December 2nd, 2006
Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime

Gardening as if our lives depended on it.
Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime.
Kenneth I. Helphand.
ISBN 978-1-59534-021-4.

Defiant Gardens bookcoverMy good friend KAT noticed that I began this gardening site the week of 9/11. In fact, on the morning of the attack I turned off my TV and went to the Natural Gardener to buy a cubic foot of Dillo Dirt just as I had planned. I spent the rest of the day feeding the roses. Do you think me callous? I think in times of great stress that it is natural that we turn to our gardens, to feel grounded so that we can regain balance, to feel a connection to the larger natural world that enables us to see with perspective, and most of all to find hope in the processes of germination and growth.

Why do you garden? Is it a leisure activity? a hobby? Gardening in this time and place is stripped of necessity. Cheaper food is to be had at the new Wal-Mart and those who argue against paving over farmland to build it and for paying higher prices for locally grown foods are considered a bit eccentric.

I garden neither from necessity nor simply for diversion. I garden from curiousity and compulsion. I garden because I must. And I feel guilty that I have this land and do so little to feed myself. My own garden is primarily decorative. At least it nourishes the spirit.

In Defiant Gardens Kenneth I. Helphand documents gardens tended in impossible places at impossible times: in the trenches of WWI battlefields, in the ghettos of WWII Poland, in the POW camps of Europe, in the civilian internment camps run by the Japanese in the Philippines and those run by the Americans in the USA. These are gardens of necessity, grown to feed starving bellies. But they are something more. They are acts of defiance. Helphand quotes Henry Mitchell’s famous line, “Defiance is what makes gardeners.” and expands upon it.

In an extreme situation beyond an individual’s control, such is common during war, the manifestation of he human ability to wield power over something is a potent reminder of our ability to withstand emotional despair and the forces of chaos. Gardens domesticate and humanize dehumanized situations. They offer a way to reject suffering, an inherent affirmation and sign of human perserverance. In contrast to war, gardens assert the dignity of life, human and nonhuman and celebrate it.

Kenneth Helphand writes many pages of analyses attempting to wrest meaning from the act of gardening under the most horrible conditions. The why seems obvious to me but he does a good job of articulating it. Still I prefer the more concrete descriptions–the answer to my questions of “How did they do it? How did they manage?” The book is at its best when he lets the gardeners speak for themselves. The quotes from letters and journals and the amazing photographs of gardeners who, in many cases, did not survive their imprisonments are mesmerizing, unforgettable.

Of the Minidoka internment camp Robert Hosokawa writes, “Bit by bit they brought home clumps of grass, mint plants, cattail, reeds and willows. Some found cactus, desert moss and bunchgrass. At first they placed these in bottles and brightened up their rooms. Few had gardens in mind but the materials increased and the idea grew. They carried home unusual formations of lava rock, dug gnarled grey sagebrush to plant as shrubbery along their porches. Children cornered little fish in the shallos of the canal and found rocklike mussels buried in soft silt.”

What of today? We have learned to defoliate the landscape with Agent Orange. We bulldoze olive groves that have stood for generations. Are there gardens in Bagdad? at Guantanamo? The American government does not allow them. Yet they grow.

by M Sinclair Stevens

One Response to post “Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime”

  1. From KAT (California):

    Thanks for this book review. I’ve been thinking a lot about why people cling to living in places that don’t seem or are no longer promising–just because it’s home. Likewise, when you have no choice but to stay, how can you make a prison livable? I’ll keep an eye out for this book. It sounds eloquent.