- - Tuesday, August 30, 2011


By Andrea Wulf
Knopf, $30, 352 pages

Andrea Wulf, a British horticultural historian, is one of those rare and talented writers with a distinctive narrative voice. Just as in “The Brother Gardeners” (2009), she infuses her text with such liveliness, grace and original scholarship that the reader happily follows the author at a brisk trot wherever she may lead. And what a journey. For the first time, we are vividly shown how the Founding Fathers reinvented a system of agriculture geared to the needs of the young country.

We see them eagerly collecting and exchanging seeds, studying soils and compost, searching for the best varieties of plants for American farms. Fully aware that the growing nation lacked the riches and palaces of Europe, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison knew that this landscape, with its stately forests, was our national treasure. Like another British biographer, Richard Holmes, Ms. Wulf follows the footsteps of her subjects. She practically lived at the homes of the founders, fingering handfuls of soil, imbedding herself in a wealth of primary sources.

We witness how, even as British ships gathered off Staten Island, George Washington wrote his estate manager about his garden at Mount Vernon; how gardens had a therapeutic effect on the short-tempered Adams; how Jefferson’s love for family and his garden manifested itself in playful letters with his granddaughters; and how Madison approached agriculture with the same level of detail as legal and political issues. Madison urged Virginians to protect old-growth forests and warned against depleting the soil. All four owned plantations and farms.

As a young nation, its capital was not yet formed. Many Americans, including Adams and Jefferson, worried that it had been conceived “upon a plan much too magnificent.” By the time Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801, the city of Washington was still a plan on paper. Travelers, asking where the capital was, were amazed to learn that they stood at its center. Few houses had been built. The Capitol was half-finished. The White House was damp and drafty, surrounded by a wooden fence where washerwomen hung out Jefferson’s laundry to dry.

Today’s Mall was a wetland. Snipe were thick and the perch were plentiful. In order to fish, people aimlessly shot into the Potomac to “get a good dish full.” Rocks obstructed the few roads. Ornate carriages belonging to foreign ambassadors came to a standstill, mud sticking to their axles “like glue.” One evening, a group of congressmen got lost and spent hours zigzagging through thorny briars, searching for Capitol Hill. Many complained. Not so Jefferson, who said that Washington lacked the heat, stench and bustle of a closely built town.

As Ms. Wulf notes, Jefferson used the White House as a gentleman farmer would a country retreat. Daily he went on solitary rides, exploring the thickly forested banks of the Potomac and hills above the city, returning cheerfully with specimens he collected. It was Jefferson, the anti-Federalist, who steered Washington’s intentions for the capital toward a simpler design, who reduced the White House grounds from a palatial 60 acres to a mere 5.

Alarmed at the felling of “noble, beautiful trees,” Jefferson insisted that all major avenues be lined with them. All four Founding Fathers tried and failed to establish a national botanic garden in Washington. After Madison retired, a 5-acre garden was established at the foot of Capitol Hill. I often wonder what they would have said of the 852 trees (mostly tulip poplars) felled to make way for the Capitol Visitor Center.

For George Washington, trees were glorious expressions of America’s beauty and liberty. Jefferson declared the cutting of any tree “a crime little short of murder.” Adams’ old revolutionary friend, Benjamin Rush, traced the increasing number of sick people in Philadelphia to “the cutting down of wood.” He advised more trees should be planted so they could “absorb the unhealthy air and discharge a highly purified air.” All four Founding Fathers became so worried about the destruction of native flora that they felt the need to protect them.

In Georgetown, a 200-year-old tulip poplar planted by the descendants of Martha Custis Washington still stands at Tudor Place, where it is carefully nurtured. But I mourn the loss of other healthy “witness trees,” those living links to America’s past that also form the architecture of this historic federal neighborhood. Two years ago, a neighbor’s mansion was graced with an ancient mulberry (one of Jefferson’s favorites), branches intertwined with antioxidant-rich edible berries, a favorite feast of box turtles and migrating birds alike. But alas, in the District of Columbia (though not elsewhere), the mulberry is considered a weed, so it became fair game for the chopping block.

A magnolia tripetala (a specimen admired by the Founding Fathers for its enormous leaves and flowers), this one planted long before the Civil War, also was eliminated - the homeowner did not like sweeping its leaves.

If you are interested in reading lively historical narrative, infused with humor, giving an intimate glimpse into our nation’s past, “Founding Gardeners” is your book. Handsomely produced, with 16 pages of glossy color plates and a profusion of well-placed black-and-white illustrations, it powerfully reminds us of the wisdom and vision of the men who once led and shaped this nation, before its citizens lost their appreciation for beauty and much of their common sense.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press).

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