Green Thoughts

Brian Dillon

  • Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime by Kenneth Helphand
    Trinity, 303 pp, $34.95, November 2006, ISBN 1 59534 021 1

In 1944 and 1945, John Brinckerhoff Jackson surveyed the French and German countryside for the advancing US army. At the military intelligence training centre in Maryland, Jackson had been taught to see the territory he surveyed as an empty stage on which certain choreographed actions were to be performed, and others improvised in the event that the enemy, or the land itself, threw up surprises. The landscape, as far as possible, was to provide a backdrop for the movement of the principals. Crossing France and Germany, Jackson writes in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984), he began to feel like an 18th-century landscape gardener, corralling the natural world in the name of order and design. The landscape of war, he concludes, is not in principle very different from that of peacetime cultivation: they are both ‘intensified and vitalised by one overriding purpose which, of necessity, brings about a closer relationship between man and environment and between men’. Gardens and battlefields are at once antithetical and oddly alike; among other (usually more pressing) things, they display our confusion about the opposition of nature to culture.

Kenneth Helphand’s wide-ranging study of wartime gardens, and gardens in implausibly hostile peacetime settings, is in part about that confusion: about the ways in which specific conflicts and acts of cultivation are made to stand for greater elemental forces, both historical and natural. He writes about gardens on the Western Front; about gardens in the ghettoes and POW camps of Europe during the Second World War, and those made by the Japanese interned in the United States at the same time; about gardens in the interstices of postwar urban development and in the deserts of contemporary Iraq. Throughout, what is in question is a version of pastoral: that’s to say, not nature conceived as a simple refuge from history, but an ordered, serene nature, secluded from its wilder self. Wars and gardens are both natural as well as historical phenomena (or are experienced as such), but perhaps, Helphand suggests, rehearsing the frail hopes of his gardening subjects, there is another, consoling, nature – and thus, maybe, another history – awaiting us in the inmost recesses of the garden. Defiant Gardens is also, unsurprisingly, the story of how such hopes have been uprooted time and again.

The poignant contrast between gardening and warfare was, it seems, a favoured trope of the press and the public during the First World War. Helphand reproduces a photograph (one of a stereoscopic pair, thus designed to be viewed at leisure) that he came across some years ago, showing ‘Shelters with gardens behind. In the French trenches.’ Half a dozen pollarded trees rise above the pale, friable entrenchment; a soldier leans on a pickaxe in the foreground, next to a few dismal plants that might conceivably be cabbages. The caption ventures: ‘It is interesting to know that during all he is so manifestly human that flower gardens engage his spare time thought.’ There are no blooms actually visible. In May 1915, the Illustrated London News published a full-page drawing entitled ‘Beauty and War’. A sign that reads ‘Regent Street’ has been nailed to a blackened tree, and in the foreground two soldiers tend a pair of perfectly rectangular beds of daffodils. A photograph taken the previous winter, in the Ypres salient, shows a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade posing in what is clearly intended, despite the sandbagged breastwork behind him, to be an approximation of a traditional English cottage garden.

The idealised gardens, in other words, really did exist, forming an unlikely archipelago of tidy plots that stretched across the front itself. The stalemate meant that sometimes the gardens might last long enough for flowers to bloom or vegetables to be harvested. The war, Siegfried Sassoon wrote, was ‘mainly a matter of holes and ditches’ and soldiers on both sides took the freshly upturned earth and wreckage as the substratum for a new landscape, however circumscribed and short-lived. A permanent garden was established at Talbot House, in Poperinghe, in Belgium, where two British army chaplains, Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton and Neville Talbot, had set up a soldiers’ club; a sign in the conservatory invited exhausted visitors to ‘come into the garden and forget the war.’

