Recent history books such as ‘Founding Gardeners’ by Andrea Wulf have revealed the botanical, horticultural and agricultural enthusiasms of the Founding Fathers and signatories to the Declaration of Independence, who recognized the most valuable assets of the colonies were diverse economic plants. In time, their experiments became passions. For Washington, Madison and Jefferson they became also metaphors for democracy. Most of the creators of our Constitution were keen gardeners—no “Golf Summit” for them!
Before and after the American Revolution, European immigrants feasted on the sheer volume of light, space and soil to cultivate. I imagine the impoverished peasants from dark and crowded lands hallucinating after discovering one long, vast, richly fed river valley after another, gleaming in the sun. Part of Northeastern Pennsylvania was called “The Endless Mountains”. Folks quipped that a squirrel could scamper from Appalachia to the Atlantic and never touch the ground.
The aptly labeled New World was fresh, clean and sparsely populated. Virtues, as well as crops, flourished here, free of the “dead hand” of history and stale traditions. The hardest, riskiest work was done by thousands of families of small scale farmers: people renowned for simple virtues.
Today’s political life in the US –and on Independence Day no less – is fraught with Biblical allusions, much as it was in 1776. But wearing religion on one’s sleeve is not a virtue. The Founding Fathers did not talk it; they walked it or, more precisely, rolled up their sleeves and “grew” it. The essence of virtue is evident truth, such as that revealed in a harvest or the promise of a seed, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau. God was behind the scenes, not center stage. Our nation was a Creation myth.
The seeds that sowed the American Revolution were embedded in a peasantry from whom most of us descend. Like the farmers and gardeners then, those of today face a new burden—not only of fertility, weather and labor, but also of reinvention. We are cut off, abstracted from the natural world. We must not only reconnect but also recreate. Call ours a Recreation Myth.
What do we do with ourselves as we age, staring at the future? Our ancestors discerned reality in a tapestry of meadows, streams, and mountains; we flip through our remotes and retreat to Facebook. We must revolt against ourselves.
No longer fresh or clean, America remains fertile and vast. Time outdoors working the soil, sowing the seed, cultivating a “weather eye”: these should be the new technologies of the 21st century. The Revolutionary Era is the avant-garde.
We may never solve the puzzles of global economics or “foreign entanglements”, in the words of Gardener-In-Chief, George Washington. However, we can reconstitute ourselves as a people by heeding the example of 1776’s Greatest Gardening Generation.