Friday, July 1, I was listening to Science Friday on NPR. The featured story was about Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers and their gardens/farms. The interview was titled Growing A Revolution: America’s Founding Fathers. “Monticello garden director Peter Hatch and historian Andrea Wulf discuss how Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison helped create the uniquely American garden”. Peter Hatch notes that Jefferson believed that the United States would be an agrarian republic. I wonder what Jefferson and the Founding Fathers would think if they knew that the US Census no longer lists farming as an occupation? Instead, farmers are included in the catch all “other” category. Last week I watched the documentary Ingredients. In the film it was stated that less than 1% of Americans now farm. I think Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers would turn over in their graves if they knew how far Americans have moved from tending the soil. Simply put by M. Gandhi, “To forget how to dig the Earth and to tend the Soil is to forget ourselves.”
NPR host Ira Flatow asks the question “Where do you see the Founding Fathers – in battle, around a table signing the Declaration of Independence, or sowing seeds?” I suppose many of us think more about Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison involved in politics and government than we think of them as intimately involved in nature and gardening. I know I never really thought much about them as gardeners or how nature affected their attitudes. At the time America declared independence, these leaders recognized the importance of agriculture to a successful economy and to the young nation’s identity.
Hatch, Garden Director of Monticello points out that Jefferson maintained a journal of his garden plantings, called The Garden Book. The word “failed” appears frequently in his writings; he was an experimenter – he documented the planting of some 89 different species, 330 varieties of vegetables, ranging from sesame to okra. He also grew 170 varieties of fruit. Jefferson wrote: ” In gardening the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.” Hatch says “If Jefferson could successfully grow a new crop, one time out of 100 he considered himself a successful horticulturist. ” Jefferson studied meteorology and supposed that farmers clearing land might have impacted weather. It’s amazing to me that the wisdom and experience of our Founding Fathers has been lost to most Americans through the past two centuries. Perhaps our study of history needs to include more than politics, military actions, social issues and economics but also the environment and agriculture.
Hatch believes that Jefferson’s legacy of gardening is that he saw plants as a vehicle of social change – he supported seed saving, local foods, and farmers markets. When Jefferson was President, he tracked the arrival and departure of37 vegetables in the farmers market and was a great supporter of that market.
Wulf reports that our Founding Fathers Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison had a shared passion for nature, plants, gardens, and agriculture that was deeply woven into and very much a part of the fabric of America. She says that at that time, nature, gardening, and agriculture were subjects they all agreed upon.
Wulf believes that James Madison is the forgotten father of American environmentalism. In a speech in 1818, he tried to convince America that if it wanted to survive as a nation it would have to stop destroying forests and stop depleting the soils of Virginia. She says Madison believed that Man had to return to Nature what Man took from Nature. He spoke about the balance of nature and how easily it could be destroyed. I’m sure both Madison and Jefferson would be appalled at our country’s lack of consideration for the balance of nature and the failure to practice sustainability in all aspects of our lives, and particularly in agriculture.
Wulf relates this story: In the summer of 1776 as Washington faced 30,000 British troops arriving in New York with about half the man power, or 15,000 men. Imposing British war ships were sailing into the harbor. Washington sat down and wrote a letter to his estate manager instructing him to design a new garden. He specified that it contain only native species in order to create a uniquely American garden. Wulf feels that at the moment America faced the almighty British army, Washington was declaring his own independence with the design of his garden.
These are just a few stories of how passionate our Founding Fathers were about nature and agriculture. I’m looking forward to reading Wulf’s book, Founding Gardeners. It’s true that while they toiled in their gardens, they relied on slave labor to provide the majority of human power. But their involvement in the daily routines and decisions provided them an understanding of the value of agriculture and nature. I can’t imagine any of our Founding Fathers finding much significance in the daily routines of most Americans – running errands, shopping at the mall, watching TV, playing video games, texting. Where in our experiences are we gaining life skills for coping with failure or understanding the mysteries of nature?
