Posts tagged ‘Michael Pollan’

Wartime gardens in RI: King Philip’s War

Last week, I visited the Providence Public Library’s Special Collections Department. One of the first things librarian Rick Ring showed me was an original WWII-era Victory Garden poster–which was a thrill after looking at countless tiny digital images online. There’s a large collection of materials relating to the two World Wars.

But the best thing Rick found was a book on Gardens of Colony and State: Gardens and Gardeners of the American Republic Before 1840 (edited by Alice G.B. Lockwood, 1931). The Rhode Island chapters are outstanding, although unfootnoted. Aaarrrrgh!

During King Philip’s War (1675-76), some European colonists fled the mainland for Aquidneck (aka Rhode Island). Check out how on this part of John Seller’s “Mapp of New England” (ca. 1675), RI is labeled “PLYMOUTH COLONY,” and Aquidneck Island is labeled “Rode Island.” They found temporary asylum with relatives in Portsmouth.  According to the (five) authors of the RI chapters, the settlers farmed every square inch of the island during the war years, pushing aside ornamental or experimental gardens, planting crops, and allowing animals to graze the remainder. Borrowing a term from World War I, the authors concluded “’War gardens’ were imperative.”

To aid refugees and locals alike, the Town of Portsmouth voted to provide 100 acres of the Town Commons; “for those that want relief…and what shall be so lent to them, they shall improve by sowing and planting for the time of two years from the date of this meeting.” In short, the Town of Portsmouth responded to wartime crisis by providing public land for community gardening. When most of Rhode Island’s population were farm families, and all of Rhode Island depended on local food, it was absolutely critical to prioritize food production.

And it’s still a priority, if you ask Michael Pollan. Read his “Farmer In Chief” essay in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, and we’ll catch up soon.

October 13, 2008 at 8:03 pm Leave a comment

Thoreau’s beanfield

In Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (1991), Michael Pollan mentions that Henry David Thoreau makes his beanfield “a foil” for the battlefields of the Mexican War (1846-48). This reference sent me to the pages of Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) to learn more about Thoreau’s wartime garden.

On July 4, 1845, Thoreau moved into a house he built for himself on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. For the next two years, two months, and two days (with some interruptions), he sought “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.” Much of his time, and much of Walden, is given over to raising and foraging food.

In his chapter on “The Beanfield,” Thoreau mused on his larger agricultural experiment. As he tended his rows of white bush beans–seven miles in total–he could hear the local militia conducting drills and bands playing. Thoreau sarcastically suggested that the sound of trumpets could inspire even him to bayonet a Mexican soldier and he “looked round for a woodchuck or a skunk to exercise my chivalry upon.” He extended the analogy to his war on weeds: “Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead.”

In July 1846, Thoreau went to Concord and was thrown in jail for non-payment of taxes. He did not want his tax money to support slavery and the Mexican War. In his famous essay, “Resistance to Civil Government” (later titled “Civil Disobedience”), Thoreau explained how government activity often failed the will of the people: “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.” Sound familiar? The next day, his aunt settled the tax bill, and Thoreau was free to return to his pen, paper, and beanfield.

At Green Zone, scarlet runner beans (phaseolus coccineus) mingle with morning glories and gourds along the fence. Though I didn’t know it when I planted the beans in the spring, these bright red flowers, twisting vines, and long bean pods recall Henry David Thoreau and his wartime garden at Walden Pond.

July 26, 2008 at 10:29 am 4 comments


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