Good ol’ George Washington. Ambitious young soldier, revolutionary general, first president who, à la the Roman general-cum-(elected)-dictator Cincinnatus, nobly gave up power to return to his farm, we venerate him as the father of our country – and not without reason, for just about everything good and terrible about us and our history is embodied in this one man.
Washington, both the city and the man, and this tension between the good that America represents and the exploitation and blood in which it is grounded, are much on my mind, today especially, for we’ve recently returned from a 10-day family trip, just over half of which was spent in our nation’s capital. While in D.C. it was a challenge to feel any sense of pride in our nation’s alleged greatness: too many kids wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and t-shirts; an otherwise excellent exhibit in the Smithsonian’s American history museum on the wars of our past problematically titled “The Price of Freedom,” as if those who removed and slaughtered the native peoples, or who fought in any number of the many unnecessary wars that the U.S. has been involved in, were, simply by having worn the uniform, heroes of liberty; a visit to the Supreme Court building made in the fog of depression of the latest rulings and followed by the even gloomier news of Kennedy’s retirement; even the zoo was a downer, as nearly every exhibit told us of the vulnerable or endangered status of its inhabitant, and the valley the zoo is in was itself clogged with invasive species – all of which reflects the ecological catastrophes of American-led global corporate capitalism.
The highlight of the trip, however, and what gave me some sliver of hope for our collective political and ecological future, was a trip to George Washington’s estate, Mt. Vernon. Its manor house perhaps stands as a metaphor for the nation it represents: built with wood that’s been covered in sand to make it look like stone, it gives the appearance of permanence, but it’s an appearance that cracks easily and takes constant effort to maintain.
The house was the least interesting part, however, even knowing the conversations among famous men that took place there. For, moving out from it, the grounds turn out not to be just manicured creations for the aesthetic delight of the inhabitants and visitors, but a stunning example of what we would now call sustainable agriculture (with one significant caveat, to which I’ll return). It turns out that our founding father was a man who knew his shit, literally. Washington saw the degradation of land that growing tobacco as a cash crop was leading to, and he envisioned a different agricultural future for the country, one based on food production, constant renewal of the soil, and wise use of the land. On his own properties, he implemented and further developed techniques from Europe’s 18th century “new husbandry” movement, central to which was the use of manure, delivered both straight from the source, by animals grazing on land being rested from crop-growing, and more indirectly, from the waste cleaned out of the barns.
Other forms of compost were used too, as were fish heads and tails from the large-scale harvesting of the piscine inhabitants of the Potomac. (These also provided, we were told, about two-thirds of the annual revenue of the estate. The edible parts of the fish were salted and preserved and traded far and wide, with the plantations of the Caribbean, themselves too busy making sugar to fish the rich waters around them, providing one of the primary markets. A D.C. guidebook we bought says, however, that the estate’s distillery was the main profit source, but this may reflect different periods in the development of the Mount, or a stretching of the truth to appeal to our current craft booze-besotted times.)
Direct-deposit manuring was itself part of a sophisticated seven year system of crop- and animal-rotation on the lands of the farms that form Mt. Vernon, many of which were bought on the cheap from tobacco farmers who’d moved on for richer soil they could perform their same extractions upon. Learning this I couldn’t help but think of Wendell Berry’s Unsettling of America, which details the pressure for the West created by successive depletions of soil by farmers who knew it was easier to move than to care for the land where they were. Somewhat ironically, given the practices he himself preached and followed, this was a pressure that G.W. benefitted from financially, as he invested in the lands taken from the native peoples of the Ohio Valley and surrounding areas that farmers wanted to move into. (This was made clear at a stop at the Fort Pitt museum in Pittsburgh on the way home.)
Reclaiming and rebuilding depleted soils and shifting the focus from tobacco to grains were just part of Washington’s vision for how to farm well by intelligently utilizing what resources were locally available. For instance, he used timber harvested from his estate forests for many purposes, including to make the boats that caught the fish in the Potomac who gave their heads and tails (and probably hearts) to the soil.
Our First Fertilizer also saw the importance of breeding animals suited to the peculiarities of the place where they were used. Mules, horses, and oxen all had jobs on the farms of the estate, and other cattle, as well as chickens, provided meat, eggs, and dairy for consumption and at least some small amount of trade. We were also told that Washington launched one of the first mule-production operations stateside, which helped the mule to become a work animal of choice for many – and, of course, part of the promised but undelivered compensation during Reconstruction for freed slaves.
But here I get to the caveat I mentioned earlier about the sustainability of all this, for animals obviously weren’t the only ones who were compelled to work on the estate. Washington was able to accomplish his agricultural wizardry because he had at his command three hundred-odd enslaved people, people who no doubt made unrecorded contributions beyond just physical labor to the design and success of the estate’s farm system. About a third of these were directly owned by Washington. (He famously willed that they were to be set free upon Martha’s death, though she freed them sooner.) So, obviously, if we’re to look at the farming systems Washington borrowed and developed, the innovations he introduced, etc., and to see something to praise, we can’t but at the same time feel profound sadness for the people who were forced to labor for his enrichment, and anger towards him and those others who were complicit in their enslavement and dedicated to preserving the larger institution of slavery in the new nation.
But American patriotism, if is to amount to anything morally respectable (i.e., not just knee-jerk nationalism), has no choice but to take up the impossible Janus-faced stance of lamenting the price paid by so many in the past and building on the good things that this corrupt past made possible.
So, in the current moment, in which some widespread desire for a renewed and renewing vision of agriculture is felt, why not look in part to the man whom we for other reasons credit as being the father of our country? Even if we’re going to remain committed to the vision of Washington as the military and political founder of our nation, let’s also teach our kids his vision of a sophisticated place-based, systems-oriented agriculture that focuses on renewable resources and the health of the soil. But let’s also ask the question he didn’t: how we can implement such a vision while respecting the humanity of those who do the intensive work it requires?
In other words, American history is a barn full of shit. So let’s take it out and compost it.
(For more on the agriculture at Mt. Vernon, see this: https://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/pioneer-farm/)