I heard a discussion on the radio the other day that resonates with me. When we worked the land and worked with our hands, failure was tangible. You could hold it in your hands. In today’s society where most jobs are service oriented or have output that is difficult to measure, failure can easily be ambiguous. It seems that one consequence of our disconnect from physical labor is the lost opportunity to experience tangible failure. I believe that this experience is vital in developing character traits that have been synonymous with America. Somehow we need to reconnect with the realities and experiences of our agrarian past. I know folks that were raised on a farm and don’t miss it one bit. However, while growing up taking care of crops and animals, these people learned to appreciate life’s realities and the value of hard work. They carry determination, ingenuity and persistence into their lives beyond the farm. Unfortunately I think that many of us and especially our children have grown up believing their efforts should produce success. Without concrete measurements, it’s easy to discount the existence of failure. It is difficult to understand that failure can be a learning experience and to accept Jefferson’s statement, ” In gardening the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”
If 1% of our population is working to feed us and the remaining 99% are ignorant of even basic knowledge of nature and agriculture, is that wise? How do we encourage the other 99% to somehow weave their personal threads back into the fabric of America? Some may believe that our country’s fabric has changed irrevocably and that there’s no need to re-integrate it into a weave from 200 years ago. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you believe that the fabric of our past was woven from agriculture and reverence for nature for good reasons, how do we restore it? I offer this thought. What better place for learning the rhythms of life than in a garden? In the past ten years, I’ve seen countless children terrified of bees, afraid of rain, having no experience with an earth worm. They frequently enter a gardening experience timidly or fearfully, but often come out with new skills and an appreciation for foods they would have never otherwise considered. I’ve recently become involved with a community garden and have found joy in watching the reactions of children who see vegetable plants for the first time. There is a trend towards more community gardens; that is a positive sign. I hope those neophyte gardeners stick it out and find the challenge rewarding.
I won’t begin to claim that gardening on my deck and in community beds is synonymous with farming or animal husbandry as an occupation. But as Karen in her Back Roads Journal so aptly said, “People that enjoy gardening spend lots of time outdoors in all kinds of weather, be it good or bad. The work they do digging, planting, weeding and watering is a labor of love. . . Gardeners endure a trial by fire of sorts. Drought, monsoon rains, high winds, hail, assorted diseases, insects, deer, rabbits, groundhogs, etc.” And if you, like others, accept the challenge from Mother Nature and see the garden as a continuous experiment, you are getting a sample, albeit a small one, of the joys and tribulations experienced by the small group that still remains involved in agriculture. Yes, your involvement is on a much smaller scale than that of our local farmers. Maybe your participation will encourage some of our children to move towards agriculture and nature. I think it would be a great idea for our country to begin a Farm Corps. Young people could serve two years as an intern on a farm or ranch. Our government and the farmer could work out a reasonable split for payment of their stipend. What do you think? Would a Farm Corps be beneficial to our nation and our citizens?
I also see the light of understanding at farmers markets, in the interaction between the hard working farmer and the curious customers, many accompanied by their children. We ask questions of our farmers – What is this? Why are there holes in the leaves? Does it matter? When will you have strawberries? When do you plant potatoes? Why do sweet potatoes need to cure? How do you know when they’re ready to pick? Why and how do you collect seeds? All these answers were once part of the basic knowledge of most Americans. Most arriving here as immigrants from their home countries brought precious seeds. And everyone knew you didn’t eat the seed potatoes.
Supporting your local farmers market at least gives you an opportunity to experience sustainably grown foods and get to know the people who work to bring the food to you. Maybe it will also encourage you to grow a vegetable or two. Another option is to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group by purchasing a share of a farmer’s harvest.
Hope each of you and your families have a fun filled July 4! Spend some time to reflect on our agrarian past and what it means to our future. Should each of us make an effort to participate more in raising our food? Have we lost forever our agrarian connections? Let me know your thoughts.