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Earth Day Reading Project: A New Look at American Environmental History

April 23, 2012

Sunday was Earth Day, and once again Michelle at The Sage Butterfly has been sponsoring the Earth Day Reading Project that was such a big success last year.

Cover image- Founding Gardeners By the time I had finished reading the first chapter of Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), I knew that this book would be the focus of my Earth Day post. Wulf uses the horticultural interests of the first four presidents of the United States (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) as a window on American history and American culture.

Since I loved Wulf’s earlier book, The Brother Gardeners (Favorite Garden Books: The Brother Gardeners), I was afraid that this one wouldn’t live up to my very high expectations; but I needn’t have worried. Wulf brings the same novelist’s sensibility to this book as she did to the earlier one. She opens the first chapter with a scene of Manhattan in the summer of 1776, filled with wooden barracks and drilling soldiers and with the civilian population fleeing before the coming battle. Then, she tells us,

…as the British troops were preparing their ferocious onslaught, Washington brushed aside his generals and his military maps, sat in the flicker of candlelight with his quill and wrote a long letter to his estate manager and cousin Lund Washington at Mount Vernon, his plantation in Virginia. As the city braced itself, Washington pondered the voluptuous blossom of rhododendron, the sculptural flowers of mountain laurel and the perfect pink of crab apple. These ‘clever kind[s] of Trees (especially flowering ones),’ he instructed, should be planted in two groves by either side of his house. (p. 14)

This was a more intimate, accessible and sympathetic Washington than the one I had learned about in school. And Wulf provides us with similarly compelling portraits of the other “founding gardeners.” I was enchanted by the image of Adams stopping while on a walk to investigate a manure heap on the outskirts of London (p. 119) and by the account of the oddly matched couple of Jefferson and Adams (described by one contemporary as “a candlestick and a bowling ball”) touring English gardens together. Wulf’s account of how these old friends (later political enemies) rekindled their friendship in old age by exchanging letters about their gardens brought tears to my eyes.

But Wulf’s book is much more than a charming account of the gardening interests of four famous gardeners. She is making a powerful argument about the place of horticulture in the founding of the nation. For the founding gardeners, Wulf tells us, plants and gardens were symbols of the nation. When George Washington changed the orientation his house at Mount Vernon to face west, toward the Appalachian mountains and the frontier rather than east, toward the Atlantic Ocean and Britain and when he chose American native plants for his garden, he was making a statement about where the future lay. When the first four presidents debated and disagreed about the appropriate garden design for the new White House, they were reflecting their debates and disagreements about the best ways to govern the new nation. In addition to their symbolic value, however, gardens and plants had tremendous practical value for these early presidents. All four were experimental horticulturalists who traded seeds, looked for “economically useful” plants,  and tested out newly discovered species for both their ornamental and their practical value.

The part of Wulf’s argument that I found most compelling – and the reason I chose this book for Earth Day – is her new angle of vision on the history of the environmental movement in the United States. Environmentalism in the United States is usually traced back to the Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century, a history that emphasizes a romantic and spiritual view of nature and the need to live in harmony with nature. But much earlier, the founding gardeners had emphasized the importance of husbanding natural resources and of developing sustainable practices for horticulture and agriculture. Wulf gives particular attention to a speech that James Madison delivered to the newly formed Agricultural Society of Albemarle in Charlottesville Virginia in 1818:

Decades before Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau called for the protection of America’s nature, Madison warned about man’s destructive force. The preservation of the environment was essential for the survival of mankind, Madison believed, not so much to live in romantic harmony with nature but to live off it without destroying it. The reasons were economic rather than idealistic, but the goal was the same. (p. 207)

I have long been puzzled by the tendency in American politics to view the environment and the economy as competing interests; after all, the health of an economy depends on the health of its material base (as the economic consequences of the 2011 Japanese tsunami made clear). Wulf provides us with a new angle of vision on environmentalism that can appeal to the strain in American culture that emphasizes realistic practicality. Her view might be used to make the urgency of environmental protection convincing to a segment of the population that has previously been resistant.  Perhaps, like Adams and Jefferson who were particularly interested in English “ornamental farms” that combined practical farming with ornamental beauty, we can develop public policy that sees environmental preservation and economic health as inextricably intertwined.

