April 2nd, 2009

Michelle Obama has started a kitchen garden behind the White House, with the “help” of local schoolkids. The motivation is, she told Oprah Winfrey, a contemporary urban and parental concern with healthy eating.

We want to use it as a point of education, to talk about health and how delicious it is to eat fresh food, and how you can take that food and make it part of a healthy diet.

Sound stuff, though growing your own veg is not very useful advice in the South Side of Chicago.

The garden is clearly a response to lobbying from environmental and foodie groups, who are a bit suspicious of Barack Obama’s green credentials – they feel his commitments are a revocable judgement of the head not an inviolable matter of the heart. Planting and maintaining a garden is a sign that he is an environmentalist for the long term.

Gardening is also therapy for many of us.

It is used with some success in New York prisons, and the English telly celebrity gardener Monty Don has set up a charity to work with young offenders. Naturally it’s prudent of the Obamas to downplay any admission of human weakness, but I find it reassuring that the President of the United States will sometimes be getting his fingers literally dirty and confronting the limits of the tractability of the natural world in the form of slugs and thieving finches.

It won’t have escaped Michelle Obama’s constitutional scholar of a husband that her garden revives the practice of the Founders. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were all keen gardeners, and cows grazed round the White House building site. The message then was sturdy self-reliance, and in Jefferson’s case, progress through science, in the form of genetic modification through plant breeding. He grew 27 varieties of kidney beans alone at Monticello. Jefferson’s spirit lives on in the palatial kitchen gardens of English stately homes. Here is a small corner of the one at West Dean in Sussex – the handsome conical pots are for forcing rhubarb.

Veg garden bis.jpg

Washington and Jefferson did not of course plant, muck and weed their lettuces personally, as the Obamas plan to do. Plantation-owners had slaves for that. So Michelle’s garden is part of a reclamation by the slaves’ descendants of the entire polity, of which the garden is an ancient if conservative image. (Enclosed Scottish estates are actually called policies.) Rahm Emanuel should do his bit with shears and pruning hook: the head gardener of the Ottoman Sultans doubled as the palace executioner.

There’s an even older echo. Plantation slaves kept their own gardens to feed themselves. The system goes back to the dawn of the Atlantic slave trade (Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade, 1997, p. 110):

In 1520 a Portuguese pilot visited São Tomé and found there planters owning as many as 300 slaves each. These were obliged to work the whole week, he reported, save for Sundays and holy days, “when they work on their own plots – growing millet, yams, or sweet potatoes, also many vegetables.”

The scheme was more efficient for the owners than providing rations, and left the (Christian) overseers free for their Biblical Sunday rest. But it also allowed the slaves a little corner of relative autonomy, a beachhead they later expanded by conversion to their masters’ religion. Later American slaveowners maintained the practice, though they were justifiably uneasy (John Michael Vlach, Back of the big house, 1993, p.168):

Although opinion was divided, there can be no doubt that the practice was widespread. When slaves were allowed to have gardens, planters were spared the expense of providing rations, but gardening was also considered dangerous because it gave the slaves a significant opportunity to claim a degree of autonomy.

So the White House kitchen garden marks a full stop at the end of a long line of gardens of slaves and gerdens tended by slaves. Eleanor Roosevelt launched victory gardens. Michelle’s is a liberation garden.

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