War Gardens: the Search for Calm amid Chaos
Every so often, you stumble across a book that holds a magical kind of power. Hidden within its pages are stories that resonate deep within your soul, and words that give meaning to thoughts and ideas you’d never even known you’d been searching to understand. Such was my experience upon reading ‘War Gardens: A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm’ by UK war correspondent, photographer and author, Lalage Snow. Against the backdrop of civil unrest in Afghanistan, Gaza, Israel, the West Bank and Ukraine, Lalage captures the cruel horrors of life within the geographic confines of a warzone, and the profound stories of the gardeners who live there. It is a book that speaks of chaos and control, sorrow and hope, suffering and dignity. But above all, it is a testament to the ancient power of connection through cultivation.
Part of Lalage Snow always knew that she wanted to be a foreign war correspondent. Raised in an army family in the UK, the concept of war never seemed far from the realm of ordinary life. But it wasn’t until working as a journalist at a UK lifestyle magazine that Lalage felt the tug to abandon all that was comfortable and instead pursue a life as a foreign correspondent and photojournalist on the frontline of warzones. ‘I think it was sort of a question of if you want to do something, do the hardest thing possible, then settle for the middle ground,’ she tells me laughingly, as she relays her transition from editorial assistant of an English wine magazine to an embedded photographer in the Middle East.
Beginning in 2002, Lalage’s correspondence career quickly took off, taking her across Bangladesh and the Middle East to capture stories of soldiers in warzones, women on the frontline and the everyday lives of people in areas of conflict. But while living in Kabul in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2010, she found corresponding from Afghanistan had suddenly become difficult to publish. ‘People were concentrating elsewhere,’ she says. ‘The story was still going on but the work was drying up. It was becoming harder and harder to make people care.’ At the time, Lalage was documenting the horrendous spate of child abuse taking place across Afghanistan and was dismayed to find the story was met with indifference from potential publishers. ‘I had editors of women’s magazines saying to me that the story just wasn’t surprising, or it was just a bit too depressing for their readership,’ she says.
It was so sad because that’s your job as a journalist – to tell people what’s going on. I felt completely useless again. But then I thought, if people are finding these stories too depressing, I’ll just have to find something happy to report on and twist it a little bit.”
Around the same time, Lalage had also begun photographing gardens in Kabul to explore the contrast between private and public life in the city. ‘The domestication of nature in an environment intent on destroying it is curiously paradoxical,’ she writes in the opening chapters of War Gardens. One of the first spaces she visited was Babur’s garden, the sprawling oasis and final resting place of its creator, Baghe-e-Babur, the first Mughal emperor who conquered Kabul in 1504. Although heavily damaged during the civil war, a restoration project established after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 had seen the space rejuvenated into a green, flowering sanctuary for locals to escape the chaos and bleakness of outside.
It was while walking beneath the plane trees of the Mughal garden, alongside its engineer, Latif Khoistani, (a man so connected to Babur’s garden that he refers to its three thousand trees as his children), and observing the local Afghani people relaxing candidly within the space, that Lalage realised the story she had been searching for was right before her. In Afghanistan, a country so torn by war and filled with people whose lives had been broken, gardening remained as essential as breathing. In caring for and nourishing the earth, the people were able to find some small escape from the terrors of their life.
Over the better part of the decade that followed, Lalage journeyed across some of the most ravaged parts of the world, searching for the stories of the gardeners of war. From Kabul to Helmand Province and the army training grounds of Afghanistan; to the densely overpopulated Gaza strip, ‘the largest open-air prison in the world’; to Israel Kibbutzim, Jerusalem and the divided areas of the West Bank; to the emaciated Eastern cities of Ukraine. In each city, town and village, she would meet countless ordinary people clinging onto the fringes of freedom through their gardens, and she would ask them to tell her their story.
‘I discovered such an appreciation for the extent people will go to, to live normally, and the dignity that comes with that,’ says Lalage of the people she met and photographed for War Gardens. ‘They’re sitting there thinking, well this is crap. It’s beyond our control, but we have to try and live as normal a life as possible. We need to make it normal for our children and grandchildren. So, let’s garden. That’s what I was most drawn to. Their dignity.’