Where there were no gardens, soldiers seem to have conjured them out of fleeting encounters with nature. Another photograph shows a pair of Australians lounging in a meadow picking wildflowers, somewhere near Allonville. The image is purest pastoral: an aesthetic that flourished in soldiers’ presentations of themselves to the camera, or to their own journals. In a passage that is also a textbook example of Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy, a German soldier wrote in his diary in 1916: ‘The wood which surrounds the battle lines shares its fate with that of the soldiers waiting to go over the top, and when clouds cover the sun, the pines, like the soldiers beneath them, shed tears of unending pain.’ As Helphand puts it: ‘Pleasure was more intense amid such pain, beauty more vivid when confronted with unbearable ugliness, and hope desperately wished for in such despair.’ In such an unabashed identification with what was left of the natural world, a late flowering of European Romanticism may be glimpsed.

Its expression, however, appears to have been considerably complicated by the idea that no-man’s-land was itself a kind of monstrous ornamental garden, possessed, as Paul Nash noted, of a weird beauty. Out of the ruins, a ruderal flora began to assert itself. ‘It is amazingly beautiful,’ Nash wrote. ‘The mud is dried to a pinky colour and upon the parapet, and through sandbags even, the green grass pushes up and waves in the breeze, while clots of bright dandelions, clover, thistles and twenty other plants flourish luxuriantly, brilliant growths of bright green against the pink earth.’ At times, Helphand writes, the defiant gardens of the First World War came closer to the aesthetics of the grotesque or the sublime than those of the beautiful: no longer a consoling enclave surrounded by chaos, the gardens represented the blurring of creation and destruction, cultivation and wilderness, civilisation and barbarism.

Helphand turns next to the ghetto gardens of Occupied Europe. One of the most extraordinary strands in the histories recounted in Defiant Gardens concerns the level of organisation, even of bureaucracy, attained by prisoners. In the First World War, at the Ruhleben internment camp in suburban Berlin, the horticultural society set up by imprisoned British civilians affiliated itself to the RHS: horticultural lectures were advertised, flower shows adjudicated and a gardening column started in the camp newspaper. In Poland, Toporol – the Society to Encourage Agriculture among Jews – had trained Jewish farm workers since 1933. Later, in the ghetto, Toporol ran courses on growing vegetables and herbs, animal husbandry, ornamental gardening, hothouses, keeping chickens and beekeeping. At Lodz, the ghetto’s Bureau of Public Gardens oversaw the creation of gardens in the semi-rural Marysin area, and published a monthly calendar entitled ‘Information for Small Gardeners’. When all the usable land had been commandeered for cultivation, and it was still not enough, Oskar Rosenfeld wrote in his journal: ‘One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry at the sight of an emaciated Jew desperately striking his crowbar against the merciless, intractable ground.’

In spring 1942, when news of an imminent deportation reached the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, children from an orphanage, who had recently begun to cultivate a vegetable garden, laid waste to their small, sorry plot. (Helphand allows this story to slip into bathos by commenting: ‘As they destroyed the beets, so too would their own lives be extinguished.’) The gardens of Lodz and Warsaw, and of Kovno and Vilna in Lithuania, can’t only be explained by the desperate shortage of food in the ghettoes. Late in 1939, Jews were banned from Warsaw’s parks, and the ten-mile boundary of the ghetto was drawn so as to exclude all green space. ‘On the other side of the barbed wire spring holds full sway,’ Mary Berg wrote in 1941. ‘From my window I can see young girls with bouquets of lilac walking on the “Aryan” part of the street. I can even smell the tender fragrance of the opened buds. But there is no sign of spring in the ghetto. Here the rays of the sun are swallowed up by the heavy grey pavement.’ The same year, in Kovno, starving ghetto-dwellers, no longer able to think in terms of the seasons at all, raided the vegetable gardens and tore the half-grown plants from the ground.

