defiant gardens: another perspective on 9/11

Landscape architect Kenneth Helpland’s 2006 book on gardens–other than “victory gardens”–during wartime

The image above is the line I will be thinking along on September 11, as I haul a truck-load of mulch from the City compost facility to my friend’s house in S LA. Gardens of defeat, and defiance, have a lot to offer the commemorative mood…

The modern-day food movement often looks to the small and doable scale of the “Victory Garden” as a model for what can regular people can do to feed themselves, and get all kinds of benefits–health, de-linking from industrial food, and the lazy satisfaction of stepping outside your front door to grab the materials for dinner. I get the comparison, and love the iconography. Posters like these make the humble routine of getting your hands dirty seem not so small-scale at all–everyman’s sacrifice is heroic and aesthetically pleasing.

Although commonly associated with WW2, the “good war,” victory gardens were actually first planted during WW1:

Uncle Sam offers literature on gardening during WW1-note the pastoral landscape, and somewhat eclectic mix of winter and summer vegetables


A flapper-esque Lady Liberty strays seeds, à la Johnny Appleseed, in a WW1 poster

And even cartoon characters got in on the act–the goofy as well as the heroic.

One of the pragmatic how-to cartoons, carried in a story of goofiness, as Barney tries to purge a mole from his garden


In the more familiar 1943 round of victory gardens, Batman and Robin put aside their differences with competing brands to get their hands dirty (except for Batman, who prudently wears gloves)

But the triumphalist tone of victory, in 2011, has always unsettled me a little bit. I think there is a lot of moral high ground to be had in making gardens. But I’m not crazy about linking home gardening, much less school gardening, to a nostalgia for hunkering down in a time of war.

As a different approach to gardening in a time of war, the Defiant Gardens book is interesting to me for 2 reasons.

One, is the mere fact that it swerves away from the tried-and-true narrative of community gardens, which are usually traced back to ideas from land grant universities that drift into industrial 19th c. cities, and are tied to progressive reforms to make workers’ or students’ lives healthier and more fit for work. This more familiar story is mapped out nicely in Laura Lawson’s City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Lawson hits the big national touchstones of Detroit and Philly, both of which had big initiatives in city gardens well before 1990s de-industrialization. She also covers the arguments for school gardens, which really haven’t changed much in 100 years, though the jargon has (obesity instead of spindliness). And she has the de rigueur chapter on victory gardens.

Helpland’s book on defiant and defeated gardens is a little more interested in what might seem to be perverse operations. He explores how and why people in extreme–often interned or occupied–circumstances nonetheless plant gardens. Gardens are a notoriously time-based art that may take years to come into a lookable or edible condition. Why bother? He looks at “gardens of war in the 20th century, including gardens built behind the trenches in World War I, in the Warsaw and other ghettos during World War II, and in Japanese-American internment camps, as well as gardens created by soldiers at their bases and encampments during wars in the Persian Gulf, Vietnam, and Korea.” It turns out there is a lot to learn from gardening as a speculative fiction, which may or may not ultimately come into fruition.

The book introduces new photos and stories of wartime gardens in Nazi-occupied Poland, and connects them to contemporary prisons, as well as occupying soldiers’ efforts in the other Asian wars of the 20th century, Korea and Vietnam. Aside from my amateur work in S LA gardens, my local professional interest is, of course, the internment gardens that were planted in the camps established by FDR following Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. Before WW2, 1 of 3 Japanese American men was employed as a gardener.

Defiant Gardens has a great on-line set of materials that includes photos, biblios, and links, here. I will end with a long-ish excerpt from Helpland’s on-line section on Guantanamo:

Saddiq is one of the many mistakes at Guantanamo Bay. In 2005 our military admitted that he was not an enemy combatant, but the government hasn’t been able to repatriate him. (By a curious irony, Saddiq’s opposition to Osama bin Laden makes him too hot to handle in his native Saudi Arabia.) So he lives behind razor wire in Camp Iguana, with eight other men whom the military cleared long ago but who are nevertheless forbidden newspapers, visits from loved ones, English-language dictionaries — and flowers.

For some time we lawyers have been asking the military for a garden. Gardens are commonplace in prisoner-of-war camps, and these men aren’t even enemies. They live in a pen, but it has a small patch of ground. Why not? The military refused.

I was trying to explain this to Saddiq, along with other inexplicable things (such as how it is that innocent men can be held for years in an American prison), when he said, “We planted a garden. We have some small plants — watermelon, peppers, garlic, cantaloupe. No fruit yet. There’s a lemon tree about two inches tall, though it’s not doing well.”

“The guards gave you tools?”

He shook his head.

“Then — how do you dig?” I was struggling to grasp this.

“Spoons,” he said. “And a mop handle.”

The soil in Camp Iguana is dry and brittle as flint. And I’ve seen the spoons they give our clients.

“But the spoons are plastic — aren’t they?”

Saddiq nodded. “At night we poured water on the ground. In the morning, we pounded it with the mop handle and scratched it with the spoons. You can loosen about this much.” He held his thumb and forefinger about a half-inch apart. “The next day, we did it again. And so on until we had a bed for planting.” He shrugged. “We have lots of time, here.”

“But the seeds?” I asked. “Did they give you seeds?”

After four years at Guantanamo, Saddiq rarely smiles, but his face seemed to brighten then. “Sometimes, with the meal, they give us a bit of watermelon or cantaloupe to eat. We save the seeds.”

One day the sordid history of Guantanamo will be written. There will be chapters on torture, chapters on the how the courts turned a blind eye, chapters on cruelties large and petty, on the massive stupidity and uselessness of the place. Many pages will illustrate the great lie of Guantanamo — that it is a “terrorist detention facility” — with accounts of goatherds and chicken farmers and stray foreigners sold by Pakistani grifters to the United States for bounties. Saddiq may have one of the oddest chapters of all: jailed first by the Taliban as an enemy of its regime, then by us.

For all that, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Maybe the History of Guantanamo will have a few uplifting footnotes. America denied them seeds and trowels and they created life anyway. We tried to withhold beauty, but from the grim earth of Guantanamo they scratched a few square meters of garden — with spoons. Guantanamo is ugly, but man’s instinct for beauty lives deep down things.

When our meeting was over, the flowers had wilted. Saddiq picked up the little nosegay. “May I take these back to Camp Iguana?”

But flowers are contraband. He wasn’t allowed to keep them.

Song: “Gardening at Night,” the song that made R.E.M. “R.E.M.”: