The Founding GardenersBy D. W. Sabin for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
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.