“Small pleasure must correct great tragedies,
Therefore of gardens in the midst of war
I boldly tell.”
…….Vita Sackville-West

So opens a wonderful book called Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime by Kenneth Helphand. This fascinating book tells of “gardens soldiers built inside the trenches in World War I; gardens built in the Warsaw and other ghettos under the Nazis during World War II; gardens in the POW and civilian internment camps of both world wars; and gardens created by Japanese Americans held at U.S. internment camps during World War II.” Since we are heading into what I call “book season,” this is one I think you will find worth reading. My high school history teacher, Mr. Teague, told our class that human history could be said to be the history of war. That is a sad testimony, I think, that we are so motivated to do each other in, I suppose due to greed and/or entitlement. My other thought is that if war ever solved anything, wouldn’t there have been only one? Yet the fighting continues. In some parts of our world it has never stopped. And yet we simultaneuously cling to the hope for a new and better day.

In my first semester of graduate school I took a class called “The History of Landscape Design.” I learned that one of the first spoils of war brought back from a conquered land were plants and seeds. So started the integration of people and cultures, plants as a means of identification of place and boundary expansion. But plants provide something else: they provide a chance a to see something grow, come to life from care and cultivation, with nurturing. When applied to soldiers growing gardens in wartime, the meaning of growing and cultivating goes deeper still. Defiant Gardens tells how gardens and gardening as a process “represent adaptation to challenging circumstances but they can also be viewed from other dimensions as sites of assertion and affirmation”(p.1).  A bit more into the book, Helphand writes, “In one sense, to be in the garden is to be Adam and Eve–to return to innocence….At one end is a nostalgic desire to return to our origins in the ideal perfection of the past. At the other is a quest for hoped-for future” (p.5). My concept of a garden was challenged as I continued with Defiant Gardens: my sense of a garden had been a place that is permanent, or relatively so, or as a place visited. These soldier gardens were set up knowing they were not permanent or lasting, or hoping they would not be. In describing the gardens in the French trenches of World War I, “Soldiers did what they had to do to cope with the war. Their first goal was to survive, but they accomplished much more. These gardens offered much in addition to sustenance. They offered soldiers a way to control something in the midst of chaos. The represented home and hope, affording a pastoral escape from the war–one essential for mental health. The gardens were mechanisms of survival, but they were also a form of trench art: they were good for food and good to look at”(p.23).

A soldier’s war experience doesn’t not end even once the soldier leaves war zone. Once home, soldiers cope with the aftermath in ways most of us can only imagine, trying to integrate the war experience best they can into a civilian lifestyle. The path is not easy or smooth. In a “Chicago Tribune” article from last year, we read about some of the ways help is coming for our returning soldiers:

“While researchers delve into the science, veterans from conflicts past and present are increasingly turning to a movement of so-called “green care,” which can include everything from hiking to horseback riding, said Stephanie Westlund, author of the 2014 book, “Field Exercises: How Veterans Are Healing Themselves through Farming and Outdoor Activities.” ‘We have this connection to nature that is not totally explainable but works really well,” she said. “For someone who has been around death, gardening and farming in particular give them a chance to nurture life.'”

Chicago Botanic Gardens, partnering with a mental health group called Thresholds, veterans work in the garden to help them cope with post traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. “‘A garden contains just about every metaphor for growth,’ said Barbara Kreski, director of horticultural therapy services at the botanic garden. ‘There’s life and death, beginnings and endings.'” In contrast to war, the idea of a garden is to build up so that health–whether from food or just pure beauty–is obtained. There is contribution to something good, something our work can to large degree control. Participating in the process helps to ease the inner wars that many veterans continue to wage upon returning home, snuggling to cope with the aftermath of their war experiences.  The activity of gardening is “grounding” and helps to keep the veterans in the present by focus, creating a future of hope. The full article is here

Thank you, Veterans, for your sacrifice.

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