War’s Garden

WAR’S GARDEN

In January of 2003 I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts that enabled me to begin the physical process of creating WAR’S GARDEN. The summer and autumn of 2003 saw the building of the sub-frames for each of the four wall pieces. With a target date of 2005 for the entire project, updates will appear as the works evolve in the studio.

…of Gardens

Gardens play a deeply functional and ritualistic role in the course of human endeavours. Humanity, we are told, began in a garden, our destiny forever shaped by the vines of Eden.

Gardens provide nourishment for the soul as well as the body. Shelter and sanctuary, colour and fragrance, order and wild tangle, all reflect the needs of the human spirit, contained within the boundaries of set pieces of the Earth. In the process of creating gardens, we expand on who we are: selecting chromas to proclaim our joy at the rebirth of spring, planting for subtle hues to induce mediation, building walkways to lead us, and shaping formal beds to define our edges.

Throughout history gardens have contained and proclaimed a record of the purest of human aspirations: that of a perfect world set apart from the real world which remains ill-defined and uncontrollable beyond the garden wall.

Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in a home that also had a “yard” or garden saw that space as a safe haven, a place to play and let our imaginations soar, free from the dangers beyond. Those of us who lived in apartments gathered in nearby parks — the larger version of the garden — where our individual natures blossomed in the heat of youthful exuberance. Together we learned to interact; we jumped, we fell, we won, we lost, laughed and cried… we were nurtured. The garden shaped us, and we in turn defined it.

Painter Mary Pratt speaks of how her youthful world was that of her family’s back garden in Fredericton. It was the universe that shaped her imagination and formed her vision. Claude Monet brought all of his aesthetic sensibilities into one grand art piece – his garden at Giverny. His life had become a garden; his garden had become his life. Together they allowed him to share his magnificent reflection upon it all.

My own life has been defined by gardens. My parents rented an old home when we first arrived in Red Deer. The comforting confines of a heavily overgrown garden resplendent with hedges and arches, ornamental fences and blossoming fruit trees provided the nourishment for my childhood’s imaginary world. Across the street and down the block, the inviting beauty of Coronation Park beckoned us when our collective energy burst through the garden gate.

In my twenties, and living in a big city, parks and flower gardens were my places of escape. I could wander among the perfumes and dazzle of colour, or sit in the quietness of shade and ponder the turmoil within and without me. People of all sorts would come and go, all of us drawn to these wondrous sanctuaries.

With sketchbook and camera, I began to explore gardens in search of some sort of clue that would define the lure that drew me back in all seasons. I began to draw gardens; some real, some imaginary, some combinations of both. Realizing the universality and timelessness of gardens, I explored plazas and parks as far away as Rio de Janeiro, Paris, London, and Edinburgh… looking all the while for the mysterious link that kept me seeking these special places.

On canvas I began to create my own gardens. The variabilities and abstract qualities allowed me to “grow” flowerbeds and “rake” walkways. So began a body of work I have come to call Garden Ceremony. In 25 years the Garden Ceremony has allowed me to explore countless variations of the self, responding to personal stimuli, to very site-specific, actual gardens from faraway cultures, to combined elements of place and time.

Taking the garden concept full circle, I began to think back to those early childhood days and cross-reference them with historical and sociological touchpoints. Then came a long-forgotten memory; of being taken to a Second World War airplane graveyard. That in itself was a purely surreal connection. But a conversation recalled from my Calgary studio of twenty years ago laid the next seed: a student and I had been examining one of my large abstracted gardens. He looked at the flowing edge of one of my “flowerbeds” and mused that it seemed very much like the shape of a wing. He was right. I noted that one day perhaps I may do something with this.

I began to connect gardens with airplane graveyards and wing shapes. The stories of my parents, their friends and neighbours and the myths of their unique experiences began to meld with my child’s view of the world. Our childhood garden was built from the soil of a culture ripe with the residue of war. It shaped our sense of worth, of purpose, of future.

Our generation is labelled the Baby Boomers. We were the postwar flowering, the celebration our parents wished upon a mostly grateful world.

We were its garden.

The five pieces proposed for War’s Garden come from a fusion of myth, memory and the search for the link to the continuum — to that perfect garden that lingers in the human consciousness, just beyond Eden.

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Thoughts on War’s Garden

It must be very early spring or very late autumn. Everything is drenched in the special pale amber patina that lustres the prairies from November through April. I might be about four years old because my memory comes from a low angle, that of tall ditch grasses at my eye level. There are three or four cars; I remember their bulbous shapes gently bumping along the dusty gravel roads. We drive to the edge of a field; the cars straggle onto it. The adults step quietly out. I remember being led by the hand. Some of the men wear Homburg hats and Macintosh coats — the kind with waist ties; the women wear scarves and sweaters. Not much is said. The voices seem muffled.

