WASHINGTON — Andrea Wulf looks right at home in the U.S. Botanic Garden conservatory — fresh from an interview for All Things Considered, the horticultural historian poses for a photographer amid the palms and the orchids and a thousand other tropical flowers.
Wulf's new book, Founding Gardeners, recently reached No. 32 on the New York Times best-seller list. That's an unlikely feat for a gardening history, but Wulf has hit on something: She has taken a quartet of iconic American figures and wrapped them in the zeitgeist of the post-modern victory garden. Her book argues that George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were all dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners whose love of the soil shaped the way they forged a nascent country.
"Adams is building stone walls," she says. "Washington dies a gardener's death."
How does a gardener die? Does he throw himself on the compost pile? No, he goes outside when he is sick, on a foul December day, to mark trees for cutting. He is the one felled.
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"Their passion for planting, gardening and agriculture is deeply woven into the fabric of America and totally aligned with their political thought," she says.
For years now, the stewards of Mount Vernon and Monticello have played up the idea of gardening and agriculture as being central to their heroes' stories. At Mount Vernon, we have the greenhouse and its ornamental garden, the dockside colonial farm and the innovative threshing barn. At Monticello, America's most majestic fruit and vegetable garden has been rebuilt and lovingly cultivated.
Wulf's book validates that take, but she also examines the lesser-known exploits of Adams, who credited gardening at his farm in Quincy, Mass., with giving him the mental strength for politics. As the minister to London, he complained that the social life of a diplomat to be "an insipid round of hairdressing and play." On the fringes of the British capital, he once delighted in finding a compost pile to examine. "Teasing apart the straw and dung," Wulf writes, Adams "clearly didn't mind the muck on his hands." He noted "with glee that it was 'not equal to mine.'"
Madison emerges as the proto-environmentalist, sounding an early clarion against the perils of depleting soil by clearing forests and overfarming. He urged his fellow Virginia farmers to protect the old-growth forests.
For generations, historians have peered into the republic's pantheon through their own prisms. Wulf says that in a more deferential age, it would have been considered disrespectful to regard America's revolutionary heroes as gardeners. To do so now, she says, provides a richer understanding of what drove the nation's architects.
"Not only did they create the United States in a political sense," she writes; "they had also understood the importance of nature for their country."
The White House grounds, she writes, relatively small and enclosed, were the work of Jefferson. As an anti-Federalist, he did all he could to doom earlier plans to build presidential gardens at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who laid out the streets of Washington, D.C., had wanted a 60-acre palace garden, but as president, Jefferson grabbed just five and gave the rest to his fellow citizens.
Reviews of the book have been abundant and mostly positive. In The New York Times, Paula Deitz called it "revisionist in the best sense." But high-profile historian Simon Schama, in a review in the Financial Times, assails the premise of Founding Gardeners. The book, he argues, "could have used more reflection on ways in which horticultural fantasy skewed the American mind towards the entitlement of bounty — usually on the backs of the exploited."
Wulf remains convinced, passionately, that the first presidents "were more than just farmers and gardeners; they were some of the most revolutionary farmers in the country." A reinvented system of agriculture, geared to the needs of a young and abruptly isolated country, "is for them a republican endeavor."
Monticello's Peter Hatch, an expert on Jefferson the gardener who got to know Wulf as a frequent visitor to Monticello during her research, says the book breaks ground, including its accounts of Jefferson and Adams touring gardens in England, and of Jefferson and Madison doing the same in New England.
It was at Monticello — Wulf remembers it vividly — that the idea for the book gelled. Working on a previous book about 18th-century English gardeners and their interest in American plants, The Brother Gardeners, she found herself in Jefferson's vegetable garden one quiet day in October 2006 and was struck by the natural beauty of the mountain in autumn against the rigid geometry of the vegetables. "It clicked," she said. "Oh my God, he's a complete gardener."