I’ve just finished Andrea Wulf’s beguiling book entitled “ Founding Gardeners, The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation”. Published this year by Knopf, it delves into already well-known territory but does so in a manner highly enjoyable, while delivering some less widely understood news about Madison’s environmental prescience.

The book follows the garden-centered lives of primarily Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison but also touches upon such early American scientific innovators as the Plantsman family Bartram from outside Philadelphia along with that other classic polymath, Benjamin Franklin. We see the different personalities of the Framers–an august Washington, the diffident and cantankerous Adams, an omnivorous yet evasive Jefferson and the retiring Madison yet they all converge simpatico while standing in the rich earth of their gardens and farms. All of their correspondence was liberally filled with shared agricultural insight, requests for new seeds and the arts of manure management. Would that our current leaders might manage their manure.

The America of the Framers was an America firmly grounded within both the productivity and the beauty of our natural world. A couple of tidbits of note from the book are the facts that Washington, in the depths of the war, sent extensive directions by dispatch to his farm manager every Sunday and that one of the more important compromises of the early government came about principally as a result of a visit to Bartram’s nursery when the Philadelphia Convention was deadlocked. Seeing the grandeur of the plants from across the colonies, side by side was an effective reminder to the early legislators that we have more in common than we might like to think and that our differences, when composed harmoniously create a remarkable tableau of formidable distinction.

The most important produce for me however, was the news that Madison was our first Conservationist. Fifty years before the acclaim of Thoreau or Emerson, James Madison delivered one of the most groundbreaking speeches in American farming and conservation history. In May of 1818, engaged in farming pursuits like the rest of his Cincinnatus former Presidents, Madison delivered an address to the Agricultural society of Albemarle. In it, Madison covered here-to-for generally unknown notions of ecology, plant physiology, nutrient recycling, soil erosion control, soil chemistry and in a word, Conservation. The speech was enthusiastically received at the time and pamphlets detailing it were published both here and in Britain as well as France. This co-author of the Federalist Papers knew that American Liberty was deeply indebted to the long-term health of the land we live upon.

Though it seems fatuous to attempt a comparison between these early American leaders and our current crop of urbanized technocrats, the comparison does bear fruit when one understands that so many of our ersatz leaders now, though they may talk an environmental line for a certain constituency, they are, in a word, illiterate in the ways of nature and husbandry. The modern world sees nature as something to be exploited at best, vanquished at worst. Nature is something to be overcome or sentimentalized and subject to our distracted pleasures. Population growth, though perhaps not Malthusian in its direness will soon make any sentimental approach to our environment entirely insufficient.

Professor Deneen’s recent post on an essay published in the New Atlantis raises the interesting question of virtue and its relationship with the so-called “Tran humanists.” There are those among us who see technology and a permanent arc of technological progress and indeed, a human convergence with the machine as some kind of utopia worthy of our best efforts. A global technological immortal nirvana is enthusiastically embraced. It sounds more like unbridled tobacco farming to me. Impoverishment will no doubt present a few obstacles.

Surely, to cure a disease, decrease hunger, provide for human comfort, increase knowledge and discover means to stretch resources are worthy goals. But I do wonder, without a firm foothold in the musty smell of the fecund earth if we do not assign a more fertile harvest for relentless technological advance than it demonstrably deserves.

Evicted from Eden, we seek now to madly re-create a version of it in our own impatient image. Meanwhile, we forget why we were evicted in the first place. Our ceaseless want and the seduction of our impatient mind by the lures of a voracious fundamental yearning were with us in the garden and they quicken in this new age of mechanized and urbanized earth. Always restless, we often fail to appreciate the immediate riches held by our dirty hands and knees.

While we cast about for leaders, we would do well to look for a few gardeners and farmers, men and woman who understand that a harvest is not something easily achieved, it takes a prodigious amount of humility, back-breaking work and technical prowess to produce the American Banquet. Converging with one’s laptop aint going to do it. Money is green but it aint much good as manure, despite the compost emitting from the mouths of those who traffic in it within this brave new world of Fiat Everything. I’ll take tangible. Virtual tangible appears to me to be a tad chlorotic.

