Thomas Jefferson and the Transit of Radishes
This July 4, we celebrated again the Independence Day courage of the Continental Congress to resist the injustices of the British crown and declare the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal," endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights. The ideal of independence continues to run deep in Euro-American culture. We believe ourselves to be a nation of individual pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstrappers. According to a study by Stanford University psychologists published in January, the culture of independence influences our daily behavior. European-American students challenged to solve a difficult puzzle or complete a demanding physical task were more persistent when working alone than when encouraged to work together. Asian-American students, in contrast, worked with equal persistence in a team as they did individually.
The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson. So important to him was this contribution to the emerging new nation that he specified that his authorship should be noted on the tombstone that stands above his grave at Monticello, the home that he designed and built on a Virginia mountaintop and surrounded with gardens. As he wrote in a letter to Baron Geismer in 1785, he much preferred the woods and wilds of Monticello to “all the brilliant pleasures of the gay capital,” where he had served as the nation’s first Secretary of State, as Vice President under John Adams, and finally President of the United States.
His political accomplishments are a mandatory part of the history curriculum in American schools. Less well known is the fact that Jefferson was a devoted farmer with holdings of over 10,000 acres on which he grew a wide variety of crops including wheat, rye, oats, barley, corn, tobacco, potatoes, clover, flax, hemp, apples, peaches, figs, quince and pomegranites. In caring for the land and overseeing its cultivation, he practiced vigilant observation of rainfall, temperature, soil conditions and plant life cycles in order to discern the interrelationships, patterns and laws of nature upon which successful agriculture depends. Year after year in the Garden Book that he kept from 1766-1824, he recorded his observations, including the first species of bird to appear in a spring season, or the time of the blossoming of the red maple, almond, peach, and cherry trees. “He would govern his life,” Gary Wills comments in Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, “by the transit of radishes.”
Jefferson recognized that when the virgin fertility of the soil is exhausted, it can no longer be well cultivated, and he believed that “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” He experimented with species collected during his travels and cultivated more than 150 varieties of fruit trees and 350 different varieties of vegetables.
Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, has worked for 35 years to restore the beauty of Jefferson’s gardens. Caring for the land with powers of observation as keen as those of Jefferson, he has documented the effects of a changing climate. Silver goose grass and Johnson grass, new weeds that were previously unknown in Monticello, thrive in the heat, as do plant-eating bean beetles, leaf hoppers and spider mites. The weather is more extreme and erratic, spring rainfall is declining, and the summer is hotter and drier. The apple orchard is suffering and once lush groves of Hemlock are in a state of stress.
Jefferson, Hatch explains, was a child of the Enlightenment, who believed “in measuring and recording as a way of uncovering the truth about the world around us.” This truth is not only the truth of the equal station of all peoples, but also the truth of our inalienable dependence on soil, rainfall, radishes, hemlock trees, and a temperate climate. It is also the truth, known not directly through measurement but indirectly through liturgy and prayer, of our ultimate dependence on God who crowns the year with goodness and girds the hills with joy (Ps 64).
Elizabeth Groppe is Director of the Center for Spirituality at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.