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Gardens provide peace of mind to soldiers at war

There's a long tradition of planting gardens by soldiers at war. They provide peace of mind, hope, and a connection to home, among other benefits.

By Dean FosdickFor The Associated Press / March 19, 2010

This photo, released by Kenneth Helphand from the Imperial War Museum in London, shows a soldier of the London Rifle Brigade with his garden during World War I.

Imperial War Museum/AP

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Gardening can be comforting, even therapeutic, for troops trying to shake the stresses of war.

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There is a long history of soldiers growing plants in the extreme conditions of a war zone. "Trench Gardens" produced needed food as well as healing diversion for soldiers mired in the muck on both sides of the Western Front in World War I. American prisoners of war cultivated "barbed wire gardens" to augment starvation rations and provide some mental escape during World War II.

Most recently, such "defiant gardens" have cropped up at isolated combat outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, much as they did around GI Quonset huts in the Vietnam of four decades ago.

"Such gardens stand not in harmony with but in opposition to their locations, asserting their presence," writes Kenneth Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, in his "Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime" (Trinity University Press).

"In extreme conditions, where the most extreme is war, death is all around," Mr. Helphand adds in an interview. "A garden then takes on meaning that goes well beyond our daily lives."

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."

Gardening meant "coming back down to earth" for Bill Beardall, who was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1970. Mr. Beardall flew H-53s, big cargo machines capable of carrying large payloads. That made them large targets, too.

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