When I do travel, I often seek out gardens to relax in. I’ve even been known to take along birdseed or a hummingbird feeder and some sugar so that I can attract some wildlife when visiting areas that aren’t quite as wildlife inviting as I would like. My garden brings me peace, and I like to take that peace with me in any way that I can.
So I was deeply moved when I received an email message a few weeks ago from a young man named Jeff Smith asking for help with his backyard wildlife habitat.
He found me while searching the web for information about butterfly gardening and wanted to know if I could help him by sharing some advice for his garden and his garden blog. I like to help anyone I can who wants to create a wildlife friendly landscape. After all, wildlife friendly = environmentally friendly. But this particular email really touched my heart when I read the next sentence.
“I wasn’t able to plant some of the plants I wanted this year,” he said “I’m off flying helicopters in Afghanistan now.”
Of course, a million thoughts raced through my mind with that one sentence. Thoughts of war and peace and national security and the people who are involved with protecting our country. But mostly, I thought about how someone who is over flying helicopters in Afghanistan is already making plans for his garden when he gets home.
“The place that you might be able to help is to direct me towards suitable sources of information to read while I'm overseas,” Jeff continued. “This gives me a chance to plan my garden and my site. As green gardening is a big interest of yours, I'll bet you can focus my efforts.”
I had already been thinking about writing a post about the value of gardens as therapy for dealing with stress (and specifically with events such as 9/11 or serving in the military), and after sharing that idea with Jeff, he had the perfect comments to help get my thoughts in gear.
Jeff said, “I have sometimes seen people growing a flower outside their tent [in Afghanistan], underscoring your point that life and beauty are encouraging forces. Perhaps, playing the part of Creator in the garden offers a person the only venue where they can enjoy control of their environment.”
There is a long history of soldiers growing plants in the extreme conditions of a war zone. In Fact, Kenneth Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, wrote a whole book about it, entitled Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime (Trinity University Press). He also has a website, defiantgardens.com, which contains many of these stories.
Helphand talks about people such as the late Dr. John L. Creech, who operated a greenhouse out of a prisoner of war camp in Poland in World War II to help feed himself and his comrades. Captain Creech was awarded the bronze star for his contribution to the health and nutrition of his fellow prisoners and later went on to become director of the US National Arboretum.
But Helphand also talks about many others in the military (or other extreme situations) who seem to enjoy their gardens not just for food, but for the more intrinsic values such as beauty, determination and yes, defiance.
Defiant gardening often is not about food at all, Helphand says. Motivations vary, he said, 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."
Stories on the defiantgardens website seem to express the idea that people who need the peace and wonder of a garden can go to great lengths in order to have it:
Here is one dated 2006 from Bradley J. Kohn in Afghanistan
My wife sent me some seeds to begin a garden several months ago. I began planting the melon and squash seeds along a fence line next to my Hqs. building. The plants took off very well and began to thrive. But the giant hedgehogs that are indigenous here, had a field day, and destroyed my first crop. We decided to build raised beds from ammo boxes and put the beds on top of our bunkers. This is where we are at the moment. I have a compost pile started with shredded documents, dirt, vegetable waste, along with goat and sheep droppings. Water was a problem too, since we had only bottled water when I arrived here. Now we have a well to provide more water for our needs.
The temperature in the summer is between 125 to 145 degrees in the peak of the day. Water is very important for things to thrive here. The melons grown here are absolutely wonderful. They grow a melon here called Stambul. It is used as a fragrant smell. People use it in their homes and cars. I have collected many seeds to take home to North Bend in hopes of growing some of the things I have found here in Afghanistan.
It is hard to give the attention to my morale, welfare and recreation projects, but my men volunteer to take on the building of the raised beds and watering projects. We all like the idea of real beautiful food that add color and taste to our lives here and to be doing something else beside war time missions. The goal is to see and taste home while we are all serving our country.
And another from LT Janette Arencibia Kabul, Afghanistan Oct. 2006
… I have been here for three weeks and have a year to go. Other soldiers (including coalition forces) have been establishing gardens in this country for the last several years.
. … My job as a gardener is to share my passion with the other wonderful individuals who have already made Afghanistan more beautiful.
I am attaching a few pictures from a small garden in Kabul, specificallyat Camp Cobra, an Afghan National Army base. This garden was created by an officer in the Afghan National Army with a passion for flowers. I listened to him passionately tell the story of the origin of the seeds - tremendous!
And here is one dated this year, June 2011 An Unlikely Flowering in Helmand
As a member of the army combat camera team based in Afghanistan, my role is to cover everything that the military does, whether that’s a full-scale helicopter-borne assault, or a female engagement team teaching Afghan women how better to look after their family’s animals.
Finding this garden was a complete shock. It’s so unexpected, a flower garden that has been cultivated and grown by local people, in the middle of a military headquarters – Lashkar Gah is the main headquarters for Task Force Helmand, in Helmand Province. The garden was started by some British civilians, about three years ago, and I think the intention was just some flower beds outside the main building. Then three gardeners were employed who decided they wanted their own areas to cultivate, and now there are three gardens within the space. These men have made the gardens what they are; they come in, spend all day working, then quietly go home again.
What they have created is such a contrast to the very hot, dusty and sometimes extremely hostile environment of Afghanistan. They have planted a combination of local flowers and seeds that have been sent over from the UK. The hollyhocks are pretty impressive - some of them are taller than most of the people on the base – and the roses are startling, because you don’t expect to see an English rose in the middle of Afghanistan.
Reading these thoughts from gardeners in Afghanistan helps to remind me of something vital. They aren’t just military personnel, or soldiers or troops. They are people. Just like you and me.
I recently came across an article entitled Therapy Can Drive You Mad which questions whether counseling and therapy and reliving the events of a tragedy really help. The article stated “Researchers believe that the process can sometimes push people deeper into depression or worsen the anxiety.” I know that’s how things work with me.
Addendum: I received another email from my new friend Jeff the other day. He is back in the U.S. right now, what he calls “The greatest country in the world”, and he shared this experience with me:
“I was eating breakfast the other day, and saw a zebra longwing visiting a flower just outside the window. I was talking with a buddy and tried not to look too surprised and happy, lest I have to explain how jazzed I was to see a ... um, a ... butterfly, man. :) Yeah, but really dude, it's a SPECIAL butterfly.”
I agree, Jeff. But to me, they are all special. Welcome back to the states and thanks again for everything you do.