“Founding Gardeners” Symposium Offers Food for Thought

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Andrea Wulf, author of New York Times best-seller “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation” and keynote speaker at OHIO’s Founders Day Symposium.

It’s the Libraries’ 200th birthday, Athens is about to blossom, and the founding of Ohio University is always something to celebrate. How does OHIO commemorate all three occasions at once? 

With a Founders Day symposium titled, “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation,” featuring New York Times best-selling author and keynote speaker Andrea Wulf

The event, which takes place Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. in the fourth floor 1951 Lounge of Alden Library, marks the official beginning of the Libraries’ bicentennial festivities. David Holben, Ohio University professor, and Lauren Cohen, a senior studying applied nutrition, will join Wulf with talks titled  “Thomas Jefferson: Gardener and Gastronome” and “Athens Locavores,” respectively.

Wulf, author of “Founding Gardeners,” has spoken on her book everywhere from the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg to Yale University. She possesses storytelling abilities that rival her writing.

 “You don’t have to be interested in plants or gardening to get swept up in her presentation,” a past audience member testified on her website. “She infuses it with compelling history, personalities, and even juicy gossip and scandal.”

Of course, those more interested in plants than colonial tabloid fodder will not be disappointed. Her talk, which draws heavily upon the material in the book, sheds light on the integral role that gardening played in the lives of the revolutionary generation: “For the founding fathers, gardening, agriculture, and botany were elemental passions, as deeply ingrained in their characters as their belief in liberty for the nation they were creating,” reads her book.

And as Wulf points out, Ohio University’s own founding father, Manasseh Cutler, was no exception to the rule. Cutler was as a prominent botanist in the 18th century, and his reputation is reflected in the Libraries’ special collections. Botanical notebooks and letters comprise a major portion of the Mahn Center’s Manasseh Cutler Collection, and his article, “An Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions Growing in This Part of America, Botanically Arranged,” was published in the first volume of the Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1785). 

(From left) Lauren Cohen, a senior in applied nutrition and Dr. David Holben, a professor in nutrition, will discuss "Athens Locavores" and "Thomas Jefferson: Gardener and Gastronome" at the Founders Day Symposium.
(From left) Lauren Cohen, a senior in applied nutrition, and Dr. David Holben, a professor in nutrition, will discuss “Athens Locavores” and “Thomas Jefferson: Gardener and Gastronome,” respectively, at the Founders Day Symposium. (Photo by Tyler Stabile/University Libraries)

Holben builds on Wulf’s foundation with a talk about another botanist you may have heard of: Thomas Jefferson, gardener and gastronome. The talk will be based on material from Holben’s course of the same name, which he was given the opportunity to develop when he was awarded University Professor status in 2006.  Since then, the multi-disciplinary class has been integrated into OHIO’s regular program curriculum and dubbed one of the University’s seven “weirdest classes” of 2013 by the Athens News — and if by “weird” they mean “engaging,” that’s fine by him.

“Students say, ‘Wow, I just thought of Thomas Jefferson as one of the authors of the declaration of independence,’” Holben said. “The class allows us to look at our forefathers in a totally different light — they had personal interests.”

What people often don’t realize, Holben said, is that Jefferson used those interests in gardening and fine foods to engage people in conversation about important issues of the time. Luckily for symposium attendees, it’s a tactic that Holben has been known to emulate: University catering will be providing special refreshments based on recipes popular during the Jefferson era.

“The history of botany in the late 18th centuries is fascinating,” Scott Seaman, dean of University Libraries, said. “And current views on sustainability, heirloom plants and genetic diversity make this topic a perfect fit.”

The event concludes with a look at those current views through a local lens — literally. Cohen, who works as an undergraduate research assistant to Holben, will profile the “Athens Locavores” with a documentary-style film and facilitate a discussion on the importance of the local food movement happening in Athens.

“The video features not only businesses and farmers, but also students who have taken a large role in sustainability in Athens, professors, and classes that have been geared towards gardening and agriculture,” said Cohen.   

It’s the celebration of a community built around an appreciation of food — something that would no doubt make our founding fathers proud. 

Join us for the Founders Day Symposium, “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation,” featuring New York Times best-selling author and keynote speaker Andrea Wulf, Dr. David Holben, and Lauren Cohen on Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. in the fourth floor 1951 Lounge of Alden Library. 

Also be sure to check out the complementary display co-curated by Dr. Sara Harrington, head of arts & archives, and Jeremiah Myers, PACE student for exhibits, located near the fourth floor stairwell.