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The Founding Gardeners and Their Love of Nature

Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison were all obsessively in love with their own gardens, farms, plants and the enthralling natural vistas of the new nation.
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I just finished reading a delightful book about the founding fathers and their love of gardens, agriculture and nature. British garden historian Andrea Wulf's Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation offers surprising evidence that the early presidents we honor each February were some of the seminal thinkers in the environmental movement as well as shapers of the United States.

Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison were all obsessively in love with their own gardens, farms, plants and the enthralling natural vistas of the new nation. In office, they longed to escape the travails of the busy political scene (first in Philadelphia, then in swampy Washington) for their large or small plots of land.

According to Wulf, for each of them...

...ploughing, planting and vegetable gardening were more than profitable and enjoyable occupations: they were political acts, bringing freedom and independence...the new 'food movements' [of our own day] ranging from the promotion of urban agriculture to the preservation of farmland, from the first lady's vegetable garden at the White House to the returning interest of native species in ornamental gardens -- can be placed in the context of the founding fathers' legacy.

One of the great surprises that emerges from Wulf's research is that "the cradle of the environmental movement did not lie in the mid-nineteenth century with men like Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, but could be traced back to the birth of the nation and the founding fathers. The protection of the environment, James Madison had already said in a widely circulated speech in 1818, was essential for the survival of the United States." Madison warned that humanity "could not expect nature to be 'made subservient to the use of man.' Man, he believed, had to find a place within the 'symmetry of nature' without destroying it -- words that remain as important today as they were when he spoke them."

I was also fascinated to learn how passionately each of the founding fathers loved and missed their farms and gardens when they were away. Jefferson spent endless hours drawing and redrawing plans for his vegetable gardens in his solitary room at the still-unfinished White House and like Washington, Adams and Madison, was rejuvenated when he left office and could get back to his beloved soil, plants and nature views. All of them believed they were happiest in old age, enjoying their gardens, sending seeds to their friends and grafting their trees. Jefferson, an inspiration to passionate gardeners of every generation, famously said "Tho' an old man, I am but a young gardener."

Wulf doesn't avoid the unpleasant fact that three of these founding fathers -- Virginians Washington, Jefferson and Madison -- were slave owners whose "property" did most of the heavy gardening and farming. But she gives us a view of Jefferson, for instance, that we seldom find elsewhere. Jefferson's old friend Margaret Bayard Smith reported that when she visited the former president a few months after his retirement in August 1809, "she found him sitting on the back lawn watching the children run along walks that were rimmed with the luscious colors of summer. 'It is only with them that a grave man can play the fool,' he told her, before getting up to join the race among the flowers."

I, like many gardeners old and young, can understand exactly what he meant.

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