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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Good morning. I have no idea why you're up this early on a holiday, but we're glad you're with us for this next story, which begins with a line from the English poet Vita Sackville-West, who wrote "Small pleasure must correct great tragedies." That line starts a new book about war gardens. There have been victory gardens grown in times of scarcity, and also gardens planted along hostile fronts. The trenches of World War I, the ghettos of World War II, even today in the deserts of Iraq. On this Memorial Day, NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine tells the story of these defiant gardens.

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

A shovel, a seed, a watering can - each is weapon that can debilitate an enemy when that enemy is loneliness or despair. But what if that enemy's out to annihilate you, to quite literally take your life? Digging, planting, and watering might seems senseless. Kenneth Helphand calls them acts of defiant.

Mr. KENNETH HELPHAND (Author): Dramatically, against the odds - dramatically symbol of human perseverance, even in the face of death.

LEVINE: In wanting to understand just how profoundly we are affected by gardens, this professor of landscape architecture spent several years researching historic and contemporary gardens created under extreme duress.

Mr. HELPHAND: Perhaps the most extreme circumstance that human beings have created, sadly, for themselves is war.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #1: We're taking heavy fire, heavy machine gun fire.

LEVINE: Iraq. A hostile, parched landscape. For a National Guardsman weaned on the black loam of North Dakota, the moon dust passing for soil here is no place like home.

Sgt. CARL J. QUAM (Sergeant, U.S. Army): My name Sgt. Carl J. Quam with the 141st engineer combat battalion, and I was stationed in FOB Spiker, which is right outside of Tikirt, Iraq.

LEVINE: During his one year tour of duty, Sgt. Quam and his men ran up to six combat patrols a week.

Sgt. QUAM: My battalion lost four guys, and every day on the road was, technically could have been the last day of your life. And our garden time usually consisted of late evenings or when we came back from missions.

LEVINE: Sergeant Quam borrowed cultivation ideas from Iraqi gardeners, and successfully raised wheat, carrots, cauliflowers, and bushels of corn in lean, pourous soil. The fresh produce was a treat certainly, but his impulse to grow something nourished a deeper need.

Sgt. QUAM: Just coming back to that garden, it was a release. For a little while, you could put your mind off of what was happening to you and around you in country. That little bit of time in the evening it was - things seem right again. You know, they seemed real.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Keep the home fires burning while your hearts are yearning. Though your lads are far away, they dream of home.

LEVINE: Home for those fighting in World War I was an eight foot ditch of stinking mud, a place described as an unroofed tomb.

Mr. HELPHAND: The landscape of the First World War on the Western front was continuous trenches, and millions of soldiers spent portions of their lives there. Along those lines, soldiers created gardens.

LEVINE: 1916, from a soldier's letter home: Would you be so kind to send me some flower seeds, sweet peas, convolvulus sunflower? I don't know how long I my be stuck here, and I want to grow some flowers. Whether the snow drops growing in spent cartridge shells or the rhododendrons scavenged from ruin chateau, Kenneth Helphand's book, Defiant Gardens, repeatedly speaks of soldiers transcending war.

Mr. HELPHAND: You have gardens on one side of these trenches, and gardens - they're hopeful, they're life giving. On the opposite side of the trenches is this no man's land. So it might be a very conventional garden in your back yard. In this horrific landscape, it's meaning is magnified.

Unidentified Man #3: This is a national program from London.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #5: Germany had invaded Poland and has bombed many times.

Mr. HELPHAND: The place I went next was to the ghettos, the gardens created by Jews in the ghettos under the Nazis during the Second World War

LEVINE: Of course, there are no remaining gardens in what were the ghettos. Kenneth Helphand could only guess their whereabouts using the scribbled narratives of men and women once trapped inside.

One such narrative describes an emaciated Jew desperately striking his crowbar against the merciless, intractable ground.

Mr. ROMAN KENT (Holocaust Survivor): For some people, talking about ghetto, and talking about gardens, it sounds like a paradox.

LEVINE: Roman Kent argues that if garden is a place of beauty in which to dream, there was no such thing as a ghetto garden.

The stony allotment he and his brother tended in the Lodz Ghetto was simply a way to fight starvation, and for a few years it did keep the family alive.

Mr. KENT: I was amazed how much the piece of land could give us food: cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beets, cucumbers, and of course potatoes.

LEVINE: But as the walls closed in on a desperate community, where death by hunger was routine, mobs ransacked anything edible. In the summer of 1944, a teenage Roman Kent stood helpless as his garden was destroyed.

Mr. KENT: Within an hour or two, the fields were empty of all the greenery. Nothing was left. Nothing. And I know I stood there and I started really crying, sobbing. Of course at that point I did not realize that it really didn't matter, because shortly thereafter everybody was sent out to Auschwitz.

LEVINE: And did you ever garden again?

Mr. KENT: No. I did not.

Unidentified Man #6: When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, our West Coast became a potential combat zone.

Unidentified Man #7: The gardens created by Japanese-Americans in the interment camps during the Second World War are great American gardens.

LEVINE: When Yasusuke Kogita was sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, he brought very little from his home in Seattle. But he did bring a plant. That willow grew to an impressive size during the family's four years behind barbed wire, weeping over a war-time garden defined by massive rocks.

Mr. PAUL KOGITA (Son of Yasusuke Kogita): Just to get those rocks out there, from out in the sage brush. And remember the old two-wheeled cart dad built?

Mr. TED KOGITA (Son of Yasusuke Kogita): Like an ox cart, without an ox yoke on it. We were the two oxen.

LEVINE: The two boys, now in their 70s, are Paul and Ted Kogita, who helped their father load every rock when the camp was closed. Those rocks, veritable sculptures of sandstone weighing as much as two tons, are now in Paul Kogita's Seattle garden, where his brother sits by the pond, remembering his father at his most serene.

Mr. P. KOGITA: He'd sit there and look at it, and then move a rock just a little bit, and then sit there a couple hours and twist it around.

LEVINE: And those are the memories from Minidoka his sons continue to lean on - memories of their father's steady focus, day by day, stone by stone.

Mr. P. KOGITA: Oh that garden meant so much to him, probably more than life. If he lost that garden, he would've lost his hope.

Mr. T. KOGITA: Because he couldn't control what was going on there, but he could control his garden.

LEVINE: And he could tune everything else out.

Mr. P. KOGITA: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Mr. T. KOGITA: The other stuff, what can you do? Especially behind barbed wire.

LEVINE: Perhaps, particularly behind barbed wire, small pleasure must correct great tragedies.

And so we irrigate dust, plant and mud. Coax a beet out of rubble. Acts of grace amidst the profanities of war.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm looking here at photographs of war gardens from the trenches of the western front to the Army camps of Iraq. And you can see them at npr.org.

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