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Thursday, May 26, 2011 / 7:16 AM

A Conversation With Andrea Wulf, Author of "Founding Gardeners"

A Conversation With Andrea Wulf, Author of "Founding Gardeners"

Andrea Wulf wrote her first two books, This Other Eden and The Brother Gardeners, as a way to understand her adopted country, England—a nation of obsessive gardeners. Wulf, who grew up in Germany, got her degree in design history at the Royal College of Art, and says that she doesn't consider herself a garden historian, but that the material in her first two books led her to write yet another botanical book, this one describing how gardens and farms were entwined with the political destiny of the United States. Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation looks at the usual suspects—e.g., Thomas Jefferson, who's well-known for his gardening—but is also full of surprising revelations (James Madison, as it turns out, was something of a “proto-environmentalist”). Wulf lectures on Thursday, June 2 at the Missouri Botanical Gardens; she spoke to us by phone between book-tour engagements.

The first thing I wanted to talk about is Jefferson, since we’ve got this whole connection with Lewis and Clark here in St. Louis, and I know you spent a lot of time in the gardens at Monticello. Researching this book must have been wonderful, because you got to spend time out-of-doors as well as inside dusty archives.

Well, I would say I was much more in archives [laughs]. But no, saying that, it’s been absolutely amazing. At Monticello, they have these fellowships, and they gave me three of them, so I spent four months in Monticello. You actually live there, and it’s not just that you are out in the landscape, but you also have close contact with everybody who works there, so I spent a lot of time with Peter Hatch, for example, the director of grounds, just sort of walking the grounds and talking. I also stayed at Mount Vernon, Washington’s place. They actually let you go to the house when the tour is gone, so when you sit on Washington’s porch with a glass of red wine in your hand, looking at the Potomac, you think, “Hmmm, I’ve got a pretty good job here." [Laughs.]

To go back to Jefferson—he wasn’t just a gardener. He had a very science-heavy view of it all, and I know he integrated some of the plants that Lewis and Clark brought back into his estate, right? 

Basically, I think the Lewis and Clark Expedition, if you read the instructions that Jefferson gives Lewis of what he should observe, it’s like a blueprint of enlightenment thinking, basically. He’s asking them not only to discover this water passage across the continent. He’s saying look for useful vegetables, talk to the Native Americans, see how they farm. Minerals, animals, weather—it’s really trying to understand the nature that goes across the continent. Lewis was very aware, because he used to be the private secretary of Jefferson, he used to live with Jefferson in the White House so he knew, very much, how Jefferson was thinking. He’d see Jefferson every day, going out on horseback, collecting plants. So he knew how interested Jefferson was in plants, and he knew of correspondence that was arriving at the White House, related to horticulture. When he’s in St. Louis, he talks to the gardeners there, and sends some seeds and plants back, before they’ve even set off to Washington, for Jefferson. So he’s very in tune with what Jefferson wants. When they come back with all their seeds, a lot of them are given away to other gardeners, because Jefferson feels as a president he doesn’t have time to do justice to these rare seeds and look after them. But he obviously keeps a few. When he then retires, he gets from this nurseryman that he had given a lot of the seeds to, he gets cuttings, actually, of the gooseberries for example, and then plants them. The Lewis and Clark plants that Jefferson grows in Monticello, for him, are almost like a reminder of the promises that lay in the west.

It’s interesting, I got Jefferson’s Garden and Farm Books for Christmas, and was telling a friend about that, and he was aghast, because Jefferson kept slaves. And then I felt horribly about it, and took a closer look at the text, and in fact, that is part of the narrative of that book, these entries of slaves’ births and deaths. So there’s a tricky piece here, not just in terms of Washington and Jefferson but American history in general. And that’s in your book—for instance, this story about Washington’s slaves out in the freezing cold, moving plants for him…and yet, you’ve still gotten criticized for not including more on that in this book.

You must be a gardener, if someone gave those to you for Christmas! [Laughs.] I got both responses, weirdly. I got a review in the Washington Post that said I should have looked more at slavery. And in the New York Times, it said, she never forgets the issue of slavery and tackles it in every chapter. So I have the feeling I am tackling it.

Basically I made a very conscious decision—when you tell a story, and as a writer, you have to keep your readers engaged, so there is a lot of constructing narrative in a book like this, not just collecting facts and plonking them into the book. They make most of the gardens in their retirement, so I could have made a book that said, “Now, Jefferson retired and this is what he’s doing in his garden now; Washington retired and this is what he’s doing in his garden…” And it becomes very repetitive. The thing is, it’s the same with the slavery. So what I decided to do is to have the slavery issue a little bit everywhere through the book, but have the Madison chapter as the main chapter that deals with slavery. Of course this is a problem, and of course Madison, Washington and Jefferson are in a way very hypocritical when they say they are an independent farmer with their small, self-sufficient farm, and they are the foot soldiers of the nation, when at the same time, their plantation is worked by slaves.

