When UK-based author Andrea Wulf first visited the United States in 1987, she found the caricatured nation she had heard about—full of big cars, huge malls and endless billboards. As she explained in an interview with Kirkus Reviews, “In America, I believed, I was more likely to see someone driving a riding-mower than pruning roses.”
But Wulf also found much more than that caricature. “At its roots America is a gardening nation,” she said in the same interview. She explores those roots in her new book, The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, which she'll discuss in her appearance at Duke Gardens on April 14 at 7 p.m. The book looks at America’s founding fathers (Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Madison) and how their lives as gardeners and farmers influenced their political sensibilities.
For the founding fathers, gardening was intrinsically linked with revolution and the new America. “They not only created the United States in a political sense, they also understood the importance of nature for their country,” Wulf told Kirkus Reviews. “Golden cornfields and endless rows of cotton plants became symbols for America’s economic independence from Britain; towering trees became a reflection of a strong and vigorous nation; native species were imbued with patriotism and proudly planted in gardens, while metaphors drawn from the natural world brought plants and gardening into politics.”
Furthermore, founders such as James Madison spoke out early about the need for environmental preservation in this resource-wealthy nation. Tobacco had become an incredibly important cash crop in the colonial economy by the 18th century, Wulf explained in an interview with c-ville.com. Unfortunately, it drained the land of nutrients within just a few years. In order to keep production high, farmers would simply clear virgin forests and begin planting on new fertile soil.
As early as 1818, Madison spoke out against these practices and warned that deforestation could not continue unchecked. This belief was radical for the time, but Madison understood that Americans could only benefit from their resources as long as they guarded and nurtured them. For Andrea Wulf, Madison’s preservation politics was eye-opening. “For me that was the greatest surprise in writing this book: he’s this forgotten father of environmentalism,” she told c-ville.com.
For more about Andrea Wulf, you can read a short biography online.
TICKETS: For tickets to Wulf's April 14 Duke Gardens appearance, please contact the Duke Box Office at 919-684-4444 or tickets.duke.edu.
BUY THE BOOK: Duke Gardens' Terrace Shop has copies of The Founding Gardeners for sale.
Praise for The Founding Gardeners:
"This is a timely and passionate book, with resonances beyond today's legion of new gardeners, worrying about the cost in air miles of the food they eat. Wulf traces the birth of the modern environmental movement back beyond Thoreau and Muir to the founding fathers' passion for nature and plants, and in particular to a speech by Madison in 1818. Humankind, he said, could not expect nature to be 'made subservient to the use of man': man, he believed, must find a place within 'the symmetry of nature' without destroying it.
“This book will fascinate anyone interested in gardening, agriculture or American history, offering new insights into four familiar lives and conjuring up the gardens of the new republic.”
“There is a huge amount of fresh research in this valuable book, including the first proper examination of the gardening exploits of presidents James Madison and John Adams. The Founding Gardeners is a great achievement and deserves its place on the shelves of political as well as garden historians.”