Tuesday, November 29, 2011

You say you want a revolution

Sea kale at Monticello.  Still jealous of how good it looks.
(I was going to go with "Words, words, words" to continue the Shakespeare streak, but sometimes you just need the Beatles instead.)

Not completely accidentally, I recently read, back to back, a pair of related books only one of which is garden-themed.  The first was Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History, a historian's examination of how the Tea Party uses the events of the American Revolution to present itself and its goals.  I did not read this for what is probably the usual reason, i.e. to gather ammunition for an assault on the Tea Party itself (though, nothing wrong with having some cobblestones in reserve to toss), but because I'd found myself in the odd position of having written a novel that begins with a visit to the Boston Tea Party (yes, it's about time travelers; they work for a Washington-area contractor in 2173; please send agents/editors my way) and includes a reactionary organization that idealizes the past, and having in fact written it (not, alas, by using a time travel device) several years before people started stapling tea bags to their hats (which... don't get me started, okay?) and waving signs about how none of us should pay taxes since the ancestors of some of us didn't like the dumping on our markets of shiploads of stale tea that despite having unfair duties slapped on it still undercut the smugglers' prices.  (Like most historical happenings, it was both very simple and very complicated.)  I'm still not quite sure how directly I need to reference in my characters' conversations what I hope would be a long-forgotten political group, but since I am revising the thing now and trying to get it published hopefully in this decade, it's not an aspect I can ignore.  Anyway, it's an interesting book (Lepore's, I mean, though I hope mine is too along with its three sequels), and though I clearly share her biases I think she presents her information pretty well.  And I do not like anachronism and presentism and the exploitation of selected snippets of what men who would have laughed to hear themselves called Founding Fathers said and wrote, so while I did wince once or twice at not-useful condescension, I did enjoy reading about it all, and I think it's a good lesson for all of us no matter what our political views: if you're going to use history as a tool, for God's sakes get it right or at least do some bloody research.

The potential for exploitation of Revolutionary heroes worried me a little, approaching Andrea Wulf's The Founding Gardeners, a sequel of sorts to her The Brother Gardeners (which explored 18th-century British-American sharing of botanical material and culture).  The newer book deals with the influence of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison (along with Franklin and others) on American attitudes toward nature and horticulture in the context of a new nation and its political structures.  While it is, I'm cynically sure, an attempt to sell books in an atmosphere of New Revolutionary Awareness, it works as a solid piece of nonfiction (and, see above, I use the word advisedly) and it's very good at expressing the yearning each of those early presidents felt for getting the hell out of the White House (or its earlier equivalents) and back to farming and obsessive landscaping.  Washington might as well have said, "I need to spend more time with my shrubberies."  And while it's a somewhat one-sided approach to early American history, regarding for example the founding of our political party system from the point of view of attitudes toward agriculture, it neither ignores other aspects of the problem nor sugarcoats (with either imported cane or homegrown maple) the animosity expressed, particularly between former friends Jefferson and Adams (they made it up later, largely in farm-related correspondence.  IMO this works better than golf).

Vigna caracalla (I think now reassigned as Phaseolus) at Monticello. 
The multi-person biographical approach, in fact, helps achieve balance between the personages (almost like crop rotation) and emphasizes both differences and similarities, along with how interesting these guys really were.  Jefferson will always be my favorite, flawed, contradictory and compulsive as he was, and I am getting to know Monticello fairly well now after several visits, but I need to see Mount Vernon again (it is the closest to me, after all) and I've never been to Montpelier (shame) or Adams's Peacefield.  I knew little about Madison as environmentalist (to use a presentist term for his advocacy on behalf of the natural world) and I think the frontier aspects of horticulture in this period are bountifully significant and, though I've already read William Bartram and Meriwether Lewis, worth more exploration (pun intended).  And I have a novel brewing in the back of my head about all of that, too...

One thing I really like about Wulf's work is how she brings out the importance of gardening in larger national and international contexts; people tend to lose that, or dismiss it.  Not just agriculture, which often gets ignored too (the implications of tea only being commercially grown in China in that period should be understood by anyone who talks about tariffs), but plain old gardening for pleasure and sustenance.  I recently reviewed a book (for Washington Gardener magazine; should be out in the winter issue) called Futurescapes, by Tim Richardson, about new trends in landscape design (a stretch for me; I usually grab the veggie gardening books), and really appreciated Richardson noting in one of his essays that "the dreaded G-word" has been regularly dismissed by landscape architects, who regard gardening as "bourgeois," "embarrassing," "uncool," and the province of right-wingers, old people, or social climbers.  But in the new professional zeitgeist, he says, urban landscape planners are beginning to think of themselves as "gardeners of cities," with emphasis on (gasp!) actual plants and how people relate to them.  It's not conformist or capitulating or backward-thinking, or for that matter purely trendy; it's a recognition that what we grow fundamentally affects our essential humanity and connects us to one another, and to the past and the future both.  And this was no less true in the eighteenth century than it is today -- differently true because it was a different time -- but equally important and, may I say, revolutionary.  Revolutions are not only fought with guns, or with hatchets to break up and destroy an addiction to the products of exploitation; they can be fought with seeds and roots and vegetables and the desire to go out into the wilderness (or the back yard) seeking knowledge, or to return to one's own farm in preference to the endless noise of political disputes.  Which last does not equal quiet retirement; just read Jefferson on the number of test crops "killed by bug" or otherwise lost in the battleground of the garden (and he was not just playing around but trying to help his seedling country become self-sufficient, a goal we still haven't realized, though for his own table the failed crops were replaced by produce bought from his slaves, who I'm sure tended to go for reliability over wild experiment).  It can be brutal out there, and ever-changing and challenging; I submit, however, that it seems to be easier to learn from one's mistakes in a garden than in the politico-historical arena.  (Also, you can often eat your mistakes, and they seldom taste like crow.)

Words, words, words.  More visits to historic gardens called for, for sure, and also I need to grow one symbolic tea plant.  Merrifield Garden Center has them; I nearly bought one this fall but it started to rain and I went inside and bought a lime tree instead.  Did not really have a place for Camellia sinensis, anyway (except for where I already put the other camellia), but one will be found.


  1. Revolutions are messy, and seldom come out the way you thought they would (just ask the Egyptians). Remarkably like gardens.

    I know you can grow coffee plants indoors. I've heard you can get a whole cup of coffee a year! Hopefully a tea bush would be somewhat more productive, since you use the leaves not berries.

    I believe Rob still has the East Rock Tea Plantation here in New Haven in his post-climate change novel. Warm enough, and East Rock should have good drainage.

  2. Fabulous! I will share widely among my political and gardening friends, the great majority of whom are both, and some are writers too.

  3. Please share, and tell people to read Andrea Wulf, because she's really good.

    Tea plants should be hardy here with protection from wind and lots of mulching. Coffee, no, but I'd like to try one indoors (Logee's has a new dwarf one with yellow fruits!).