rigid, geometric design to one that was released from its confining boundaries as he had freed the country from “Britain’s imperial yoke,” Wulf said.

When Jefferson and Adams were in London waiting to negotiate with the British after the Revolutionary War they traveled together visiting some of the great British estates and gardens where they were astounded to see forests of native American trees, a tribute to the work of John Bartram and his British colleagues.

A visit to Bartram’s nursery helped break a deadlock during the Constitutional Congress. And the debate about using native plants was being carried on even in those days.

John Adams, Washington’s vice president, and the second president of our country  lived on a very different scale from the other three. He was the only New Englander, and had comparatively modest means. Though a lawyer, much of his livelihood came from his farm. Like Washington, he took pleasure in working on the land himself. “I had rather build stone Wall upon Penns Hill than be the first Prince in Europe, the first General or First senator in America,” he said.

Though Washington and Jefferson tussled over the design of the new capitol, Washington wanting a city that would proclaim a mighty government with “sweeping avenues that cut like sunrays through the city,” and Jefferson fighting for a small village,

Adams, the first president to live in the White House, was not interested in the design of the city, nor of the house. It was the gardens that he hoped to plant around the White House that engaged him. Still, it was not until the end of Jefferson’s terms that those gardens took shape.

Jefferson’s gardens at Monticello have become famous to us. Jefferson took a scientific approach and his huge vegetable terrace was more used for experimentation than filling the larder. Always he kept meticulous records of successes and failures.

Washington, Jefferson and Madison all had large Virginia plantations and slaves. Wulf does not dodge the issue of slavery. She notes how each of the men struggled with the issue intellectually and practically.

James Madison was serving as Jefferson’s secretary of state when the U.S. made the Louisiana purchase, doubling the size of the country, gaining magnificent and fertile lands.  Sometimes called the “father of our Constitution” for his work at the Constitutional Congress in 1787, as the original confederacy of states was failing, Wulf writes that Madison may also be considered the father of our environmental movement. She says “He wanted to change his fellow American’ perception of nature by putting an end to the destruction of once fertile soil . . . [and understand] its pivotal place within the delicate balance between man and nature.”  That brings us right to Earth Day and our continuing struggle to find and keep that balance.

This is not a political history. Many great events disappear, not even to be mentioned. What Wulf has done is given us insight into these great men in ways that is both personal and ideological. I never would have imagined Washington so filled with excitement about a shipment of trees that he (and his slaves) went out to plant them in spite of frozen ground and heavy rain. Needless to say, that planting did not thrive.

One friend winced when she saw me reading this book. She admitted the cover was beautiful, but she said it was so Big.  However, while the book is scholarly in content it is engaging and inspiring in presentation. It contains helpful drawings as well as beautiful color plates.  Wulf achieves her purpose of providing us a new lens for viewing and understanding four of the men who put our government in motion. Slightly more than a third of the book is endnotes of references and a helpful index, which my friend need never read.

I certainly recommend “The Founding Gardeners” to anyone who loves plants – or history.

Between the Rows   April 23, 2011

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