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Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime

  • Subject: [cg] Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime
  • From: adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Sat, 01 Jul 2006 12:41:23 -0400

'Defiant Gardens' brought comfort in war 

By Heather Lee Schroeder
Special to The Capital Times
July 1, 2006
In the 1950s, Abraham Maslow said humans care about their aesthetic or intellectual needs only after all their other basic needs -- food, shelter, security and social approval -- are met. 
Researchers have since challenged this theory, suggesting that human needs are far more complex than Maslow realized. Author Kenneth Helphand's new book "Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime" offers ample evidence that this is almost certainly true.
This lovely book offers an overview of gardens created under the most adverse conditions during the turbulent 20th century. From soldiers who raised vegetables in the trenches of World War I to Jews who built kitchen gardens in the ghettos of Warsaw to the Community Gardening Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Helphand (pronounced Helfand) explores how gardening, even in the worst situations, provides solace for the human soul, as well as sustenance for the human body.
In a recent telephone interview, Helphand, who is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon in Eugene, reflected on the process of writing "Defiant Gardens."
"Over and over people in these horrible circumstances would describe the beauty of some small aspect of this and how it was more important than food," he said. "To me that inverts the idea that gardens are superficial or only necessary after you've done everything else.
"For anyone who is a designer or an artist, you essentially believe in your gut that art matters," he added. "It doesn't mean it's the most important thing, but it matters."
The idea for "Defiant Gardens" started with a photo Helphand found of World War I soldiers working in their garden. As he describes it, the image festered under his skin, but it ultimately took 15 years for the book to come to fruition.
Helphand said the process of creating this book has deepened his understanding of gardens and landscape. In particular, he has an appreciation for the active relationship humans maintain with the environment when they garden.
What he finds significant is that many of the people who created these defiant gardens did so knowing there was a strong chance they wouldn't be there to see the fruits of their labors. "It was a paradox," Helphand said. "People were still trying to be hopeful even when they knew there was no hope."
At its core, "Defiant Gardens" reads like a deeply political treatise. That's probably not so surprising since Helphand's undergraduate degree was in political science, but the author is quick to point out that he's not offering up an anti-war message. Rather, he believes it's impossible to discuss war and not think about the politics underlying all of them.
"If you think of war and gardening as a kind of war and peace, then gardening is a state of peace," he said. "The garden in the time of war is trying to bring back a state that is not violent and where people are not being killed."
Helphand believes gardens can offer people healing in times of great trauma, but he also understands that they don't always reach every person. For some, it is music or visual art that sustains them through traumatic times. His point is that the human need for the beautiful transcends time and place.
Ultimately, Helphand has concluded that life, home, hope, work and beauty are all equally important to the human spirit. The proportions of those ingredients change from situation to situation, but they underlie all basic human needs.
"I can honestly say that I started with hope," Helphand said of the process of writing the book.
"I knew that already. Lots of people have written about that. It was the others that I came away with. I was amazed at people's ability to try to make a home when thrust into horrible situations, but the one that surprised me the most was how much the work meant to people."
Gardening is fundamentally creative and ultimately satisfying to the human spirit, he concluded. And of course, there is the power of the beautiful which seems to have the power to sustain human beings.
"It doesn't matter how big something is or how long it is in duration. A single plant can be as meaningful as an acre," he said.
As for future projects, Helphand says there are books waiting to be written about gardening in Soviet gulags and South African prisons, but he hopes to focus on an exploration of the English painter Derek Jarman's gardens.
"My hope is that other scholars and students will read 'Defiant Gardens' and do more because there's a lot more out there," he said.
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