Madison does something very interesting when he retires. He builds a garden, like the others. The centerpiece of his ornamental landscape is the back lawn, at the back of the house, this huge, huge flat big expansive lawn, which is hugged by the American forest. Right in the middle of the lawn, he builds a six-building slave village, like a model village. They are very differently built than normal slave cabins, and they are also very different built than the other slave cabins he still has on his plantation. He’s building this model village, which has sturdy buildings, raised wooden floors, brick chimneys, glass in the windows. The slaves eat off decorated plates, and from visitor’s accounts, we know that a visit to this slave village becomes very much a part of the entertainment of guests. So imagine that you are standing at the back portico. You are standing in the middle of the ornamental landscape, and 50 yards away from you, there’s a slave village, which they are actually just rebuilding at Monticello. It’s just extraordinary how big it is, and how much it is right in the middle. What Madison is doing there I think—he has problems to reconcile, between slavery and his beliefs in equality and liberty—and he knows that visitors are going to scrutinize his quarters, and write about it, because he’s seen that happen to Washington and Jefferson. So he builds this model village…it’s beautiful, and the yard is kept clean by constant sweeping, and he’s placing this tableau of virtuous industry into his garden, to present himself as a slave-owner whose slaves at least who are cared for. And one of the slaves who lives there is a 104-year-old, so he’s putting his oldest slave in there to say, "Look how good I am, my slaves are really old and healthy." Meanwhile, on another part of the plantation, he has the usual sort of flimsy slave cabins with mud flooring. So he’s using his garden to present himself as a particular type of slave owner, though he’s not changing anything about the situation of the slaves, really.

Frankly, I think the slaves who lived there, I think they must have had a harder life than those who lived in the worse cabins, elsewhere. These slaves were literally on stage; they didn’t have any kind of privacy, or anything. So I think it is incredibly problematic, the whole issue of slavery. I didn’t want to have every chapter like this, because this is not a book about the founding fathers and slavery, this is a book about the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners. And obviously, slavery comes into it. If you look at Jefferson, for example, his whole idea of the vegetable terrace, the 1,000 foot vegetable terrace where he experiments with vegetables, it only worked because he’s never assuming that this vegetable terrace is going to actually produce all the stuff he actually needs for his own kitchen. Lots of things go wrong. So he’s buying vegetables from his slaves, from their gardens. They see themselves as model farmers and gardeners; they say, we have to experiment with new plants, or new species, because the small farmer can’t afford to do that. Because if the harvest goes wrong for them, they can’t feed their families. So they see themselves as the experimenters of the nation, but that only works because someone like Jefferson has slaves from whom he can buy produce.

Going back to James Madison for one moment—in the book, you write about how he was quite progressive on other fronts, specifically his views on the natural world. I think one review of the book had described him as a “proto-environmentalist.”

Yeah, I call him in the book the forgotten father of American environmentalism. Of all the things I found, I think for me that was the most surprising thing. When I go around the country and I’m giving talks, that’s the bit where everybody goes, "What?!" So it’s the thing that surprises most people. But it’s just so important today, and so relevant today. So basically what he’s doing, he gives a speech in 1818, and it’s very widely published in all the newspapers, and even over in Europe. And it gets printed as a pamphlet and gets sent basically to every interested farmer across the county. And he says, in order for America to survive, Americans have to protect the environment. He’s basically condemning the Americans for destroying their forests, and for ruthlessly exploiting the soil. He’s not romanticizing nature at all, like future generations, Thoreau and John Muir; he’s seeing this from a very practical perspective. He’s saying that if Man wants to live off Nature in the long term, he has to change. He says that Nature is a fragile ecological system that could be easily destroyed. And he says that what Man takes from Nature, he must return to Nature. So he really understands cycles in Nature, all these things like the carbon cycle and the water cycle, which by then has not been discovered as such, but he’s still aware that this is a system where one thing depends on another. And he basically says, Man has to find a place in Nature without destroying it. Which is an extraordinary thing at that time, when most people believe that God has created plants and animals entirely for the use of mankind. So he’s really forward thinking. He takes a bit of his forest and fences it off, and says no one is allowed to sell any trees here. And he shows his visitors the forest. So he’s really there at the forefront.

How have attitudes changed towards gardens, gardening, and seeds, between the time of the founding fathers up to the present? The politics and gardening really do seem so bound up in each other, and it seems like we’ve made this journey from small farms and backyard gardens to purely ornamental gardening and now we’ve come full circle, but now it’s permaculture and urban gardens and things like that.

Yesterday, I did my 25th talk, and what I hear from people is that things really are changing. If I ask people, do you think gardening is a political act? Because that’s what the founding fathers believed, at first they say, no, not really. But then you start talking about what do you grow? What do you do? And then you start talking, for example, about vegetable growing. All of them suddenly go, well, it’s really important because I feel empowered with the food I’m eating, and I’m not controlled by industry and these huge companies… I think people feel more and more empowered, or like they have some kind of control over what they’re doing. And if you look at cities like Detroit, or New York, you have rooftop farms and stuff like that. I think something is changing there. And it is political. Not all of them do it for political reasons, but it’s changing something. I just read an article, in Detroit, or maybe in New York, they have rooftop farms on top of supermarkets, and the supermarket buys their produce. So that cuts out a whole chain of other people, and makes a more direct dealing with the people and the trade. In a way, it is political; though maybe not in the grand scheme as the founding fathers saw it.