Esti is a seventy-year-old Israeli feminist gardener, who is growing flowers up the sides of the bomb shelter in her backyard and believes if women were in charge, there would be no war. ‘I want peace and quiet. The people of Gaza want that too. They have the same daily fears, hopes, dreams that we have – that the rest of the world have,’ she says while digging in the dirt. While in Kabul, 105-year-old Mohammed Kabir is recreating his memory of King Amanhullah’s garden in the ghost ruins of Darulaman Palace, planting edible crops, bringing in flowering seeds from his home and dreaming of elephants walking around the room. ‘I feel like I’m in paradise when I garden,’ he says.
In Gaza, Lalage meets a man who calls himself Sabaar, the Arabic word for cactus, prickly, robust, a survivor. Although reluctant to speak about the war at first, he shows her his rooftop garden which is home to over 500 cacti, including a Mother in Law’s Cushion that was smuggled in from Egypt through the tunnels of Ruffah.
War is so normal for us now. We don’t feel free and life is hard but all we want is peace. The garden is the only freedom we have,” he says.
Gardening as an escape from the reality of life is a common theme that weaves amongst each story within the book, connecting each gardener with the next, regardless of their race, religion, politics, sex or gender. Whether their intention is to transcend to a place of peace, like the teenager Esra, who loves to do her homework amongst the flowers on her father’s rooftop hydroponics garden in Gaza. Or to escape from the terrors of the outside world, such as Alexandra from Semonyovka in Ukraine, who hid beneath the ground for a month during the fighting that overtook her town, emerging only to pick strawberries or take eggs from the hens.
But then there are also stories of war gardeners whose longing is to escape from the world all together. In Israel, a man tends to an eclectic sculpture garden of rusting metal, cacti, ruined rockets and children’s toys – a grieving place for his daughter who was murdered. For him, the time to tend to the earth is during an air strike, as the ground beneath is shaking. ‘When you suffer a grief like that, it makes a living danger like rockets seem like a relief,’ he says.
‘In this millennium, we have become war weary,’ writes Lalage on the back cover of War Gardens. In my heart, I know her words apply not only to the vast amounts of continuing conflict taking place across the world at this moment, but also to the emotional response the society I exist within has towards war. Like many of my Western counterparts, the closest I’ve ever been to a warzone is through the pages of the weekend newspaper or the scenes broadcast across the nightly news. Inundated by stories of conflict and terror gripping countries across the sea, we sometimes feel the need to turn the page or change the channel; to selfishly alleviate ourselves both from the distress of foreign civilians and from our own miserable feelings of hopelessness. But it is by looking away that we become desensitised to the suffering of those who cannot escape the horrors of civil unrest so easily as pressing a button. If we turn away just because what we see is unfamiliar and discomforting, we will never know the faces of the ordinary people living in these extraordinary circumstances, or understand the incredible stories that they can share with us.
At its heart, this is the humanising message of Lalage Snow’s beautiful tribute to the gardeners of war: that the people within the pages of War Gardens, and those reflected across news programs and in photographs in newspapers, have the same daily struggles as any person living anywhere in the world. They too worry about their children, what to cook for dinner, when to water the garden and how to live a good and honest life. It’s just that in addition to this, they must also find a way to navigate their survival through the chaos of a country that is falling to pieces.
War Gardens isn’t a gardening book. You won’t learn much about how to plant a Mediterranean style terrace or what plants to grow within its pages. But you will learn about people, and the powerful connections they maintain with ideas of freedom, beauty and survival through the act of nurturing the earth.
To garden in a time of crisis and conflict is to escape to a world within a lost world… It is a refusal to accept a world defined by violence and destruction but instead create life,” writes Lalage in the final pages of War Gardens.
‘War is something, that for the most part, people are passive in. It’s the most violent thing that can happen to a person or a place. If there’s a message in the book that I hope people reading take with them, it’s don’t forget. And don’t take anything for granted.’
‘War Gardens: A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm’ by Lalage Snow was published in 2018 by Quercus. Find out more about Lalage Snow through her website and Instagram.
Header image of Mohammed Kabir, the 105-year-old-care taker of the improbable garden in the ruins of Darulaman Palace, Kabul, 2012. Image by Lalage Snow from War Gardens, 2018.