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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Washington, Jefferson, Madison: Founding Gardeners

We often assume that the environmental movement in America began with Henry David Thoreau and John Muir in the latter half of the 19th century, but a recent (2011) book by English author Andrea Wulf shows that the roots go further back—to Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, in fact. Founding Gardeners details that all of America’s first four presidents were competent botanists with avid interests in America’s indigenous plants, and respect for the sinuous organic patterns of natural habitats.

Washington completely revised his rectilinear landscape around Mount Vernon to incorporate curving roadways and paths, insisting that America’s native trees and shrubs be showcased. Jefferson so loved his Blue Ridge forest and views of its rolling hills that he built his house atop a small mountain (Monticello, in Italian)—madness to his neighbors, whose homes stayed closed to Virginia’s lowland waterways. When the dull press of paperwork and correspondence overwhelmed him as President—which it did around noon nearly every day of his first term—Jefferson saddled his horse and explored the thick woods and marshes that then comprised the District of Columbia, returning to the White House hours later with his saddlebags stuffed with newly discovered flowers and herbs—and his spirit refreshed.

When the acrimonious debate over the Jay Treaty finally ended with the House’s passage of funding in April of 1796, soon-to-be-President John Adams hastily flew north to his 500 acres outside Quincy, Massachusetts, and spent the summer refreshing his sunken spirits by digging, pruning, planting, and manuring his gardens and fields (rather than overseeing others to do these chores, as the wealthy Virginians often did). Adams was particularly active in experiments with manure, testing whether its effectiveness was enhanced by the addition of seaweed, mud, or lime (inorganic calcium, either as calcium carbonate, calcium oxide, or calcium hydroxide; Jefferson also investigated adding plaster of Paris, calcium sulfate, to manure at Monticello).

But it was the fourth president, James Madison, who best articulated the founding fathers’ reverence for the American landscape. Just as he had researched and summarized the various forms of ancient and modern republics before the constitutional convention in 1787, then advocated eloquently in the Federalist Papers, so Madison in the months following the end of his presidency in 1816 systematically studied the reasons for Virginia’s dramatic loss of soil productivity in the past decade. His May, 1818 Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle (County) was a stunning summary of the age’s most advanced understanding of how natural systems worked.

Madison drew together his reading of Priestly’s recent discovery of oxygen, Ingenhousz’s understanding of plant respiration, Erasmus Darwin’s (Charles’ grandfather) insights into the importance of nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorous in plant nutrition, and Humphrey Davies’ Elements of Agricultural Chemistry to stress the importance of giving back to the soil the elements used by plants and appropriated by humans, for example by plowing stalks, straw and chaff back into the soil, along with the manure of farm animals. He warmly recommended the new “contour plowing” (rather than the conventional “up and down plowing” which maximized soil erosion) and scientific irrigation of fields.

But Madison’s most impressive insights were in recognizing the basic workings, or “economy”, of nature. Contrary to current opinion, he argued that the plants and animals of earth were not created to be exploited by humans, but that plants and animals and the soil coexisted in a system of reciprocity. He pointed out that humans and other animals depend upon plants for the production of the newly-discovered oxygen they breathe, and that a balance exists among plants, animals, the soil, and the atmosphere, which humans cannot violate without significant repercussions. He cited the 1798 essay by Thomas Malthus on population regulation in human populations, coming tantalizingly close to the earth-shaking insight that Charles Darwin would draw from Malthus in his early “transmutation notebook” only two decades later. Madison warmly argued for the importance of forests in this balance of nature, and urged a cessation to the wholesale destruction of America’s woodlands, and beyond this the replanting of lost native forests.

“The economy of nature,” Madison argued, was “an admirable arrangement” and “a beautiful feature.” He did not advance to Muir’s later insights into the spiritual and emotional healing aspects of the natural world, but Madison’s conclusions were none the less impressive. He articulated an early and solid grasp of the inter-relatedness of the creatures of the earth with their environment. He understood and warned that if humans exerted too forceful a hand on this natural balance, then the economy of nature would misfunction and humans would suffer along with the rest. Madison’s concerns were with the practical aspects of respecting the ecosystem’s balance, surely an aspect just as important as Muir’s later understanding of the healing benefits. Muir, in fact, as he fought for preservation of natural spaces in the national park system half a century later, increasingly incorporated Madison’s approach as more persuasive to hard-headed citizens than his own cherished healing from time in the natural world.

Madison’s Address was quickly recognized for the sensation it was. Soon every agriculturalist in America was aware of Madison’s insights. The Address was reprinted in leading newspapers, and soon published in Europe. It became part and parcel of the burgeoning intellectual awareness of the workings of ecosystems (long before the term”ecosystem” was used), and to my mind laid the groundwork for both Muir’s later more advanced understandings of the interrelationships in ecosystems, and for the academic study of “Ecology” which arose in the late decades of the 19th century and finally blossomed towards the middle of the 20th century.

The great challenge facing our species today is not lack of understanding of how ecosystems work, how they depend on a balanced and intricate set of inter-relations among creatures, soil, and atmosphere. The challenge today is getting past the old conviction that the earth is made for exploitation by humans, that we humans are somehow exempt from “the rules” by which ecosystems are governed. James Madison and Washington, Jefferson, and Adams had no problem getting beyond the old anthropocentric view. Our first four American presidents were men of profound and flexible minds. They had deep practical knowledgeable of the natural world, had a great affection for it, and when their eyes and minds saw how it worked, what “the rules” governing it were, they quite naturally accepted the corollary: we humans have to respect those rules. We are one creature among many on this beautiful planet, and if we do not respect it and share it with our fellow-creatures, we will foul it for all, ourselves included. Unbelievably, we are still fighting this battle, and its outcome is not yet decided.
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