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Botanical Xenophobia, Fascist Gardening, and Planting a Heritage Apple Tree by George McKay

Botanical Xenophobia, Fascist Gardening, and Planting a Heritage Apple Tree by George McKay

5th November 2011

George McKay, author of Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden, traces some of the problematic politics

In my new book Radical Gardening, I look not only at liberal or revolutionary movements and their uses of gardens, but also at reactionary and xenophobic radicalisms. I ask how (far) can we say that there was such a thing as fascist gardening, for instance? And, soberingly, in what ways do racist and xenophobic groups continue to use the garden, plants and planting - and, as we will see, trees - to spread their ideas?

It's fairly well known that there were strong links in 1930s Britain and Germany between the newfangled organic movement and fascism. Tarka the Otter novelist Henry Williamson was a member of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, as was Jorian Jenks, who was also incarcerated during the war because of his fascist allegiances. Jenks edited the Soil Association's journal Mother Earth from its inception until 1963. Most of the British 'organicist fascists' of the pre-war period, though, as Jeremy Burchardt has put it in Paradise Lost, 'executed a swift about-turn... [and] cover[ed] their political tracks' during the war.

In Nazi Germany, garden practices as varied as allotments, the garden city movement, biodynamic planting, and even design elements drawn from the English landscape tradition, were used in the Nazi ideology of Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil). This is symbolised in popular consciousness by a certain Nordic imaginary in tree planting - all those conifer plantations symbolising Aryan superiority. Perhaps the most shocking symbol, though, is the organic herb garden (sounds idyllic) at, of all places, Dachau concentration camp. Heinrich Himmler was a regular visitor, and would take foreign dignitaries on tours there.

In Nazi planting ideology there were powerful links between the encouragement of native species and Nazi racial ideas. As Alwin Seifert, formally Reich Advocate for the Landscape and nicknamed Mr Mother Earth, expressed it in 1934, 'only the native plant grows by itself, needs no special care, is healthy and vigorous and hardy against all damages and diseases'. In 1941 Seifert demanded that 'nothing foreign' be added to the landscape.

Such troubling connections have not entirely disappeared. Researching my book, I came across a section of the British National Party's website entitled not Blut und Boden but Land & People - a near translation of the original Nazi doctrine - focused on 'rural, environmental, farming and animal welfare' issues. The BNP views these issues through the lens of extreme right-wing and anti-immigrant politics, since 'agriculture is the bond between the land and the people who dwell upon it - from which stem our traditions, culture and identity'. For the BNP the simple space of an allotment becomes a site of traditional Englishness, but more, it can be a bulwark against mass immigration:

"Land & People say the choice between allocating land for locals - to utilise as allotments - or for 'development' - building to house migrants - is, as they say, a 'no brainer'!... Only British Nationalists will put the engine of immigration into reverse and, in so doing, save our countryside..."

This swirl of ideas around land, planting and reactionary politics raised a pivotal question for me. In recent years a turn towards planting only native or traditional species has been evident in areas from forestry (oak, rowan) to domestic gardens (heritage fruit trees and roses). The point is partly to reclaim a certain apparently unhybridised Englishness or other pure national identity.

And the BNP has championed the planting of old English apple trees alongside the campaign to preserve a rustic (and white) national culture:

"Land & People invites readers having larger gardens in particular, to plant an apple tree, or three, not just for the benefit of local wildlife but as an assured means of establishing a supply of fresh fruit for the table. Furthermore, we would suggest hunting around for one, or more, of the many less well known English apple varieties, thereby helping to... preserve a part of our heritage into the bargain!"

Now, my point is not that all planting of native or heritage species - or targeting of invasive species, come to that - is driven by reactionary political ideas of national purity. Indeed, in spite of being neither English nor a nationalist I myself have planted a 'lost' local heritage apple tree in my Lancashire garden (it doesn't fruit as much as the Bramley bought end-of-season from B&Q for a fiver, thus quite possibly explaining why it was lost). The very idea of 'botanical xenophobia', as Richard Mabey terms it in his recent book Weeds, is culturally complex. My point is more straightforward: there are dangerous political traditions which map planting on to ideology, and these traditions are not only historic. They are still being employed.

The BNP's Land & People campaign has also warned that 'the citrus longhorn beetle has arrived in Britain. This is bad news indeed, as the large black beetle has the ability to kill many species of native trees and shrubs... such as oak, beech, apple, pear'. The message is both clear and double-coded: British garden plants are threatened by black invaders from overseas. Migrant peoples are especially sensitive to manifestations of such ideological slipperiness around ecological and social questions of nativism and invasive species, as Banu Subramaniam has pointed out: 'for anyone who is an immigrant or is familiar with the immigration process, the rhetoric is unmistakeable.'

With these dark glimpses of 'polemic landscapes', of ideology and horticulture, I hope readers will be able to see a little of the kind of approach I take towards the idea of radical gardening in my book. Much of the rest of the book - from peace gardens to Peace Pledge Union white poppies, from 'flower power' to the utopian 'cranks' attracted to the early garden city movement, from Speakers' Corner to the anti-capitalist politics of allotments - is more positive, I promise. But equally intriguing for aware gardeners everywhere, I trust. Resistance is fertile!

George McKay is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, and the author or editor of around a dozen books on alternative cultures and media, protest, festivals, music from jazz to punk to techno... . His Shakin' All Over: Pop, Rock and Disability is due for publication in 2012 by University of Michigan Press. More at http://geeorgemckay.org

What the press say about Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden:

'a bravura account... a truly important book' Times Higher Education

'a highly original history of the harnessing of horticulture in counter-cultural political activism, from the Diggers to the present-day climate change protestors and eco activists' Daily Telegraph

'a lightness of touch and a sprinkling of plant puns make inspiring cultural gallop through an alternative history of green in the city' RIBA Journal

'if you've been labouring under the delusion that gardening is a staid suburban pastime, this is the book that will change your mind' The Scotsman

(c) George McKay