A Journalist's Archive

A Green and Pleasant Land
Ursula Buchan
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Okay men, imagine if instead of giving “the love of your life” a bouquet of flowers to mark a special occasion, you presented her with a nice, big, juicy onion! Today, her response might be to clobber you over the head with it; but during World War II, a British woman would have smothered you in kisses.
          “A Green and Pleasant Land,” by Ursula Buchan, is an in-depth look at the “Dig for Victory” program launched by the British government as the Germans rolled across Europe. Buchan begins with a background history of England in the 1930’s. Prior to the war, most large estates had formal gardens, lush lawns, and massive greenhouses used to grow flowers. But when it came to food production, the image of the pleasant bucolic English countryside was a myth.
          After the end of World War I, city populations expanded exponentially in response to new employment opportunities created by industrial, manufacturing, and commercial businesses. With fewer people to work the farms, much of the land became fallow, or mere sustenance-level parcels, providing rural families with enough to survive, but little else. At the same time, inexpensive imported meats, fruits and vegetables flooded the market , making both farming and gardening less profitable.
          By the outbreak of WWII, the vast majority of the food consumed in Great Britain came from Western Europe, including 90 percent of the onions and eggs. That put England in a precarious situation, especially after the fall of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. German U-Boats only made a bad situation worse, when they began targeting ships carrying food and war supplies from the United States and Canada.
          Overnight, “Dig for Victory” became a national rallying cry; because without a concerted effort, the nation was in danger of being starved into submission. Uncultivated land was quickly divided into 10,000 allotments, where urban dwellers could plant crops. Kensington Gardens was stripped of its flowers and topiary; Selfridges Department Store employees created a rooftop garden, “even the Royal Family were pressed into service.” (See the photo of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose studying plans for the new Windsor Castle Garden.)
          Yet, as Buchan illustrates, producing crops in England meant overcoming natural and cultural problems. Let’s begin with the climate: cold, damp, overcast skies readily create ferns, hedges, and green lawns, but the weather is only conducive to growing potatoes, carrots, and barley. However, the same conditions are ideal for insects that devour any crop in their path. So it became imperative to educate the populace about how to overcome these obstacles.
          The government tackled this problem by printing newspaper and magazine articles, pamphlets, and posters, designed to do just that. Topics covered all aspects of gardening, including: double digging, creating compost, soil ph levels, growing tomatoes under glass, animal husbandry, and pest control.
          Sadly, some governmental advice concerning pesticides was downright dangerous to both humans and the environment. The cover of one “Growmore” bulletin showed a man carrying a sprayer, urging people to use synthetic chemicals such as DDT, dieldrin, and aldrin. Added to the list of toxic compounds were cyanide and nicotine washes, sure to eliminate any bugs that might invade greenhouses, along with a lead arsenate paste to kill insects on fruit trees.
          In all fairness, Buchan points out, the long term effects of some of the insecticides were unknown at the time, few pest-resistant varieties of vegetables existed, and most organic methods for treating plants weren’t developed until decades later.
          While “Victory Gardens” popped up everywhere, and societies formed to encourage growing and food preservation, more had to be done to provide the populace with a sufficient number of calories. That job fell to the “Minister of Food,” Frederick Marquis, who had the daunting task of ensuring that neither civilians nor members of the armed forces starved. He began by implementing a “Food Rationing” program, which appears counterintuitive to that goal. But without rationing, only those with sufficient cash would be fed.
          Next, Marquis addressed the cultural problems stymieing the nation’s food production. At the beginning of the war, few believed women were capable of doing much more than domestic tasks. That included many women who thought digging and planting were tasks better left to men. However, almost all able-bodied men under age 65 were in the armed forces, the Home Guard, or working in war industries. That severe lack of manpower left the government no alternative; for the first time in British history all single women between the ages of 19 and 40 were conscripted. While not used in combat, these women suddenly found themselves in uniform, working as nurses, mechanics, ship and airplane builders, code breakers, and “Land Girls,” more aptly described as farmers.
           Eleven thousand “Land Girls” took the place of men at market farms, nurseries and orchards. By 1945, that number swelled to 80,000. Many were billeted on estates the government confiscated for the duration of the war. Their mission was to remove the formal gardens and convert the land into fields; others turned greenhouses into mini tomato factories. As with all farmers, they worked long hours in all types of weather. They raised animals, collected seeds, felled trees, and had the unenviable job of killing rats that invaded granaries. While Buchan credits school children, servicemen, and civilians for their gardening efforts, she makes it clear the “Land Girls” were the unsung heroes who actually kept the nation fed.
          “A Green and Pleasant Land,” reveals many facts about life in England during the war  that won’t be found in traditional history books. Discover the role wild plants played in England’s survival. Learn how the morale of the civilian population ebbed and flowed as the war dragged on. And learn what one fresh egg could be exchanged for on the Black Market, which, as in all wars, continued to thrive.
          Scattered amongst the facts, Buchan inserts first-person accounts taken from newspaper articles, diaries, and interviews. After the first few chapters, I admit to skimming over the figures for the tons of crops grown. Instead, I zeroed-in on the personal stories; because these are indeed what breathes life into this history. Some of my favorites were the less-than-patriotic ones, wherein the teller admits that “War is Hell,” both on the battlefield and the Home Front.
          Buchan’s theory about the psychological benefits of gardening during the war makes sense too. As the bombs fell, bringing death and destruction to England, there was an innate need to escape the horror. How better to think of a brighter future than by tending plants in “A Green and Pleasant Land?”

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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