For more entries in the Earth Day Reading Project, visit The Sage Butterfly.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. sequoiagardens permalink
    April 24, 2012 6:21 am

    A really interesting read… you might enjoy Adam Nicholson’s ‘Sissinghurst – an unfinished history’ which I am currently reading, especially if you are familiar with the history of Sissinghurst and the writings of his grandparents and father. Much of the theme is regaining the interconnectedness of land, people and beauty which was lost in the mic-century developments in agriculture. Jack

    • May 1, 2012 4:22 pm

      Jack, I have read Adam Nicolson’s book (I think I even reviewed it here somewhere), and I did very much enjoy it. I confess that I hadn’t thought about the similarity in theme between these two books; thanks for pointing it out to me.

  2. April 24, 2012 9:10 am

    This is an excellent book that shares so much about these famous people in our history and teaches us how to honor the land. I cannot imagine many of our leaders today stopping to investigate a manure heap. These were very special people, indeed, and they were very connected to the land, to the earth. I have often been perplexed by the political to and fro of environmental issues as well. It seems to me to be in the same category as caring for your home. I hope one day the simplicity of caring for the earth will be more easily comprehended by our leaders and our politicians. Thank you for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project!

    • May 1, 2012 4:23 pm

      Michelle, Thanks again to you for hosting this event. As soon as I turn in my final grades, I’m going to make time to look at all the recommendations and start planning my summer reading 🙂

  3. April 24, 2012 12:59 pm

    Jean I am looking forward to reading this book and more so now that I have read your review…too bad our current leaders do not see the their role in caring for the earth.

    • May 1, 2012 4:28 pm

      Donna, I had such great hopes for the current administration. I think this is not just about individual leaders’ visions, but also about the political structures and climate that make it difficult for them to enact those visions. I’m not sure how we can change our political climate to make it easier for our political leaders to care for the earth’s climate.

  4. Elephant's Eye permalink
    April 24, 2012 4:38 pm

    I read of one political lady who condemned Earth Day as pagan. Would like to point her at George Washington!

    • May 1, 2012 4:30 pm

      Diana, Hmm. I wonder who that could have been. Personally, I have no trouble with pagan, but the lady in question might find Washington more sympatico.

      • Elephant's Eye permalink
        May 2, 2012 3:21 pm

        Substantial chunk of pagan in me ;~) (she was one of the Christian fundamentalists, I could look if you really want to know. Came up on G+ amongst my greenies)

  5. April 24, 2012 4:59 pm

    Jean, one of my favorite things about Vermont was how aware people were of the environment as an economic asset. (Much like Maine, I’d imagine?) Between tourism, hunting, outdoor sports, maple syrup, and small agriculture, there weren’t too many parts of the state’s economy that didn’t depend on keeping the environment pristine. It was eye-opening to see the Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club coming together on environmental issues! Thanks for the review–another book on my growing reading list.

    • May 1, 2012 4:33 pm

      Stacy, Yes, I think Maine is very similar to Vermont in this way — although Maine has more of an industrial past that provides a counter point of view. Now there are also tensions between environmental preservation, especially of the great north woods, and attracting tourists through resort development complete with timeshares and resource-greedy golf courses.

  6. April 24, 2012 6:08 pm

    Great review Jean. It amazes me how important gardening was at one time in our history to such important people. It’s a shame it doesn’t still hold that same honour among folks.

    • May 1, 2012 4:35 pm

      Marguerite, I hope it’s not just selective perception on my part, but I do think small-scale agriculture and horticulture is making a comeback. (In Maine, the number of family farms has actually been increasing, even as the average size of each farm decreases.)

  7. May 1, 2012 6:35 pm

    An excellent choice for a book. After I read it, I thought what a fine way to teach our history to students — and not just the horticultural ones. Well done.

  8. May 3, 2012 5:19 am

    Bit late with this, but I’m certainly going to read this book now. I find American history a bit of a struggle but this sounds the perfect way in.

    As for the economy/environment nexus – I was thrown into despair recently by the hand-wringing of politicians and economists about poor growth figures – it seems that high oil consumption figures automatically boost growth figures – for whatever reason the oil is used. That is madness, it’s using an indicator, that works in some cases, as a driver. When the driver is destruction itself. We are in such a muddle! I feel like a three year old sometimes, just not getting how the world adds up.

    Perhaps we have to start with the notion of growth, re defining it. Back to Voltaire, I know nowhere else to go sometimes.

    Thanks Jean, marvellous post

  9. May 3, 2012 10:58 am

    Another friend just recommended this book to me. We’re working in a historic colonial project in Virginia and Maryland, so I’m doubly interested now. Thanks for the great review.

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  1. About Gardening » Blog Archive » All the Books from The Earth Day Reading Project 2012

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