I stand and stare uncomprehending at the scene in front of us. It is a graveyard. But this one is very different. Through the tangle of prairie grass are strewn the burnt and semi-rusted remains of perhaps six different airplanes. Some are just skeletons, sprawled on their bellies; others tilt at odd angles with chucks of wings missing, tails askew, broken ochre cables snaking among the bits and parts. There is little obvious colour on anything, just more of the monochrome, rust into amber and burnt umber, camouflage patterns, grass into weed, into riveted, torn plate.

One plane in particular lingers in my vision because it seems mostly intact. Its punctured body still has a sense of sleekness even as it lies in this resting place. In my memory someone picks me up; it may be my father. He places me down in the cockpit. There is no seat, just rusted cables and debris. The gauges are mostly holes in a panel long removed. I feel an uneasy quiet staring at the cockpit’s empty face.

After a moment someone lifts me out. “Spitfire?” a voice asks. “Hurricane? Mustang maybe. Too hard to tell, all burnt and bent.” Back of the lidless cockpit, about a third of the way toward the tail, is a little compartment door. My father opens it. A folded map lies inside. He takes it out and spreads it against the side of the fuselage. It is an air navigation map. He shows it to some of the others, studies it for a few moments, then refolds it. He gently places it back in the compartment as though it is a relic not to be tampered with.

That’s all I can remember of that day. If I were four it must have been 1952 or 1953. The airfield might have been at Bowden or Innisfail or or maybe Penhold. The reality of 1952 is that the field could have been any one of scores of places in Canada or North America — of the world for that matter.

Those of us spawned in the post-war baby boom were cast into an unusual era of global human history. Our young parents had emerged from a tumultuous decade in which their lives had been irreversibly altered. Some, such as my parents, found themselves starting life over halfway around the world. Others returned from their experiences and began the labourious process of rebuilding the world they had left behind.

The experience of war that linked our young parents was often the ice-breaker that began conversations among them as they met for the first time. As a young boy I would listen intently when I could. Sometimes as the drinks passed among the adults the stories would grow more colourful, though rarely would they get morose.

My young sister and I learned that our mother had been a WAAF in the Royal Air Force. A few months after her 18th birthday in the spring of 1940, mother went off and signed up for the air force. From her parent’s quiet home off the west coast of Scotland, she was sent south for training just as the Battle of Britain was brewing. Mother wound up in Fighter Command. She worked in Operations (Ops) Rooms… one of the uniformed women standing intently over a map of Britain and its coasts, listening to the combat pilots and radar operators over the headphones, reaching out with a long-handled magnetic rake to place small metal arrows converging on a new sector of the map. She spent endless days and nights during the Blitz ducking in and out of shelters, in and out of life while her world churned above and beyond her.

Mother was eventually stationed at Dyce, near Aberdeen, where my father was studying medicine. They met on a blind date sometime in 1941 and their courtship began. On January 18, 1944 they were married at Millport, her parent’s island home off the Scottish west coast. Their honeymoon was quickly over and they returned to their respective postings.

Spring of 1944 saw Father among the hundreds of thousands of military personnel massing in the south of England. Now an army medical officer, and having been trained in tropical medicine at RMC Millbank, he expected he’d be shipped off to somewhere warm, like India. On the morning of June 6, he found himself in the second wave of Allied troops sweeping onto Sword Beach at Ouistreham, Normandy.

Father’s war was quite different from my mother’s. He never spoke of it much until I was older, a teenager. I managed to pry some stories from him over a few years then, and probably after much time had allowed him to heal himself.

But in those summer childhood years of Red Deer’s Ross Street, the war was slow to wind its way out of the national psyche. The war was not pervasive. It was just slow to leave. The skies were still filled daily with the throaty growl of the yellow Harvard training planes from the nearby airforce station at Penhold. I would sometimes watch them until they drifted to the edge of my vision. They would shift in and out of my straining focus till, as a dot, they would simpy be gone. At night as we lay in our beds, the distant thrum of the Harvard engines would come ever closer and they would pass in rising crescendo succession over our house and our little city and float in spaces of half a minute, a night time aerial parade, their red and green lights blinking and twisting in their circuitous, timeless swirl out of the airfield and back, never-ending; and I felt somehow, safe.

