A window into the resistance at Granada (Amache)

FINDING SOLACE IN THE SOIL: AN ARCHEOLOGY OF GARDENS AND GARDENERS AT AMACHE

By Bonnie J. Clark (Louisville, Colo: University Press of Colorado, 2020, 224 pp., $58, hard cover)

This new book, as its title suggests, explores the archaeological digs directed by author Bonnie J. Clark on the grounds of the wartime Japanese American confinement site of Granada (Amache) in Eastern Colorado, and the team’s discoveries about the nature of the varied gardens planted there. The digs Clark describes, and the presence of the gardens thereby reconstructed, offer a window into the remarkable resilience of the Japanese American inmates.

As the author puts it, “Facing displacement and war, Amacheans recreated connections through gardening…. Once established, these gardens provided a place for families and friends to relax in a much less militarized setting than the rest of the camp.”

After an introduction that details the creation of the archeological team and their work, the text is broadly made up of two parts. The first portion, drawn from a mix of secondary sources plus existing interviews with former inmates, offers some historical background as to the history of gardens in Japan, as well as a capsule version of the narrative of Japanese immigration and community life in prewar America, including an interesting discussion of gardening in prewar Japanese communities. This section closes with a recounting of the events of wartime removal and incarceration.

The second part of the book is devoted to a study of the trees, block gardens and vegetable (victory) gardens at the Amache camp. In these chapters, the text foregrounds the ingenuity of the inmates, both those who worked professionally as gardeners in prewar years and those new to the practice. Using a unique approach that weds technical and narrative approaches, Clark describes the mixture of Japanese and American techniques that gardeners used in arranging their gardens. At the same time, the author walks readers through the steps of the archeological team’s findings, carefully explaining how, for example, the distribution of pollen or the composition of soils uncovered by the archeological team can answer questions about gardening practices and crops produced.

The book has a number of strengths. First, it (metaphorically) breaks new ground in its informed discussion of camp gardens, and of the process of archeological reconstruction. Like the recent Chinese Railroad Workers Project based at Stanford University, the Amache project well demonstrates the valuable contribution that archeologists can make to understanding the Asian American past. To the extent that an archeological layperson can detect, this novel methodology and collection of data leads to persuasive findings, such as the test excavations that revealed a pathway made smooth and compact by years of foot traffic.

To her credit, Clark is able to draw larger conclusions from these findings about the daily life of the inmates. For example, gardeners in one block used eggshells, obtained through contacts with mess hall workers, to increase calcium in the soil and make their plants and trees grow better.

Finally, Clark reflects on the larger meaning of the gardens. While their creation may be interpreted, as some latter-day scholars have suggested, as a form of resistance by inmates to arbitrary confinement, they also offered psychological strength and repose for the inmates, and even (in the words of Allen Eaton) of “Beauty Behind Barbed Wire.” As sources of tranquility based on elements of balance and harmony, the author asks, could camp gardens then properly be thought of as aspects of “resistance”?

The book is well worth reading and savoring. Its length is not excessive and the text is lavishly illustrated with photos of camp scenes (obtained both from official sources and from former inmates) as well as samples from the digs. The writing is admirably free of jargon. Finally, it is nice to have a new avenue for information on the much-studied topic of Japanese American confinement.

(Full Disclosure: I first read the text of this book in manuscript, and I provided a blurb.)

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