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A Conversation on Landscape Restoration:
Excerpts From Cullen Murphy's
Interview With Peter Hatch

Cullen Murphy: Could you describe for me the general world of horticulture and historical restoration -- what the various schools of thought are?

Peter Hatch: I can think of two sorts of fields or approaches to the topic. One is the whole philosophy behind the idea of landscape restoration. Gardens and trees grow up. If you were going to duplicate Jefferson's garden here at Monticello, for example, you would have to cut out the large trees, because in his day they would have been saplings. What we aspire to do at Monticello is to provide a vignette of what existed, and we really can't produce the absolute truth, the historic garden, because it was always changing and you can't duplicate that -- the quantity of weeds that were in the garden, or so many of these detailed things that make so much of what a garden is.

We can get a sense of these details in terms of the character of the plants; for example, the species of flowers we've left in there were more for fragrance or curiosity than for show or display. The Chinaberry tree also gives you a good sense of the taste of the early nineteenth century from a very sophisticated and cosmopolitan figure, Thomas Jefferson; we regard the tree today as a common leaf tree.

Jefferson designed the idea of the grove, which I think tells a lot about him and his ideal of the true American garden. And it is also a good example of a historical concept that has a lot of relevance today. So the central issue in some ways is how the garden is interpreted as much as how it is portrayed. I think it is very important that historic sites extend a lot of energy to introducing people to what they are experiencing, because it is impossible to recreate a historic landscape. But you can compromise and create a vignette, or some degree of a pulse of a historic landscape fairly effectively, as I think we have done at Monticello.

I guess another issue is the living, historical farm, versus the historic garden. There are a lot of places where the garden is interpreted in terms of its labor, people are costumed doing labor in fields, and people are using historic tools to take care of the plants and gardens. That is a very effective historical interpretant, and an educational tool. We don't do that at Monticello just because I think other people are doing it very well--places like Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. We are just trying to communicate the interests of Thomas Jefferson and a little about the character of gardens in the early nineteenth century. So we are not purists in our approach. We view it as a historical farm, with modern tools and machinery, and use sort of a casual approach to the horticultural technology that is available today.

CM: Are there any riddles about this place?

PH: Thomas Jefferson is a riddle; I think that is what makes him such an incredible figure. He is all things to all people. He is an ambiguous figure; in terms of landscape, in terms of politics, in terms of slavery, or whatever, he oscillated throughout his life. Like all of us, he evolved and changed a great deal.

I think what is unique about our landscape program is that we have all of this documentation. In some ways the documentation leads to just further riddles and puzzles. One example is the mystery of the Jefferson Grape. Although Jefferson was this avid wine lover, and aspired to make wine at Monticello, and was a great pioneer in American viniculture, we have no documentation that he ever made wine here at Monticello. And so what happened to all of these plants? That is a riddle.

Another riddle that we have at Monticello is what this place looked like in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. In some ways we know more about it when Jefferson was here than we do when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation was taking over the property in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. We have some very sparse documentation of what this place was like that we are trying to flesh out by getting some oral histories. But still, how the landscape evolved between Jefferson's death and the purchase of the property by the Foundation up through today -- there are a lot of riddles from every era. People talk about landscape in terms of a variety of layers, different chapters that occur through time. Really filling out the pages of those chapters is always a puzzle.

One approach we have taken has been to assemble all of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century photographs of Monticello, and to put them on a computer program called CARPET, Computer-Aided Reverse Perspective Analysis. The photograph is a two-dimensional image of a three dimensional object, and just by looking at a photograph, you cannot tell exactly where the trees were. Through this computer model we made initial stabs to pinpoint where all of the trees were in the late-nineteenth and early- twentieth centuries. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to look at a little bit of the evolution of the history of those tree plants since Jefferson's death.

The system might also be effective at taking paintings contemporary with Jefferson -- from, say, the 1820s and the 1830s -- and looking at the trees and shrubs that are portrayed in those paintings and putting them on the very same computer model. And maybe identify what was there in 1824 versus 1830, 1870 to 1910, and on. That is an important plan, and it is one way through scientific and modern means of trying to decipher some of these riddles. And archaeology, of course, is another way of doing it. New documents come to light, too. A new page of Jefferson's Garden Book came to light about ten years ago. Just a marvelous thing to discover. You think you know it all in terms of landscape and gardening from the documentation, but these things do surface. Contemporary descriptions of Monticello also surface from time to time. They provide a very clear window in some ways to what life was like during that period.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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