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Fighting in the Fields

Gardening for victory, knitting graffiti, and a friend remembered.

 

What I needed was a rousing read, a book affirming faith in humanity and our ability to surmount hurdles. The report of the United Nations Panel on Climate Change had put me in a solidly glum mood. Fortunately, Nicola Tyrer's book about the Woman's Land Army in Great Britain, They Fought in the Fields (1996), is uplifting nonfiction about courage and the battle for food security. It fit the bill.

In 1939, at the advent of World War II, British agriculture was in a sorry state with 70% of its food being imported, including from North America. The German Reich, on the other hand, was producing four-fifths of the food it consumed. The story of how this massive situation of food insecurity was solved — women supporting the war effort by becoming farm workers — is the basis of Tyrer's revealing book and an electrifying history lesson.

The WLA emerged in its first guise in World War I when in 1919, Great Britain was down to a three-week food supply. Even in this perilous situation, farmers were resistant to training women as milkers, tractor drivers, field workers — even as thatchers and shepherds! Unlike other European countries where men and women farmed together, British farming was male-dominated. Wives did little more than collect eggs, feed the pigs and cows, and tend the kitchen garden.

Nonetheless, 43,000 women applied to help in the first war; half of them were rejected as "unsuited for the task." The outcome for the chosen ones was ultimately positive — women farm workers did an outstanding job and an attitude adjustment occurred.

Twenty years later, however, sexism resurfaced. As an urgent incentive to grow grain and increase food sources, the government paid farmers by the acre to plow fields. With military conscription, however, there was a shortfall of 50,000 farm workers. Once again, it was urgent that women fill the void.

The leader of this effort was an aristocrat worthy of a "Downton Abbey" role, Lady Gertrude Denman. The daughter of a viscount who had made a fortune in construction, "Trudie" adored her philanthropist father whose progressive leanings encompassed woman's suffrage, home rule for Ireland, old age pensions and sickness insurance.

At age 55, Lady Denman became head of the WLA using her 3,000-acre country estate, "Balcombe Place," as its headquarters. Through a vigorous program that included idealistic recruitment posters, about 4,500 "land girls" were placed on farms throughout Britain, in time for the winter of 1939 — "the hardest in living memory."

Early recruits benefited from Lady Denman's impeccable taste: She had the House of Worth in Paris design the comfortably big, but natty, coat that so attracted young women. Later in the war, the coats were no longer available.

Tyrer writes: "To many people the Land Army and the famous uniform are synonymous. Nothing like the breeches and slouch hat had ever been seen before or would be seen again.… The Land Army had no male role model. Agricultural workers wore no uniform, leaving the designers of the uniform free rein. What they came up with was unique — a blend of countryside colours, the fashion of the day and a sporty look hitherto the prerogative of men's wardrobes."

 

Information about the young female recruits is revealed through the author's research, including diary entries, interviews and the WLA monthly magazine, The Land Girl. Literary luminaries like Vita Sackville-West were magazine contributors.

Land girls came from modest backgrounds, ranging from factory workers and hairdressers to bar maids and bakers. Their social ranking was well below the women who served in the Women's Auxiliary Service, Red Cross and Intelligence divisions.

Land girls learned every aspect of agriculture, including how to drive and repair tractors. Fighting rats became a task in itself: "In 1949, there were 50 million rats in Britain (5 million more than the human population), devouring the grain that had been so painstakingly harvested."

Luckier land girls were placed on farms where living conditions included the availability of heat and cooked meals. Less-fortunate recruits were isolated in places like Wales and the Scottish highlands, or had to endure frequent enemy shelling. Many worked in the fields among prisoners of war — and one land girl tells how she learned to make pasta from an Italian POW.

By 1944, there were 66,000 land girls, with one-third of them living in 696 hostels. Group living in hostels offered a better situation than most private farms, where poor food and inadequate bathing facilities were frequently the norm.

The WLA was disbanded in 1949, but 5,000 women decided to stay on the land. In her remarks to the recruits the Queen said, "The story of the Land Army has been one of a great response by women of our country to the call of duty in the nation's hour of danger and need. They could not have done more for their country than they did. By their efforts they helped to ensure that our country contributed its utmost towards its food supplies and for this the nation owes them an everlasting debt."

In her book's moving postscript, Tyrer writes: "On 19 August 1995 for the first time in 45 years, 80 land girls marched through the streets of London.… They were not of course in uniform. That had had to be surrendered when they left the force. Though most of them were over 70, they all had a determined look, as if they wouldn't take no for an answer. They looked as if, even now, they were ready for anything."

I also viewed a DVD of the BBC's television production, "Land Girls," commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. The five-episode dramatic series (1995) features the high production values, period-perfect costumes, etc., that you expect from the BBC.

 

 

Fiber Street Art

 

With the goal of beautifying unattractive objects such as utility poles and mailboxes, a group who call themselves "Pollinators" are at work on a Tree of Life to adorn the gate at the El Sol Theater in downtown Silver City. Working out of Cecelia Stanford's studio, the Pollinators use various fibers to create their street projects, including felt, old T-shirts and crocheted flowers.

The Tree of Life will debut June 7 as part of International Yarn Bombing Day. Yarn bombings have occurred worldwide. In Los Angeles, 1,500 knitted "granny squares" were used to cover the Craft & Folk Art Museum.

Other projects, also referred to as "graffiti knitting," have included sweaters and socks to clothe public sculpture, park benches, bicycle racks — even the balustrades on a pre-Renaissance Italian bridge.

 

Mary O'Loughlin (575-519-9138), a fiber artist and Pollinator spokesperson, says she is happy to help creative folks develop their own projects for the June 7 event.

 

 

Remembering Dorothy

 

"I want death to find me planting cabbages."
                                                                   — Montaigne

Dorothy Eagan possessed a green thumb and wore fashionably cool, but sensible, shoes on her small feet. She loved long walks, books with a capable female protagonist, and the luscious taste of green gage plum butter prepared from the bounty of a backyard tree.

Our friendship began at the Silver City public library, where she worked until her retirement. The only time that I ever heard her use scolding words was if a library patron returned a damaged book.

A librarian's sense of order prevailed in her precisely tended garden. The plantings in her borders appeared delighted with their placement, which was always comme il faut.

In a setting of tepid sunshine and light breezes animating the greenery, our conversation skipped from delight in a plant's progression to a third-year's "leap" — to pondering the species of a bird-gift growing around a cobblestone.

We marveled at Dorothy's beloved roses, elegantly terraced on a brick embankment, and debated the design of a possible trellis. Above all, our friendship shared an unspoken glee sensing a cohesion in nature's glory.

With its high walls and shady expanses of conifers, Dorothy's garden personified the sanctuary of her interior self. She was a steadfast friend, but a private person who kept her innermost thoughts concealed in a journal.

Dorothy died in late February, at the end of an unseasonably warm winter.

Her plans for retirement — traveling abroad, studying botanical drawing, writing a children's book, and of course having leisurely, extended time in the garden — were never realized.

One morning, not long after her passing, I was drinking a cup of tea — seated in my comfortable Dorothy hand-me-down love seat. Through the top of the window, I noticed a dove perched on an elm limb. This was odd. That particular site did not draw avian curiosity, and I had never observed a dove there.

In the early light a pearl-gray tint radiated from the creature's delicate feathers. For a long interval its dove eyes locked upon mine, both of us still and attentive. Then a voice whispered: What are you doing sitting there? It's a beautiful day.

I arose and went outside to be with my friend in the garden.

 

 

Southwest Gardener columnist Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.

 

 



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