It is a talented writer who can make history come alive. After hearing Andrea Wulf speak earlier this year, I had a feeling her writing would be equally as engaging, and it is. I think I can easily add Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation to my (growing) list of favorite reads this year. Who would have thought a book about Colonial America, the formation of a new government, early American politics, garden planning, and the science of botany could be so thrilling and exciting to read about. Wulf makes it all so vibrant and interesting. I feel like I now have an intimate view into the lives of these famous men (and in some cases their wives, too). George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison--they have all been such monoliths to me. Great men who formed our country but were all a little untouchable and unknowable. Wulf peels away the stodgy layers (dusts them off as it were) and shows them to be flesh and blood--both great in many ways, but also very human and at times flawed.
This is the sort of book that reads fast but is also a book you want to slow down and try and absorb as much as possible of what Wulf shares about this era and these men. I have so many pages dog eared and pencil marks in the margins I am not even sure where to begin and what to share with you most (there is far too much to cover in one post). As with any good book on history Wulf has obviously done a copious amount of research (after the book ends there are an additional 130 or so pages more of appendices, notes, bibliographical material and an extensive index) but she treats her subject almost as a story. It is very anecdotal in nature and while I hate to say this--it really almost reads like a good novel (as if plain history isn't exciting enough, there has to be a fictional story to keep things moving). Reading this has almost been like being a fly on the wall of history and experiencing it as it happened.
What is interesting about Wulf is that she was born in India, lived in Germany as a child, and now lives in England. She is a design historian and studied at the Royal College of Art and is not a gardener in the traditional sense. When I heard her speak she mentioned she doesn't really have a green thumb and when she does 'garden' it is often in pursuit of growing the plants and flowers she is researching and writing about. She brings to the book a unique perspective--writing about American history but as a European, and a (unsurprisingly) well versed one in American history and politics. When she traveled in the US as a younger woman she hadn't thought of us as a nation of gardeners (not in the sense that the British are), yet her travels showed her how wrong her perceptions were.
"On a sunny October morning, I stood on Jefferson's vegetable terrace, with straight lines of cabbages and squashes at my feet, and saw man and nature in perfect harmony, In the distance the horizon seemed to stretch into infinity; behind me was a manicured lawn with ribbons of flowers and, below, a romantic forest that crept into the gardens. The magnificent view from the terrace across the arboreal sea of autumnal reds and oranges of red maples, oaks, hickories and tulip poplars brought together Jefferson's neat plots of cultivated vegetables and sublime scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson had combined beauty with utility, the untamed wilderness of the forest with the orderly lines of apples, pears and cherries in the orchard, and colorful native and exotic flowers with a sweeping panorama across Virginia's spectacular landscape."
There are so many interesting things I am going to take away from this book, but I think one of the most basic is that America was truly founded on the idea of us being a nation of gardeners. The Founding Fathers considered themselves to be first and foremost gardeners. As each took their turn in office, by the end of their terms it seemed politics drained them and they were most happy to return to their lives and homes and especially their gardens. In a way the gardens of these men reflect their political ideologies and the direction they wanted to take this nation. Self-sufficiency is one of the main reasons they felt America should be founded on farming and gardening--the need to not have to rely on others for our wants, desires and necessities. To be independent of other countries.
I was also impressed by the radical way in which Washington and the others approached gardening. They made it something uniquely American and new. Everything accepted as classical and correct in terms of gardens Washington sort of turned on its head. In both his own home, Mount Vernon, and in the design of the capitol, he strived to use those plants and flowers, bushes and trees that were indigenous to America. And whereas gardens looked towards England and Europe in the design and even their direction, he changed it all. He reoriented his gardens to look west rather than east. None of this seems especially innovative to us, but at the time this way of thinking was revolutionary. West was the way of the future (think, too, of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark's expedition which Wulf also writes about). Interestingly, too, it is John Bartram, a Pennsylvania farmer/botanist who supplied Europeans with American plants, which were in vogue at the time.
Wulf covers the period of the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention and the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. She writes about Jefferson and Adams and their time spent abroad as diplomats, about Mount Vernon, Monticello as well as Peacefield and Montpelier--the Founding Father's homes/gardens. She writes about the before and after of the Revolution (the after being so interesting--little seems to change--once the business of war was over and national politics took center stage the bickering began!), as well as America's westward expansion and even the burgeoning naturalist/environmental movement (even then attitudes about nature and how we use it and care for it were changing and becoming ever so slightly more enlightened).
This is a big breath of a book with so very much to take in and admire. Wulf organizes it so well that it all just flows from one topic to another, one man to another, one story to another. Needless to say she has piqued my curiosity about so many things on so many levels. I already have two of her other books on hand--Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession and Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. I believe she is working on a new book now as well. And I have Ron Chernow's (very chunky) Washington: A Life, which I am eager to read. Eventually I would like to read biographies of all four men (and Abigail Adams, too). My list of 'want to reads' keeps getting longer and longer. I read this along with Stefanie at So Many Books (I always do so much better with books when I have a reading buddy). Click on over to read her thoughts about the book. Highly recommended.