Transcripts

'Founding Gardeners' Sheds Light On Plant Diplomacy

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So we're going to go back in time now to one of the most important diplomatic periods in our nation's history. Arguably that would be the founding of the United States of America. The revolutionary era was fertile ground for big ideas which were passed back and forth between the founders of our country and other big thinkers overseas. And these men also exchanged something else, seeds.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:25
That's right, seeds. Environment reporter Sabri Ben-Achour wanted to learn more about this early plant diplomacy. So we called up historian Andrea Wulf, author of the book "Founding Gardner's," at her home in London.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:39
Of all the lenses we can use to look back on our colonial and revolutionary history, why this lens of gardener? What does it bring us to look back at the founding fathers as gardeners and farmers?

MS. ANDREA WULF

00:00:53
They called themselves foremost farmers and gardeners. They didn't see themselves just as politicians. Their most important, kind of, profession was being a farmer and I think when you actually you'll see that in almost every single letter they write, they will mention their soil, their trees, their plants. So, it was incredibly important for them.

MS. ANDREA WULF

00:01:15
It's just been a little bit written out of history because for a long time it didn't seem important because they are these haloed revolutionaries, these kinds of god-like figures and for a long time maybe looking at them as farmers, who, for an example, obsessed about manure, was just not very referential.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:32
Let's talk about Benjamin Franklin. I mean, you draw an analogy between the independence of the colonies and the independence that comes with living on a farm. He made self-sufficiency of the colony a big priority of his. Can you give me some, tell me some stories about that?

WULF

00:01:55
Well, so at that time, Benjamin Franklin is in London as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly but he very quickly becomes a kind of spokesperson of all colonies. And he says, If we just produce everything ourselves, then we don't need Britain and, you know, we become self-sufficient. So he, I mean, literally frantically begins to send seeds of possibly good crops over to America from England.

WULF

00:02:29
He suggests that in America we can kind of brew our own tea. We don't need to have the tea from the East India Company. We can kind of make it from other things. And so the self-sufficiency becomes incredibly important and that's all based on agriculture in America, in the colonies.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:47
Yes, what kinds of things did he send over?

WULF

00:02:49
So, for example, he sends over rhubarb, he's first the send that over. He sends over kohlrabi, he sends over Scottish kale. So he sends useful vegetables over. He sends over the Tallow Tree from China, so he's not just sending stuff he can, you know, which he gets in England. He actually gets in England from other countries.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:09
Ben Franklin wasn't the only one to sort of have this idea of the farmer as the driver of the new colonial economy?

WULF

00:03:17
Yes, and for example, look at Thomas Jefferson, for example. He says that the introduction of a new useful vegetable of a new species to America is the greatest service you can do to your country. And when he judges at the end of his life, when he judges his services to his country, he writes a list because he's an obsessive list maker, he always writes lists.

WULF

00:03:40
So he writes this list which obviously includes writing the Declaration of Independence but on the same list, he also includes that he introduced upland rice to the southern colonies, which he had smuggled under the threat of the death penalty from Italy while he was in Europe.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:57
Virginia, for example, was basically entirely clear cut several times over. Something that James Madison bemoaned. Were the founders environmentalists as we think of it?

WULF

00:04:10
Well I would argue that James Madison was. What he didn't do is, he didn't suggest that man had to live in kind of, you know, misty-eyed harmony with nature as maybe the romantics later did. But what he said is that nature was a very fragile ecological system that could be easily destroyed by mankind, which is what he had seen happening in Virginia through the felling of forests but also through tobacco cultivation and then he basically said something really extraordinary.

WULF

00:04:41
He said that man had to return to nature what he took from nature. You know, this was a time when most people still believed that God had created plants and animals, nature, entirely for the use of mankind. So at that time he's actually saying we cannot expect that nature can be made subservient to the use of man.

WULF

00:05:03
And he said that man had to find a place in nature without destroying it. so to me, that very much sounds like, you know, what environmentalists are saying today and I mean, in my book, I'm arguing that he's really, Madison's the forgotten father of America's environmentalism.

SHEIR

00:05:28
That was environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, speaking with Andrea Wulf, author of "Founding Gardeners." You can find more information on Wulf's book and her speaking tour, which will bring to her D.C. later this month, on our website, metroconnection.org.
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