Opinion: A patriotic tradition for our environmental battles

Richard and Annette Rubin, Arroyo Seco
Posted 8/29/19

The struggle for saving our planet sometimes seems like a war. Rather than resignation to defeat, we can restore the tradition of victory gardens from previous wars. These began as vegetable, fruit …

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Opinion: A patriotic tradition for our environmental battles

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The struggle for saving our planet sometimes seems like a war. Rather than resignation to defeat, we can restore the tradition of victory gardens from previous wars. These began as vegetable, fruit and herb gardens grown at private homes and public parks in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia during World War I and II.

George Washington Carver is credited with naming and promoting victory gardens. Wikipedia describes that they aided the war efforts by supplementing the public food supply, and were also considered a civic morale booster, helping the gardeners feel empowered by their contribution of labor and rewarded by the produce grown.

I learned about victory gardens as a child in our New Jersey town. Although I was born in April 1946, nine months after so-called V-J Day, we had a continuing victory garden at home into the 1950s and '60s. They began when my parents moved to an old house with fruit trees and garden in 1939 because my father's new biochemistry PhD provided opportunity to do pioneering research about the development of vitamins. During World War II, his work was valuable to the war effort, making military rations more nutritious and preventing deficiency diseases. Yet I later became aware that he regretted somehow not being in the direct fight. So our home victory garden became a source of patriotic pride.

I have wondered why the victory garden continued meaningful at our home and why the practice still has value for our communities. As a nutrition scientist, my father appreciated the organic foods he produced, and my mother enjoyed the fresh produce.

We all know how this motivation for healthy gardens has continued into the present. Michelle Obama planted an 1,100-square-foot "Kitchen Garden" on the White House lawn to raise awareness about healthy food. Yet I have also recognized that the idea of ongoing wartime necessity may have continued for my parents. Soon after World War II ended, we began hearing of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb devastation, and the terrible Holocaust tragedies. Then the Korean War occurred, and soon the Cold War when children did nuclear bomb drills at school and people built fallout shelters hoarding food rations. Then soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War began. Even today, the term "endless war" is used in political debates and journalism.

Therefore, as many people feel we are in a war to save our environment, the efforts we make in victory gardens have patriotic as well as land ethic value. The pioneering conservationist and 1912 Carson National Forest supervisor Aldo Leopold described a land ethic as change for humankind [from being] conquerors of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. A land ethic implies respect for all living things and our shared community.

There is much description and discussion now about what our gardens can do for the challenged environment: reducing toxicity and pollution, restoring diversity, fostering many valuable plants and animals, helping reverse climate change, etc. In addition, I come back to - as in prior wartimes - enhancing courage and morale for the battles.

Is this modern view of victory gardens trivial in the face of overwhelming environmental degradation and destruction? I am sure many felt that also during the world wars. Personally, I feel sustained by St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who taught that when we cannot do great things on this Earth, we can do small things with great love.

Richard and Annette Rubin cultivate diverse gardens at their Arroyo Seco home.

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