GARDENING, AGRICULTURE & THE SHAPING OF AMERICA
The 4th of July has become a holiday built upon caricatures from a time remote, with little relevance in today’s world. Why did the Founding Fathers risk everything to create a new nation? From which wellspring did they find the resolve to face the hardships that would surely follow their audacious claim of sovereignty? We are taught of their passion for freedom, but what did freedom really mean to the early colonists?
The colonies were an agrarian affair, this we know for certain. It would surprise many, however, to realize how their affinity to the land became the driving force in birthing a new country. Farming and horticulture were counted as the most noble of pursuits, and one’s right to till a single portion of the Earth’s surface was emblematic of freedom itself.
The decision to formally ‘Notice’ the crown through the Declaration of Independence was not founded on a capricious notion. Regulations, taxes, permit fees, coercion to purchase British goods, and mandatory crop provisioning to Great Britain all contributed to the inevitable critical mass that precedes all times of great change.
Gone were the emotional ties to mother England, as new generations of colonist fully imprinted in the New World. The acknowledgement of a single Creator as the universal authority left little room for earthly allegiances blasphemous to matters of Spirit, while the heavy-handedness of the Redcoats would tip the final scales.
So how did gardening and agriculture become the single-most influential element of a mindset that would eventually demand America’s right for self-determination? The lives of 5 prominent ‘Founding Fathers’ offers a most insightful time capsule. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin all recognized that America’s independence, financial and otherwise, was tenuous unless rooted in the soil itself.
For Franklin self-reliance was consequential to managing the land’s natural resources as a means of sustenance, and foundational to an equitable financial system. All five men were avid plantsmen, and their personal estates became the focus for crop experimentation, seed exchanges with neighboring farmers, and the primary source of medicine.
The colonist themselves came to equate bountiful yields, and their stewardship of the land as the political act most necessary toward the realization of independence for a fledgling nation. Every farmstead became an integral cog in a collective resilience capable of boycotting British goods, while preparing to fight.
The unimaginable rigors of the Revolutionary War demanded the constant admonition of General Washington to his troops that they were “Freemen, fighting for the blessings of Liberty”. Amidst the grim outlook for the American troops, and the crisis facing our commander-in-chief, he always found time for communications with his cousin Lund Washington, the estate manager of his beloved home, Mount Vernon.
Washington found moments of solace designing ornamental groves of North American native trees; white pine, red cedars, poplars and alabaster dogwood. After all, Mount Vernon was to be an ‘American Garden’. While his love of trees and keen interest in agrarian design offered personal respite from the darkness of war, the General’s farming instincts extended to the war effort itself. Washington mandated the planting of ‘regimental gardens’, thus providing vegetables for army rations, and a source of comfort and encouragement to his battle-weary soldiers.
Eight arduous years later, George Washington returned home. His vision of a nationhood built by farmers, rather than military conquest was for a brief time realized. America would be an agrarian society whereby “our sword and spears have given place to the plough share and pruning hook.” He dreamed of a simple and fulfilling life as a farmer.
Post Revolutionary War brought different circumstances, and new challenges to a country yet in its pre-adolescence. The bitter British aristocracy would organize a general European boycott of American goods, in retaliation to a young upstart daring to compete against the protected commercial interests of the crown. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, avid gardeners both, were called upon to counter these measures by establishing the international alliances most favorable for America’s economic independence.
While traveling Europe, Adams and Jefferson took an equal interest to the gardens, design and farming techniques of old Europe. Their reconnaissance mission included tours of the publically celebrated estates of England to first-hand glean the numerous styles and agricultural elements of working farms.
Back home in the new world, James Madison emerged as the first ‘American’ environmentalist. As he witnessed the ruthless desecration of forest and soil in his native Virginia, he warned his countrymen that the ability of the United States to thrive was proportionate to the health of its environment. True to the Founding Father’s inclination to merge philosophy and pragmatism, he believed man should conform his affairs within the ‘symmetry of nature’.
Mass plantings of sugar maples, fruit trees and other crops became the weaponry of choice to secure the independence of the New Republic, while America realized its destiny as an aggregate of independent, small farmers. Newly emancipated from the devious institutions of centralized banking, American Nationals shunned wealth acquired by financial speculation as a crude form of gambling that could only bring ruin and destruction. In sharp contrast, horticulture was considered a science to enrich lives by providing food, medicine, financial stability and aesthetics. Early colonists viewed one’s connection to the earth, akin to the acknowledgment of a Creator and the source of the vast abundance available to mankind.
It should come as no surprise that the current resurgence in gardening coincides with similar historical circumstances, as those faced by our Founding Fathers. Whether your interest in gardening is the pursuit of a contemplative past time, or a means to provide food and medicine it is the single most powerful act in living a self determined life.
Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and are wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.~ Thomas Jefferson
Deborah Lando writes the weekly gardening column for the Triplicate, a daily newspaper serving the northern California-southern Oregon coastal region. As a longtime nursery owner, and overseer of Alfa Vedic Botanical Gardens, Deborah still finds time to teach gardening classes from basics to master level, and shares her substantial knowledge in organic gardening practices and garden Feng Shui.