Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gardens of Recovery and Defiance; Thoughts on This Veterans' Day by Elaine Lockey

Photo courtesy of National Guard Magazine
In the winter of 1916, poet Wilfred Owen wrote the poem “Exposure” while freezing in a trench during WWI. While in such a horrific place his mind sought out visions of nature and warmth.

“We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses,
-Is that why we are dying?”

Owen was killed in 1918 after suffering extreme “shell shock” on the Western Front. Combat stress reaction (CSR), in the past known as shell-shock, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can sometimes be treated through special gardens that give patients a place to feel safe and relaxed.

At Tyrwhitt House in Surrey, England a special garden has been built to provide such a place. The garden was designed by Fiona Boyle. She worked with Dorinda Wolfe-Murray, who had the initial idea of creating the garden for the charity Combat Stress. Great care was put into the features, with inspiration for the design coming from Mrs. Boyle’s husband and their many service friends who have experienced PTSD first-hand. The Combat Stress Garden was planned to deal with the hyper-vigilance and heightened threat awareness of the patients.

Some of the garden’s design features include:
*Clear lines of sight to all parts of the garden
*Trees with only light foliage so no perceived threat from someone hiding
*Benches with backs rising 10ft and solid to provide a feeling of a blast shield behind and also to eliminate the concern of someone over the top of them
*No gaps under the benches reducing the concern that an explosive device might be hidden under them
*No colors used that associate with danger or blood, instead using colors such as soft blues, pinks, whites and violet.
*No running water due to an irritation with the sound, instead still pools of water that reflect the sky and plants.
*Wildlife such as butterflies and birds

Why is it that in the midst of war, one can still find gardens? In the book, Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, by Kenneth Helphand, gardens are proven to be invaluable inspiration for people in wartime. They have been built “as a means of nourishment, as a pursuit of beauty, and as an expression of hope.” The book highlights the Trench Gardens built during WW1, Ghetto Gardens in Nazi Europe, Barbed-wire Gardens of the prisoners of war and internment camps in the World Wars, Stone Gardens of the Japanese-American internment camps and more recently the Gulf War Gardens built in Saudi Arabia.

According to Helphand, defiant gardening often isn't about food at all. Motivations vary, but fall into five general areas:
- Hope: "Planting is an optimistic act," Helphand says. "You put a seed into the ground in anticipation it will grow. It takes time, attention and maintenance. There's a miraculous aspect. Hope is embodied in all that."
- Life: "Gardens are alive. They provide a connection with nature and life's forces."
- Home: "Gardens either are part of or an extension of home, or places where we've lived or would like to be."
- Work: "It's something to do. The garden often is part of a person's identity and culture."
- Beauty: "Gardens are beautiful, and in a time of crisis that beauty is accentuated," Helphand says. "They're often strikingly dramatic when done in devastated areas."

Officer Brook Turner tends to his lawn in a US army camp near Baghdad, 2004 Photo: Neil Sperry

The Gulf War Gardens were often designed by soldiers as a way to remind them where they came from or to commemorate such places. Soldiers used whatever materials they had available to them and transformed their temporary quarters into American streetscapes. They used green tarps held down by sandbags to make a fake lawn, they used sandbags and fences out of pallets to provide enclosures for plants they had growing, and they put up signs announcing how far they were from home and who they were. Some even used the conical covers of shells to mock the conical shapes of plants as borders along paths.

“Planting, cultivating, contemplating in the garden, planning for life, for beauty, for order, is war’s opposite and thereby not just escape but a potent act of resistance.” (Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark)
For more information and photos please visit:

Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum - In December 1914, a British soldier in Belgium poses proudly behind his garden, festooned with stoneware rum jugs.

2003, Ingushetia (Russia), a Chechnyan woman tends a white-stone garden. Photo: Simon Norfolk