Book Review - “Defiant Gardens”

We're fortunate to be featuring book reviews by horticultural history author Judith M. Taylor. After a career in neurology, she retired to northern California and now “practices history without a license.”  She is currently working on her forth book and is the honorary librarian and book editor for the San Francisco Garden Club. Her website is Horthistoria.
Kenneth Helphand, a noted landscape architect and professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, Eugene, has come up with an amazing theme. He had seen a photograph of soldiers in the first world war standing next to a garden they had made at the front. The image stuck in his mind and led him to a series of researches culminating in this book.
Soldiers confined to the hellish trenches of the first world war, Jews confined to the even more hellish Polish ghettos in the second world war, Allied prisoners of war in Germany and Asia, and Japanese Nisei interned in the United States all made gardens which he has designated “defiant”. Helphand even considers the substitute “gardens” made by American soldiers in the first Gulf War, covering the sand outside their tents with green tarpaulin.
This extraordinary book combines standard garden theory with striking quotations from primary sources which have survived. The illustrations are archival photographs taken by many different observers. Gardens have a lot of philosophical significance which Helphand elaborates on at some length.
As anyone who has ever attempted to do it knows, creating and maintaining a garden in normal circumstances needs a lot of resources. Once I had recovered from astonishment at the existence of gardens in these situations, my immediate thought was, where did they find seeds in the Warsaw ghetto. My next one was how did they find cameras and film to record their work. During the second world war in England we were very short of almost everything, especially photographic film, yet our deprivations were as nothing to those in Poland's ghettos.
Time is one of the first issues in creating a garden. One does not start to do it if the future is totally unpredictable. The residents of the ghettos had not conceived of the possibility that they were to be erased from the earth and they applied their usual systems of community organization to deal with being locked in the ghetto. Planting vegetable seeds in any available piece of ground would at least provide some food. Unlike the soldiers and prisoners of war, the Jews in the ghetto were completely on their own, abandoned by the entire world. Nothing came from the outside, yet the scraps and fragments of their diaries all say how much the sight of something green in the ground elevated their spirits.
Soldiers sent to fight in a war do not expect to be in a foreign land for years on end. Gardens made sense out of a chaotic world. Workingmen who had grown prize marrows and marigolds in allotments quickly got busy and re-constructed patches of “home”. They were assisted in varying degrees by local farmers, family and friends and even in the end by the War Office in London.
The making of gardens was not limited to the Allies. The Germans also did it, some of them even more grandiose and complex than the English ones. British prisoners of war at Ruhleben founded their own horticultural society and affiliated it with the Royal Horticultural Society in London.
For a variety of reasons, Japanese immigrants to the United States had largely been confined to farming and landscaping. When they were forced into internment camps in 1944 they had the skill and experience needed to improve the dreadful conditions. After the war ended and they were allowed to return to their former homes, one of them, Yasusuke Kogita, dismantled the garden he had built at Minidoka and moved it back to Seattle so that it would never be forgotten.
While the topic of this book is very unusual, it is not unprecedented. In 1955 Enid Bagnold wrote a remarkable play, “The Chalk Garden”, later to become a successful film, in which an enigmatic governess constructs a garden on unpromising chalk soil. Only at the end is it revealed that she learned this skill while in prison for murder.
Prison authorities in many countries use gardening as a form of rehabilitation. The doyenne of English gardeners, Rosemary Verey, led such a movement in England. Prisoners at Ledhill Prison entered their garden in the Chelsea Flower Show one year and won the top prize. The distinction between these formally sanctioned activities and the ones chronicled in this book is that the impulse sprang from within the victims themselves.
The soldiers, prisoners and internees suffered many losses before going home but the Jews in the ghettos were annihilated intentionally. Somehow their gardens seem the most poignant of all.
Copyright © January 2011 Judith M. Taylor
Helphand, Kenneth L. Defiant Gardens: making gardens in wartime. San Antonia, Texas Trinity University Press, 2006.
Find this book in the Arboretum Library catalog here.

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© 2014 Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens

301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA, 91007

Site Design by Kirk Projects