Mother had a old blouse from her war days, one she had made from the silk of a German parachute. My little sister and I were quite amazed when she cut it up and gave us bits. For my sister, as doll’s dress; for me, Mother made a tiny parachute. It needed a little figure to dangle from it to make it work, so Mother attached a little top-hatted plastic groom she’d gotten from a cake decoration. My little well-dressed pilot on his magic parachute kept me occupied for days on end. I was so proud to think my mother had given us a sacred piece of her history. She had shared her war with us, and it was perfect, and it was good.

Playing in the beautiful overgrown old garden on Ross Street, it wasn’t unusual to hear a clanking noise and run to see a Sherman tank lumbering along the gravelled boulevard — perhaps an army mechanic from the nearby base just five blocks away taking the machine for a test spin. The tank would rumble by and I would return to my play, daringly bringing my model Spitfire to a wet landing in the ponderous, ancient concrete birdbath that stood in the garden.

To the south of Red Deer on Highway 2 was my favourite gas station. Once in a while on trips, Dad would stop there and we would scramble out if allowed. It was called Bomber Service and there, tucked near spruce trees, lurked the wonderous, majestic mass of a black Lancaster bomber. The wheels were caged with wooden braces to make sure it wouldn’t fly away, I was certain. Its belly doors were left open and wooden steps had been set up so people could crawl inside.

The plane seemed huge and dark and swirled with camouflaged emotions. I remember clambering up inside all the way to the cockpit and, even as a young boy, being amazed at how small and tight and crowded and tangled it was. How would a big man with all his gear ever get in and out of here in a hurry? I could not sit for long. The broken gauges peered back at me and the dusty, stained canopy overhead had an opaqueness that closed in. The same uneasy quiet I had felt at the airplane graveyard years earlier settled around me. Into my being there came the tumultuous roar of the four huge, powerful engines, the darkness of an endless night and the faint static radio voice of someone… my mother… calling out co-ordinates from an air station, far away and below.

Eventually someone bought the Lancaster and towed it away with the plan of re-fitting it and using it for spraying crops or fighting forest fires. They actually got the old plane running and airworthy again but, while taxiing around a farm field some wiring caught fire and the old Lancaster burnt up. While it did not die in battle, it did meet a symbolic end; at least we thought so.

We were all somewhat appeased when the owners of the Bomber Service acquired a P-40 Kittyhawk fighter plane to stand in place of the old Lancaster. The Kittyhawk was done up in Flying Tiger warpaint, snarling sharkteeth and all, and that seemed quite fine to us and gave our parents a chance for a new set of wartime memories.

Being a child in the early ’50s meant that our lives were somewhat sheltered from the real world that taunted our parents in the daily news. Anxious to make their reality a safe one and this new world they were shaping into the best of all possibilities, our parents assured that we children remained unaware of just how close the return of the war might be.

One sunny day I rode my tricycle down the Ross Street sidewalk and met my chum Hugo riding his trike in my direction. Hugo’s dad was the commander of the base at Penhold. Wing Commander was his title. Hugo pedalled up to me and announced, “Dad says the Korean War is over!” Impressed, since I didn’t even know there was a Korean War, I queried, “Who won?”

Hugo responded, “Dad says it was a tie.”

This satisfied me immensely, and I promptly pedalled off to tell the good news to my parents.

A few days later I was playing in the kitchen when a strange vibration began to fill the air. I heard my father’s voice at the back door, “Davy, come quickly!” I rushed out to see a massive swarm of yellow Harvards coming toward us from the direction of Penhold. There must have been well over a hundred of them — probably every plane that was able to fly that day — and they roared over the city in a gigantic formation. The very air and earth shook and resonated as this vast body of dancing yellow wheeled out and over us. I stood spellbound. When they had passed, my father said, “I haven’t heard anything like that since the thousand-bomber raids over Normandy.” A thousand. I could not imagine.

As the 1950s moved on, the Second World War began to leave us. There were new things to concentrate on. New fears to overcome. The common bond that brought our parents all together had been cemented with the passage of time.

Some of the reminders were slow to move on… the Harvards stayed with us until 1965 when the air force flying school finally shut down. The Sherman tanks went off to be parked in front of Legion halls. The Kittyhwak went off to a museum. The Cold War replaced the Korean War. There were fear-filled years of crises and nuclear missile threats. There were air-raid drills that haunted our dreams. The Vietnam War consumed our neighbours and maimed our cousins. In the process we came to accept that this peculiar human framework was the reality in which we would exist.

One of the last links that evolved out of the Second World War, that my father saw broken, was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A month later Father was gone.

As the century and the millenium come to an end, the old birdbath still stands in the overgrown garden on Ross Street… and the garden still shifts its camouflage and its secrets through each passing season.

— Dave More, September 29, 1996, Benalto, Alberta

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