15 March 2010

Soil Soldiers

A few days ago I attended the Farm Faithfully, Garden Gratefully: Progressive Women and their Influence in the Landscape —1900-1940 seminar at Temple University's Ambler Campus. It was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and highlighted women's role in horticulture in the early 20th century. Probably not a coincidence that this is Women's History Month? Didn't think so!

Also not a coincidence that the Ambler campus is the home of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women, founded in 1910. While the symposium spotlighted such iconic and influential women as Beatrix Farrand, her aunt Edith Wharton (who wrote extensively about Italian Gardens in addition to her career as a novelist), and the prominent founders of many garden clubs up and down the east coast, it was the speaker Elaine Weiss's topic that most interested me.

A few years ago in England I somehow developed an interest in the Women's Land Army during WW2. I honestly don't remember what sparked it, but for the whole of the two weeks I was in the UK, I bought every book on the subject I could find. I even found out-of-print memoirs on the Internet and devoured them. These first-hand accounts of women in the fields growing crops to feed their country in a time of war were inspiring, heartening, frightening, encouraging, and even scandalous. Some tales certainly threw my grandmother, who was in her early 30's when America entered the war, and the era she lived in into a new light.

Imagine my surprise when I returned to the states and searched for information on the American Women's Land Army and found nothing. Nothing, I say. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Rien. So when I learned that Elaine Weiss had written a book about the Women's Land Army of America in WW1 and that she would be speaking at the symposium, I called the registration line and said, "Yes, please!" when they asked if I wanted to buy a ticket!

Naturally I bought the book - Ms. Weiss even signed it for me! - and have been revising my opinion of what life might have been like for my great-grandmother, who was in her mid-30s in 1919. Grandma was 6. I never knew my great-grandmother but I'm told she had moxie! Here they both are, pre-WW2.

Another book I'm reading posed this shocking thought: in 50 years - give or take a couple of decades - no one will remember me. By then everyone I know or who knows me will probably be dead. It's not meant to be a morbid observation, but it certainly is a true one. I've done nothing to change the course of history, have had no impact on women's status in society, and have not served my country in a military sense. But I and all my sisters (is there a feminine form of 'brethren'?) have benefited from those who did and they were all but forgotten for nearly a century!

I won't offer a review of the book. You can read that for yourself on the author's website. Besides, I'm slightly prejudiced by my interest in the subject. I will, however, leave you with a challenge: next time you're in your garden, especially if you have a vegetable garden, think about what it might have been like to be a woman fighting in the fields during wartime (difficult if you happen to be reading this and also happen to be male). Maybe because I have such an active imagination or maybe because I'm joining my classmates in growing vegetables to support our trip abroad, but every time I enter my garden I wonder...what was it really like, and what would those brave women who paved the way for women of the future to have careers in horticulture think about what I'm doing today? Better yet, how will the way you or I garden now affect people 50 years from now? What kind of horticultural legacy will we leave?

On that note, I'm off to my own small field to wage war against the invading enemy, I mean weeds. If you happen to walk by, you'll probably hear me humming the Land Army Song*, as I "win this wicked war with hoe and rake and spade". I do draw the line at wrapping myself in a flag and flinging seeds far and wide. The sandals simply don't meet Longwood PPE requirements!

*Land Army Song
(tune: “Battle Hymn of the Republic”)

Our Mother Earth has called us, for the Nations we must feed.
We have rallied to her standard to produce our greatest need.
We will labor on her bosom and achieve that worthy deed,
As we go working on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah, etc.

We are told by Herbert Hoover that the war by food is won,
So we’re laboring at production from the dawn till set of sun.
We have donned the khaki uniform to fight the mighty Hun,
And we go working on.
Glory, glory, etc.

We are going to whip the Kaiser and our hearts are unafraid,
We will help to win this wicked war with hoe and rake and spade.
Though our tasks be of the hardest we will never be dismayed,
But still go working on.
Glory, glory, etc.

We have joined our hands for service with our sisters ‘cross the sea,
We have forged a mighty weapon in our fight for liberty,
By the spirit of our labor in the Woman’s Land Army,
As we go working on.
Glory, glory, etc.

For the full story of the Women's Land Army of America in the Great War, run - don't walk - to your nearest bookseller and check out Fruits of Victory by Elaine Weiss.