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Local Commentary -- On This Earth: Gardens, farms and parks

By Nathaniel Hart

On the southern Oregon coast, where I spend my summers, the climate is particularly suitable for home gardening as well as for larger agricultural ventures.

Three women--a mother and her two grown daughters, good friends of ours who are experienced farmers--started their own community-supported farm this year. Members of the community, by buying shares in the enterprise, provide these farmers assurance of a return for their labor and investment, while the shareholders receive the benefit of weekly packages of fresh, locally grown produce.

My partner and I linked up with another couple to purchase a share, and the eating thus far has been wonderful: radishes, beets, artichokes, lettuce, strawberries, chard, kale, cabbage, potatoes, zucchini. As the garden flourishes, so does our weekly supply of vegetables.

Because we purchased a share, we also assume the risk of crop failure, but it's not a very big risk in this lush environment.

I hope the gardens in Minnesota also are flourishing. Even before I left Morris last May, the rhubarb growing alongside my neighbor's garage was tempting. Years ago, when I had eight children living at home in Morris, a large garden out in the country was an essential economy. Not only did we eat our fill during the summer and ply friends with the overflow, but we also, by fall, had a freezer full of vegetables to take us through the long Minnesota winter.

Lately, however, in the midst of this summer's bounty, I have been reading about gardening under circumstances very different from the peaceful and fertile fields of Oregon and Minnesota.

In his award winning book, "Defiant Gardens," landscape architect Kenneth Helphand explores the history and meaning of gardens created under the extreme circumstances of modern warfare.

He focuses sharply on the experiences of four vulnerable groups: soldiers bogged down in trench warfare on the Western Front in World War I, Jews imprisoned in the ghettos of Nazi Europe, prisoners of war in Europe and Asia, and Japanese-Americans removed from their homes in 1942 by the U.S. government and committed to internment camps in remote areas of the West until their release in 1945.

Deprived of the familiarity, comfort, and safety of their own homes, the people in each of these groups found themselves in a strange and threatening environment. None of them knew what the immediate future might hold. Many faced imminent death, torture, or starvation. Nevertheless, despite their seemingly hopeless circumstances, they sought out the materials needed for gardening and, in various ways, however difficult or improbable, participated in this life-affirming activity.

Gardens traditionally serve as places of refuge, and gardening itself is considered a calming, therapeutic activity. Gardening assumes a promising future: seeds will germinate; plants will grow, blossom, and come to fruition.

But gardening in the extreme circumstances of 20th century warfare, gardening while in trenches, ghettos, and prisons, Kenneth Helphand maintains, was not so much a retreat from present chaos as it was a defiant protest, a form of resistance. Through gardening, soldiers and prisoners alike defied or circumvented authority and rejected (one could say, tried to transform) the very grounds of warfare.

"Defiant Gardens" is a moving record of recent history brought to life with compelling evidence of personal interviews, rare photographs, and excerpts from victims' letters, diaries, and memoirs. It is a poignant account of the strength and vulnerability of the human will to live in peace.

Is my friends' community-supported farm a defiant garden? Proponents of community supported agriculture (CSAs) emphasize the benefits that accrue to the community from CSAs. Small, environmentally sound, family farms find direct outlets for their products at a fair return; local consumers have a link to the source of their food and receive seasonally fresh, locally grown, healthful foods. Local expenditures for food remain in the community, thereby strengthening the local economy. A good community spirit can develop between town and farm. If CSAs are a type of defiant gardening, the defiance lies in the nature of these arrangements.

CSAs bypass agri-business middlemen: warehousing distributors with their long-distance transportation costs, chain-store supermarkets, and expensive promotional marketing. CSAs offer an alternative to global imports, industrial agriculture, and the corporate monopoly on food evidenced by the sameness of supermarket fare from coast to coast. CSAs have been around for decades, but their numbers have increased rapidly in recent years, perhaps a sign of growing discontent with the status quo.

CSAs and the small defiant gardens found on battlefields and in ghettos and internment camps may seem puny compared to the overpowering influence of international warfare or industrial agriculture, but never underestimate the power of a defiant act based on ethical and humane grounds: everything can change when just one person refuses to go to the back of the bus.

A retired schoolteacher, Nat Hart divides his time between the Oregon coast and the Minnesota prairie.