Only the most foolhardy would want to follow in Lalage Snow’s footsteps, but War Gardens: A Journey through Conflict in Search of Calm is a fascinating read.
She was a young war correspondent and photographer who decided to visit dozens of gardens in war-torn countries as an antidote to the carnage she frequently had to report on,
She discovered that however precarious their lives might be people continue to find hope, beauty and peace in their gardens. And that even as men destroy, the good earth fights back, seeds are sown, plants and trees grow once more, and the cycle of life continues.
In Kabul, she learnt that Afghanis, who we see all too often on TV as gun-toting soldiers, have had a great love of gardens since ancient times. She visits a magnificent Paradise garden planted for Babar the first Moghul Emperor which is being lovingly restored to its former glory. Before they could begin they had to de-mine the area.
In Gaza in May 2013, where there is an uneasy sense of peace after four years of war, she meets Abu Faisal. His garden is an oasis of calm and tranquillity. But the sense of loss is never far away. When they come to a tall cypress tree he discloses that it was present from his best friend, a true gardener who was killed while driving an ambulance in the war.
In an Israeli Kibbutzim Esti, a sprightly seventy-year-old is growing things up the sides of a bomb shelter to make it look as if it is just part of her house and garden.
In the West Bank, the disputed territory between Israelis and Palestinians, Lalage meets gardeners tending olives groves and flowers on both sides of the divide. It is unlikely they will ever meet.
She writes a lyrical description of Ayed’s garden whose home is at the edge of the West Bank:
“His garden is dripping with that universally bewitching golden light at the end of a day. The wide beds are covered with ice plants, the pink flowers growing in irregular patches. Musky-smelling tea roses grow in healthy clusters and ivy geraniums crawl greedily at their feet. Yellow poppy-like flowers scatter gold coins beneath a date palm.”
He staged a courageous peaceful project against the security wall they were going to build across his land and mobilised the entire village because it was land that their families had cultivated for thousands of years.
Despite the fact that a civil war is raging, Lalage boldly takes a train into Ukraine to find it is a country of both guns and roses. In an extensive garden, hundreds of roses are blooming in a myriad of colours.
She meets Alexander who is in his sixties. He used to be a member of the intelligence services but now gardening is therapy for him. On the balcony adjoining his fifth-floor apartment, he is growing vegetables. Alexander has been showing his granddaughter how to grow tomatoes to teach her some old-fashioned values. Doing this, he hopes, will help her not to be like the youngsters of Kiev who cannot think for themselves and who succumb to fascist propaganda. Who would have thought that tomatoes could be used to teach such a life lesson!
The accompanying photographs are portraits of some of the gardeners posed in their gardens. Here stands Alexandra from Simonyovka looking somewhat defiant in her strawberry patch; her son has told her not to garden because of the mines.
The picture most of us have, thanks to the constant and sensational news items about these war-torn countries, is one of death and destruction. But after reading this book you realise that there are many people living there who are just trying to get on with their lives by tending their gardens and are yearning for peace.
War Gardens is by Lalage Snow. Publisher: Queris. RRP $37.99
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveler, writer & passionate home cook