The wartime garden, it’s clear, can be as much a symbol of desperation as a materially and spiritually sustaining stretch of earth. For some, the gardening fever that overtook British prisoners of war seemed absurd: ‘You write,’ one of them recalled, ‘and you don’t want them to worry about you at home, so you say “we’re busy making a garden.” Gardens! What a farce! Nothing grew, and people walked all over it. But the folks at home are sending you gardening books.’ Gardens, however, were famously essential to the escape plans at Stalag Luft 3, and at the very least suggested an alternative parcelling out of the land to the one that enclosed the prisoners. A garden is, after all, also a fantasised landscape: in Helphand’s definition of the defiant garden, there is a continuum, not just a fancied affinity, between land that has been bordered and cultivated for food or for pleasure, and territory that has been surveyed for strategic or carceral potential. At the internment camps set up under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 (which established military areas ‘from which any or all persons may be excluded’), Japanese Americans created gardens which exploited the skills of a population that was largely agricultural. The internees worked to make community parks and gardens around the entrances to their barracks, recreational spaces in the open ground between the barracks, and gardens in the negative space of vacant firebreaks. A prison camp, departing from the logic of total enclosure that pertains in a traditional prison, depends on such empty spaces – the ‘inertias’, a name borrowed from the lexicon of fortification – to give it sightlines and a structure. The gardener sees the same structure, and fills in the blanks.

In 1973, writing of Central Park, the land artist Robert Smithson described as ‘dialectical landscapes’ those areas that will not fit easily the categories of urban, rural, cultivated or natural. Defiant Gardens concludes with a consideration of what we might call the dialectical garden. In cities across America, gardeners without plots of their own have colonised derelict spaces, vacant lots and even traffic islands, subtly redrawing the map of the city. What these admirable examples confirm is that gardening isn’t an innocent communion with nature. Rather, the contemporary defiant garden is a rich source of ideological flora. A photograph taken in July 2004 at a US army base north of Baghdad says it all: Warrant Officer Brook Turner is seen trimming a tiny lawn, less than a metre across and a couple of metres long, with a pair of scissors. He said that he had felt nostalgic for the green of his native Oregon: ‘Usually after work I will water the back yard and listen to the radio barefoot, and just relax and feel the cool grass.’ If the implication is that his minute tent-side plot is just a private retreat for green thoughts in the desert, he seems to have missed the symbolism of it as an artificially sustained territory, threatened from within by a tenacious enemy: an army of ants.

In a short, reflective final chapter entitled ‘Digging Deeper’, Helphand finds himself in Dungeness, the eerie shingle spur on the Kent coast where Derek Jarman lived intermittently, in the shadow of a nuclear power station, for the last eight years of his life. Jarman’s famous post-industrial garden, which contains pastel blooms of old plastic, trellises of rufous steel and brutalist rockeries of spalled concrete, forms, according to Helphand, ‘an oasis among the windswept stones’. In a sense, though, his book proves that a garden is precisely not that; it is instead an ambiguous accommodation between the oasis and the stones. Helphand scants this complexity rather too often, slipping into easy assertions of the garden’s ability to provide ‘normalcy in the midst of madness and order out of chaos’. This vision seems curiously old-fashioned, and Defiant Gardens is perhaps better read as an account of its modern supplanting by more sceptical, though no less essential, motivations for making gardens.

At Dungeness today, the lesson that all landscapes are dialectical seems to have seeped between the stones. What passes for a garden there expresses eloquently the paradox that Helphand skirts around. A tradition has sprung up of gardens that mimic the ness itself; they range from the picturesque – a series of gardens that contain their own miniature shingle headlands, complete with model lighthouses – to the sublimely unsettling: a garden that is no more than a collection of decaying cubes of concrete, almost indistinguishable in their substance from the land around them. For at least a decade, in plain view of the power station, a ramshackle structure – half woodpile, half woodshed – has supported a homemade flagpole: I passed it by several times over the years before I realised that the logo on the wind-torn flag was that of British Energy, and the whole a scurrilous replica of the station itself. And behind the layers of fencing and surveillance equipment that surround the real thing, a cheerless garden of sorts has been constructed out of anonymous bushes, some metal seating and a few incongruous lumps of granite. As if to remind visitors that there really is no such thing as nature unmediated by power and paranoia, even this botched amenity has been hedged round with barbed wire.