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you. I had encountered a lot of Washington’s farmer talk and some of Jefferson’s before, but had never made all those connections.

    But I think you’re a little bit out of touch with the 20th and 21st centuries when you say things like this: “The modern world sees nature as something to be exploited at best, vanquished at worst.” That was view commonly held a few centuries ago, and some people still think that way, but that kind of viewpoint is not nearly so common anymore. We now have a lot of people who want us to think twice before drilling in the ANR or fracking. That’s a change from the past.

    I still like the idea of our statesmen learning to commune with manure. I like the idea that when Abraham Lincoln was an up-and-coming railroad lawyer with political ambitions, that he still milked his own cow.

    In fact, I like the idea of taking all people who now belong to public employee unions, plus those of the financial class that socialize with Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke (i.e. the socio-economic elites who really run the government) and sending them out to work in the agricultural fields like was done in China during the days of the Cultural Revolution. Re-education, I think they called it.

  2. Gorentz, I would like to think that the various Swells of the current era actually give a damn but you should understand that the current environmental agenda as espoused by the popular culture is one tied directly to a consumptive paradigm and so ill-eequppied to recognize the limitations…but more importantly, the opportunities of the new reality.

    The Framers, by accident or purpose were men who tackled the problems of humanity and this fifty year span of ease now embroiled in economic duress dulled our senses. a real understanding of the American Continent might revive them.

    The real and enduring beauty of the Founders is that they can continue to surprise us, over 200 years hence. It is, in short, an enduring benediction.

  3. D.W. Sabin, I have lots of my own problems with the usual crop of environmentalists and suspect you may be on to something. But don’t you think that’s painting with an overly broad brush? There is a trend in certain circles to associate environmentalism with buying green bling. Is that what you’re talking about? But I work with professional ecologists, most of whom should be considered environmentalists, too, and that’s not a problem I’ve seen among them.

    My problem with too many internet environmentalists is that they are not really environmentalists. They are leftwing fascists who will throw the environment overboard if it gets in the way of their political/cultural agenda. I suppose now I’m painting with an overly broad brush, too.

    I agree with you about continuing to enjoy the founders, and will probably read the book you referred to. It’s hard for me to pass up anything new to learn about them. But one of the great things about the founders is that they saw all too clearly the flaws and dangers of their fellow founders. All those nasty things that Jefferson and Hamilton and their partisans said about each other? Both sides were right when they were at their most vituperative, in substance if not in detail. I’m glad neither of them won out, and hope they never do. For example, I call Hamilton one of our Founding Fascists, but I wouldn’t have wanted Jefferson to have his way. The good thing is that the the warring factions kept each other in check. They gave us a tragically flawed system of government that is the best anyone has come up with, and better than anything anyone has dreamt up.

  4. “Flawed” may be a misnomer. It is cumbersome and at times quixotic but designed as such and if designed as such, it cannot be rightly assumed to have been “flawed”. the real problem lies in finding people free of their own aggrandizement who can operate nimbly within the perceived “flaws”….for the benefit of the Republic. Right now we possess a “professional” political class, an anathema to the Framers who saw the sycophant succubus of both English Constitutional and French Outright Monarchy.

    I suppose the question is raised: are we actually capable of egalitarian action. I tend to doubt it and so should be a Monarchist but this rubs me the wrong way.

    There is a lot of fadism in the environmental movement and subsequent co-option by people who would not know an algae from an Elm or a Woodbridge soil from a Charlton. This should be un-surprising in this digital age when “virtual” seems to be rabidly becoming “actual”. Ho ho ho, the planet trumps and her lungs and solar light all . I will work on my end in the actual because I damned well like the smell of dirt. Being dirty, i actually enjoy the scent of the passing manure wagon.

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