adventure, gardening, williamsburg cookbook

Mount Vernon

About a month ago, I chaperoned my tenth-grade class to Washington, D.C. on their annual five-day field trip. Not only did I lead the trip, but I also had spent the entire year planning and preparing for this adventure. Therefore, the trip entailed:

  • 33 teenage girls
  • 4 chaperones (including me)
  • 1 long-suffering bus driver
  • 1 viewing of National Treasure and Tangled
  • endless fast food
  • 3 1/2 days of walking, walking, walking. And then more walking!
  • 12 monuments (the FDR Memorial was my favorite)
  • 8 museums and visitor centers (including the National Archives, the Capitol, and the Holocaust Museum)
  • more reminders about not slamming hotel doors at 6:30 in the morning than I care to recount

Overall, it was a fun (but absolutely exhausting) trip. I have never slept so well as the night we returned home. And while there are loads of stories I could tell, I’d really like to tell you about the morning we visited Mount Vernon.

Mount Vernon is George Washington’s gorgeous estate, which is in northern Virginia overlooking the Potomac River. When you stand on the front porch of his mansion, you can look out over the sloping hill to the river beyond, and you completely forget where you are.

While the mansion was beautiful, we were herded through it like cattle to accommodate the huge numbers of tourists. Apparently we’d decided to visit D.C. during prime school visit season, so we had to contend with a group from nearly every other school in the nation. So I appreciated seeing rooms like Washington’s bedroom (although I didn’t understand the fascination of seeing the bed where he died), but where I really enjoyed myself was in wandering the grounds of the estate.

I found a group of my students watching the sheep. They squealed over the cluster of lambs lounging in the sun, and debated among themselves what to name each one. Luckily they refrained from bleating at the sheep, which is what some other teenagers were doing. You always see a group of kids doing that at farms or living history museums–it’s funny, but it’s also a commentary on how distanced most kids are from farm animals.

Then I wandered down to the Pioneer Farm, which represents George Washington’s innovations in farming techniques. Apparently he grew frustrated with the farming methods used by early Virginian tobacco farmers (this was colonial Virginia, remember), and so he turned to new kinds of plowing, fertilizers, and crop rotation to get the most out of his crops. You don’t usually think of Washington as a farmer–he’s got that refined, first-leader-of-our-country air about him in all his portraits–but apparently he considered himself a farmer before a commander. When he was away from home, he’d long to get back to Mount Vernon to try out new landscape designs. Landscape design!

It was a gorgeous spring morning, just warm and sunny enough to remind us that summer really is on the way. Walking around the raised beds made me excited to get back to my own garden. And it nurtured that far-away dream I have of an outdoor space that’s just for gardening: raised beds, or maybe a plot with neat rows, for tomatoes and spinach and kale and potatoes. All my favorite vegetables. Who knew I’d turn into such a gardening freak?!

And it was fascinating to look around at a recreated 18th-century Virginian farm, complete with old plows (tugged by horses), woven wooden supports for climbing plants, and examples of fencing (yes, he really did experiment with different types of fencing). It’s so different from farming today, so much closer to nature, in a way. But I suppose you’d sacrifice efficiency and output for old-fashioned methods.

Perhaps I just got starry-eyed at Mount Vernon, the way I often do with history. It’s a struggle for me not to consistently see old methods and techniques as better. But it certainly got me thinking about the overlap between the 18th century and today, and how I can apply some of those more natural methods to my own garden. And that’s got to be worth something.

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