Brief Lives -- August 1996
A horticulturist and the landscape at Monticello
THOMAS Jefferson, then the American ambassador to France, was in Paris in 1789 when the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution began. He wrote to James Madison a few days later, saying that he would probably not be coming home anytime soon: "This scene," Jefferson observed, "is too interesting to be left at present."
On a recent Bastille Day, I found myself entertaining similar sentiments during a visit with Peter Hatch at Monticello, Jefferson's home in the Virginia Piedmont. Hatch, Monticello's director of gardens and grounds, is the man who more than any other is responsible for restoring the 2,000-acre plantation's gardens and groves to a state resonant with Jefferson's intentions, as spelled out in a copious body of drawings and agronomic observations. Jefferson was an
Peter Hatch arrived in 1977. He immediately started re-creating Jefferson's ornamental forest, known as the Grove. Next, after an archaeological investigation that began in 1979, came the rebuilding and replanting of the
I was introduced to the work of Peter Hatch by a mutual friend, who sent me a wonderfully learned and cheerfully quirky manuscript by Hatch titled "Chainyballs, Tennis-ball Lettuce, and the Breast of Venus Peach." Among other things, I discovered from the manuscript that Jefferson's favorite vegetable probably was peas, and that he cultivated seventeen kinds of them; that he grew beans and corn from seeds brought back by Lewis and Clark; that he was instrumental in popularizing the tomato in America, although the tomato he knew was ribbed and lobed like a pumpkin or a buttercup squash; and that, in the Grove, he assiduously maintained a collection of what one visitor mockingly called "pet trees"--exotic specimens gathered from around the country and the world. In addition, Hatch had this to say about Jefferson:
His passion often outstripped his skill, and the saga of many horticultural projects, from grape culture to sugar-maple plantations, began with dreamy visions that dissolved before the harsh realities of the Virginia climate and an unruly plantation structure.
Jefferson was also at all times deeply in debt, and though he employed a great many overseers in the course of a lifetime, he never had one who earned his confidence.
PETER Hatch is a youthful-looking man of forty-seven who dresses in a way appropriate to physical activity outdoors. When I met him, on a day in July when the temperature exceeded 100°, he wore gray shorts and a gray sport shirt and strong brown walking shoes. He has lived in the South for almost three decades, and its soft tones lightly coat his speech, leaving no hint of
Hatch's greenhouses and his office lie just out of sight of Jefferson's mansion and about a hundred feet below it, on the eastern slope of Monticello mountain. Not far from his door a dirt track gives entry to the forest. Hatch pointed to it and said, "Let's take the second roundabout." The trees closed above us.
Jefferson encircled his 867-foot-high mountain at four elevations with level tracks the width of a carriage. The first roundabout is at the summit, and girds the house and lawns and gardens. The fourth roundabout is halfway down the mountain. The roundabouts are connected one to another by sloping tracks that Jefferson called "one-in-tens" and "one-in-twenties," referring to the steepness of the grade. We followed a counterclockwise course along the second roundabout, Hatch offering intermittent commentary. He stopped at an ironwood tree to admire its silvery fluted trunk, its striking combination of delicacy and strength. We came across a lone magnolia in a thick forest of chestnut and hickory, an upland setting unusual for magnolias. "It's probably a descendant of one Jefferson planted around the house," Hatch explained. Non-native species that propagate in new environments are said to have "escaped." Jefferson's collection of non-native plants was vast, and as a result flora on the lam can today be found all over his mountain. Seeing these plants, I thought of John Adams's last words: "Jefferson still survives."
Along the roundabout a little farther on, the forest lightened considerably: we had come to the lower Grove, where the thick underbrush has been removed and the trees have been thinned and pruned to a height of twenty or thirty feet, so
Continuing on, still counterclockwise, we edged by the upper Grove and its reassembled riot of pet trees--chinaberries and magnolias, dogwoods and catalpas--and then moved on to the long vegetable garden on the terrace. Thick rows of Jefferson's ribbed tomatoes--represented by the species Costoluto genovese--were well on the way to ripeness. Extreme heat had been preceded by weeks of rain, and rot was afflicting some of the other fruits and vegetables. Looking at the damage, Hatch mentioned that Jefferson had been maddeningly optimistic in the face of agricultural calamity. "He once lost his whole wheat crop," Hatch said, "but that was okay, because it gave him a chance to study the life cycle of the pest that destroyed it--the Hessian fruit fly. He had a phrase about the failure of one thing being repaired by the success of another." From the bottom of the terrace's retaining wall the vineyards and orchards stretch downward into the distance. Jefferson was a skilled surveyor, and left plans for his fields, but frequently that is not enough. One might know the location of an orchard, but where were the individual trees? Archaeology has sometimes been of help: for example, excavations revealed the precise locations of scores of the original orchard trees, in the form of circular stains left in the red-clay soil by the decomposed trunks.
Hatch found us a cool place in the shade near the Garden Pavilion and described the tribulations involved in trying to stock the landscape with the exact
BACK in his office I looked around for a few minutes while Hatch returned some telephone calls. A kitchen table displayed a colorful assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables; the garden's produce is distributed among staff and volunteers. In a photograph nearby I picked out Hatch's face from a group of players in nineteenth-century baseball uniforms. He is on a team that plays by the old rules and with the old equipment (or, as in the case of baseball gloves, without equipment). A corner table held slides of grapes and grapevines for a monograph being readied for publication.
When he was free, I asked Hatch to define what he was and wasn't trying to accomplish at Monticello. One thing Monticello isn't, he said, is a living historical farm, like the ones to be found at, say, Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation, in Massachusetts. His staff doesn't dress in period clothing or employ period tools or eschew fertilizer and pesticides. As Hatch observed, "Other people are doing that sort of thing very well." Monticello, rather, is an attempt at landscape restoration--"to provide a vignette of what
Several big projects lie ahead at Monticello, including the gradual reintroduction of the "clumps" of trees at the corners of the mansion and the creation of a scenic parkway down to the main county road. Hatch also has administrative chores and lectures to attend to. And he is completing a book. But the biggest challenge he faces, Hatch says, is simply meeting the plantation's daily demands. "I strive toward managing the landscape and restoring the gardens and reviving old plants more diligently than any other facet of my job. These are things that I will never completely finish to my highest expectations."
Thomas Jefferson might have delivered the same self-assessment. But he would have come closer to what he intended with the help of Peter Hatch.