No, not the Christmas season. Campaign season! And with all of the, er, dissatisfaction being expressed these days about the current lineup of politicians vying for office, I thought it would be fun to blog about the forefathers and their campaigns - for nature.
I’m reading a fascinating book entitled Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf (New York: Knopf, 2011). It turns out that, while George Washington was fighting the revolution, he was dreaming about getting home to his garden, making notes about what he would plant, consulting gardening books and catalogs from the continent. Once home at Mt. Vernon in Virginia, he set about designing grounds that reflected the wild natural beauty of the United States rather than the more manicured beauty of the trendy English garden.
Many of the forefathers (including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson) were fascinated by plants in terms of their cultivation value and felt the future prosperity of the new country lay in the hands of farmers, a place where, as Washington put it, “our Swords and Spears have given place to the plough share and pruning hook” (16). But Washington found an aesthetic value in plants and trees as well, and he wanted his grounds to express the beauty of American nature. Beginning in 1784, he ordered the following trees from friends around the country: balsam trees and white pines from the Northeast, hemlocks from the East, and live oaks and magnolias from the South (21-22).
He was also interested in native local species, plants that the fashionable set considered weeds: ash trees, pines, cockspur hawthorns, sassafras, crab apples, and flowering dogwoods. Washington liked plants that provided berries during the winter and fragrant blossoms come spring. He experimented with planting times, relying on slaves to dig into the frozen ground in winter and work in the hot sun in spring. But Washington was known to strip off his coat and labor “like a common man” as well, much to the surprise of visitors (27).
Then he turned his attention to his fields, experimenting with organic pesticides such as seaweed and fertilizer in the form of manure and gypsum. Today, I can imagine Washington as that retired guy who moves out to the country to take up farming in his later years, hawking his produce at the local farmers’ market. “Oh, look, General Washington has such nice arugula today!” I can imagine myself saying.
It's clear that Washington wanted to make a political statement with his planting. This new country didn’t need English gardens or English anything else; it needed to turn inward and explore and appreciate its own natural heritage. A general and future president who envisioned his nation’s greatness through trees and flowers - imagine how different our presidential debates would be today if that kind of vision were on the table.