Food & Drink : Sowing Hope

'Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime'

Gardens are often considered places of sanctuary, quiet green spaces ordered and pleasing to the eye, where visitors commune with nature. The corollary perception is that gardeners engage in productive yet relaxing work.

In Defiant Gardens, author Kenneth Helphand explores the gardens created beside the trenches of World War I, and in the ghettos, internment camps, and prison camps of World War II. These gardens, he writes, are different than those planted in peacetime, not only because of the resilience and ingenuity it took to make them, but because they offered only a brief respite. Any sense of calm or quiet, or even of being far away from conflict could only be temporary, because war and death lay just outside the proverbial garden gate.

Helphand is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, and Defiant Gardens feels as though it were written by a scholar rather than a storyteller. Its tone is so heavily informed by letters, photographs, drawings, poems, secret diaries and histories (all recorded in stealth by the gardeners and their observers) that it never loses sight of its subjects’ humanity. At times it’s heartrending.

In the trenches of the Western Front, soldiers’ flower beds were sowed with seeds from home and decorated with found objects, a Howitzer shell case with an ornate oak motif pounded into it, or a fallen tree, its leaves still green. Starving and cut off from external food supplies, Jewish prisoners in the Warsaw ghetto planted vegetable gardens for sustenance. Interned Japanese-Americans designed traditional gardens in the desert, turning low-growing sagebrush into bonsai and creating ornate ponds with collected rocks.

These defiant gardens, Helphand argues, created order in chaos, and allowed the gardeners an area, albeit small and impermanent, over which they had control. There, the gardeners could reconnect with a sense of home — where gardens are so familiar a part of daily life they may be taken for granted — and of hope, not only that one might return home, but also that life would continue. The work of the garden was re-humanizing, a respite from death.

Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime
By Kenneth Helphand
Trinity University Press
$34.95, 303 pages

The gardens could also be deceptively hopeful. Helphand only briefly touches on the propaganda gardens Adolf Hitler planted, such as one in Teresin, where Jews were forced to plant vegetable beds for the sake of visiting aid workers, who saw Teresin as a “model ghetto.” In reality, starving Jews were forbidden to eat from the show gardens and Teresin was a deportation site to the death camps.

A photo of Merrit Park in Manzanar, a Japanese-American internment camp in California, includes a well-formed foot bridge that crosses a pond in which a rustic stone turtle bobs just at the surface, seeming to sun itself — it could be a tea garden in any city. “Sometimes you could face away from the barracks, look past a tiny rapids toward the darkening mountains, and for a while not be a prisoner at all,” wrote Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who was a child in the camp. “You could hang suspended in some odd, almost lovely land you could not escape from, yet almost didn’t want to leave.”