Right. Though I was absolutely shocked at the reaction when Michelle Obama planted that vegetable garden at the White House, how polarizing it was. Some people were thrilled, yet maybe felt she didn’t go far enough, and then on the other hand, there was this backlash against it! I just couldn’t fathom how something like that could be controversial. Especially when you can’t argue with the fact that Americans absolutely have an obesity problem, including American kids. I mean, I was also shocked when Jamie Oliver was making his tour here and half the kids in schools couldn’t identify these very common vegetables. 

Yeah, I have to say I was utterly surprised at how controversial it was. Because I would have thought that surely people can look over their partisan views, no matter what party you’re from, surely you must be able to see this as something good. But there’s a strong lobby for the agricultural industry here. So I don’t know how much that influences things here. I think what she’s doing is amazing, and she went to Monticello, and there’s a section in the kitchen garden where it’s only planted with varieties that Jefferson grew. She got all the plants from Monticello, all the heirloom seeds and salads and stuff like that. All these gardeners that do vegetable gardening today, they’re in very good company. It’s something that harks back to the beginning of the United States.

Doesn’t Monticello even put out a seed catalog?

Yes, yes—it’s called the Center for Historic Plants. You can order prickly-seeded spinach and Tennis-ball lettuce, and Dutch brown lettuce, all the old varieties, because they’ve sourced them from everywhere in the States, basically.

And it seems like you must be a gardener as well—you have a design degree, but you’ve written, what? Three books now on botanical subjects? How did you get from design to gardens?

I don’t call myself a garden historian at all. I use gardens as a window into a broader world, into politics, science, art, and literature. It was just a way for me to look at something; once you get caught up in it [laughs]…though I have to say, I am writing a book right now that has nothing to do with gardens, so it’s not going to be forever like this. When I came to Britain 15 years ago, I was just really surprised about how everybody seemed to be obsessed with gardens. For me, it was a way to understand the British. So that’s how it really started—looking at a nation that is obsessed with gardening, and why is that, and where does this come from? And what I found was this amazing story about the empire, and politics, and friendship and obsession. So you get sucked into that. One of the protagonists [in Brother Gardeners] is American, John Bartram. Through him, I found this remarkable connection to the founding fathers. So I don’t think you can say that led to the next one, I suppose.

I wanted touch on the premise of your next book—transits of Venus in the 1760s—which seems incredibly specific.

[Laughs.] Well, basically, the transit of Venus is when the planet moves between the Earth and the Sun. So you see Venus for six hours, as a little black dot crossing the sun. It only happens once a century, in pairs which are eight years apart. So you have one in 1761, and one in 1769, and then you don’t have another one for another 105 years. In the 18th century, that was the only way to measure the distance between the Sun and Earth, which was the key, really, to the size of the whole universe. Lots and lots of astronomers, at the same time, in the southern and the northern hemisphere, observed it and measured it. Like 200 astronomers are doing it at the same time, and they’re all exchanging their data. So it’s the first scientific, global project. It might sound really specific, but it’s a huge, huge project. At the time of the Seven Years War, all these countries who are at war are working together on this project—Russia, England, Sweden, France, Italy, America—they’re all writing in each other’s passports, “Do not attack this Frenchman, he’s traveling in the name of science and mankind.” It’s just a great adventure story. So Captain Cook goes to Tahiti, someone else goes to India, someone else goes to Jakarta, or the Philippines. So they’re all crossing the globe, observing the transit, sending the data back, and calculating together. So it’s actually not that different from my other books. It’s about the 18th century, it’s about science, and exchanging and sharing and knowledge.

So what is it about the 18th century that appeals to you so much? Or is it like the botany, where you end up doing research in the same time period?

No, no—I love the 18th century. Almost everything how we think today and how we are today in Western society, the birthplace is the 18th century. It’s the birthplace of the enlightenment, and when mankind tries to understand the world around him through reason, and not religion. It’s basically the moment where man still thinks that God has created the world, but that God was acting according to universal laws. So the moment you understand these laws, you can make sense of nature. So it’s a time when taxonomy comes into play, new instruments like telescopes and microscopes, that zoom into the outside world, but also view minute worlds. It’s like suddenly nature and the world opens up, and nature’s not this mythical place anymore. It’s something man can understand.

Anything else you want to add—anything important that people should understand about the book?

Well, to really understand the founding of the United States, we have to look at the founding fathers as farmers, and as gardeners. For so many years, they have been presented as demigods who did these amazing things. When you actually read their letters, they write about their farms and gardens. That was so much of their life, and it makes them very hands-on, and human. Like Adams getting frustrated and saying, “I just want to be in my potato-yard.” Suddenly, you get a handle on these people. For me, that was what was so enjoyable, to see them as real people, and not these godlike revolutionaries.

Andrea Wulf will lecture and sign copies of Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation on Thursday, June 2 at 6 p.m. at the Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw. Admission is free. For more information, call 314-577-5100 or visit

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