In Defiant Gardens , Kenneth Helphand has written an important book that is both fascinating and moving. Helphand tells the stories of gardens created by soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilian internees in the midst of the horror and chaos of the world wars of the 20 th century. The primary focus of the book is on the trench gardens of World War I, the Ghetto Gardens in Nazi-controlled Poland, the gardens created by Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees in both the European and Asian theaters of World War II, and the gardens created in the Japanese-American internment camps in the US. The gardens created by soldiers during the first Gulf War and the war in Iraq are also examined in the final chapter that brings us up to the present.
This work is supported by meticulous and thorough research, making it a wonderful example of high quality scholarship. It is also a great example of environmental history. The author visited the sites where the gardens had been even though none of them still exist, interviewed survivors and families, and plumbed the depths of extensive written records and memoirs. Ever the rigorous landscape and garden historian, Helphand looks at the setting and historical circumstances for each type of garden, arguing that "...gardens are inseparable from their context." The text is enriched with excerpts of diaries and memoirs, war poetry, and archival photographs of the gardens. At the end, the author provides a Directory of Prisoners and Internees, extensive notes for each chapter as well as a bibliography.
The book is organized into seven chapters; the first and last chapters bookend the work with extensive discussions of the theory, history, language and meaning of gardens in the context of war. Each of the four main types of garden is explored in depth in four chapters, with a short additional chapter on the state of the gardens post-war. The primary thesis of the book is that gardens created during war by those participating in or caught up in the conflict were a means of creating normalcy (or at least a fleeting sense of control) during the irrationality of war and of creating order in a time of complete disruption and disorder. Helphand's argument that these gardens and what it took to create and maintain them are acts of resistance or defiance by those who made them is compelling.
The opening essay argues that the battlefield is the antithesis of the garden, yet the term field of battle originated in the pastoral landscapes of agriculture. Those places of sustenance are temporarily transformed into killing grounds, but then are returned to their previous uses. Helphand cites a wonderful quote from naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre, "history celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the plowed fields whereby we thrive." In this situation, gardens stand for peace but also assert a model in opposition to the chaos and horror of war.
The author argues that "Studying the intersection of gardens and war yields great understanding about humanity and about nature. Life, home, work, hope, and beauty are five attributes that lie dormant in all gardens awaiting the catalyst that propels them to germinate and allowing us to recognize them as defiant gardens." The book makes clear that gardens provide sustenance and pleasure and beauty. It is worth noting that, while one might expect that all of these gardens were food gardens, many of these gardens were "simply" flower gardens. This seemed to be particularly true for the combatants in World War I and II. Those who were in captivity-either as prisoners of war or as civilian internees-tended to emphasize food production, though not exclusively.
The most interesting contrast in the quality and extent of garden development is found with the "Stone Gardens" of the Japanese-American internees in this country during World War II. The camp internees were aided and supported by their captors, who provided the internees with seeds, material and, sometimes, greater freedom in moving about the larger landscape to collect materials. The gardens created by the internees really encompassed the whole landscape of the camp.
The stories of the individual gardens are moving, enlightening and inspirational. This is a book that everyone should read--students, practitioners, and non-landscape architects of all stripes. It is at once an important contribution to garden history and theory, a meditation on war, peace, gardens, nature and culture, and a layered and articulate story of human persistence and ingenuity in the face of human cruelty and brutality. The reader is drawn in as another witness to times and human behaviors that must not be forgotten.