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House & garden

Roots of war

Giving hell that homey feeling

Dig it: Gardens flank shelters in the French trenches.
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Published 4/11/2007

For most middle-class Americans, including myself, gardening is a relaxing hobby, not a necessity. There's nothing like cultivating a head of cabbage or a bucket full of ripe tomatoes from delicate seedlings in my back yard. The pastime calms me and keeps me sane. But it's certainly not the one and only activity keeping my mind off a bloody battle (well, at least not literally).

Kenneth Helphand's recent book, Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, paints a vivid, provocative picture, for instance, of elaborate woodwork and lush greenery that wouldn't look out of place in a contemporary Los Angeles condo complex ... except that it's located near the German front line during World War I.

In great detail, Defiant Gardens describes gardens created in times of war. This isn't another text for history buffs, landscape architects and designers, although they'll read it with great interest. Instead this book compels us to contemplate the strength of the human spirit.

Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon in Eugene, was initially drawn to the project when he stumbled across one photograph of a French soldier and his World War I trench garden. Speaking on the phone from his home in Eugene, he says he kept it because he had a hunch "it was important and meant something." Soon after, he heard from a colleague who was researching World War II's Jewish ghettos by reading residents' memoirs and diaries. He remembers she called him about one in particular:

"She said, 'They mention a garden in here!' I went to that diary immediately. That started the track of looking at the ghettos. I had never heard of it, neither really had anyone else."

Helphand delved into resources in New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as in Warsaw and the Jewish Historical Institute in Israel. Because detailed maps exist, he was also able to visit and walk the streets of Warsaw over a few days with his wife, locating exact addresses where gardens once stood. There, with a subject that, as a Jew, personally affected him, he began researching people who turn the earth, growing something from nothing in the most unlikely of circumstances, be it in prisons, ghettos or trenches. He adds that he "made a choice in the book in trying to only talk about situations with some degree of free will." Gardens in concentration camps, tended by slave laborers, aren't included: "It meant something different. Ethically and morally, it is in such a different category."

In his survey, Helphand discovered gardens were most common at POW camps, but he also found them at base camps during the Vietnam and Korean wars and during World War II. But "the most dramatic and surprising and extraordinary" gardens were along the 400 trenched miles of the Western front during World War I.

Because the front was stable for many years, soldiers "were essentially living there. ... You need the space and you need so much time, or the sense that there will be enough time." English, French, German and, to a lesser extent, American soldiers all dug in.

On a psychological level, it makes sense that soldiers would want to cultivate life in the trenches, to regain a lost sense of humanity. "On a very fundamental level a garden is alive. Plants are alive. In a world where death is all around you and imminent and can happen to you, any planting, any garden, is a symbol of hope ... a powerful reminder of home," he says.

Even now, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are gardening. One example Helphand cites is that of Army Warrant Officer Brook Turner, who cultivated a small plot of grass in the desert sand. Turner, the camp cook, hand-watered the plot three times each day and trimmed it with scissors. He says that, at his home in Hawaii, he watered the lawn barefoot while listening to music.

"I thought if I planted some grass I could still do that in a silly kind of way," Turner says. Just as World War I trench gardeners chose plants that reminded them of home, Turner has chosen to grow an all-American crop of turf in the desert.

Combining the realities of the harsh desert landscape with West Coast and Japanese styles, the Japanese-Americans who were interned in camps during World War II also found a way to express themselves through landscaping, producing gardens of incredible magnitude. Helphand speaks reverently of their elaborate gardens' large stones and pools.

"The Japanese-American internment gardens are gorgeous, beautifully designed with great artistic skill and great craft. You had people who were incredibly skillful that were allowed to do this, to exercise that skill, something they were very good at. They were dropped into an alien environment that they learned how to transform through their own trial and error."

While growing food was an important part of the World War I prisoner camps and, most dramatically, in the Jewish ghettos, Helphand is adamant that food was not the most important aspect of any of the gardens he talks about.

"Growing food and helping keep someone alive is fundamental and critical," he says, "but this book is all based on first-person accounts, and many people would say that beyond the food, other things were so significant to them. The work was critical to them — some people would expend more calories than they would consume from the food they were growing. Many wrote about beauty. By beauty, I mean the art that they were creating." This calls to his mind a biblical quote, which he cites in the book: "It was written that everything planted in the Garden of Eden was 'pleasant to the sight and good for food.' It's a pair, a couplet — and it's important that 'pleasant to the sight' is mentioned first."

The term "defiant garden" can encompass more than just Helphand's wartime gardens — those are extreme examples. Locally, a lone gardener's row of vegetables in Detroit's north Corktown or over on Heidelberg Street are defiant: Soil is nurtured and crops tended, despite the rough terrain. Before being cleared for development, the lot across the street from my Corktown house was wooded, and a pheasant couple lived there year-round. I loved standing at the window with my morning cup of coffee, hoping to spot them. They made me feel lucky to be here. And some days, that's a hard feeling to conjure up.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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