Podcast 116: Uncovering the Gardens at Amache

Dr. Catherine Cooper: My name's Dr. Catherine Cooper. I am here with...

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Dr. Bonnie Clark of the University of Denver. I lead the DU Amache Project, and I am a Professor and Curator of Archeology at the University of Denver.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Happy to do it.
Two people examine a garden feature at amache
Excavating a garden feature at Amache, summer 2022

Photo courtesy of Jim West

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Could you tell us a bit about how you started working at Amache, and why are you focusing on the gardens?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: I will say that the gardens are one of the reasons that I started to work at Amache because I've always been interested in the way that people live out their identity on a day-to-day basis and especially when that identity is under siege. I think that the way that people make places is one of the ways that you can really see that. So I had read through a report that was done by a cultural resources firm here in Colorado for a grant-funded project that was actually co-sponsored by a group of former Amache incarcerees.

I saw that there were a number of remains of gardens that were there. So I think about the fact that here are these people who were being incarcerated in large part because they don't seem quite American enough. So then they're building a number of different gardens, including some that are very traditional Japanese style gardens. I just was fascinated by what we might be able to learn about these gardens and the stories that they might tell to a larger public.

Deciding when to write a book

Woman in hat looking at what is caught in an archaeological sieve
Volunteers looking through sieves during 2022 summer field season at Amache

Courtesy of Jim West

Dr. Catherine Cooper: So you've worked at Amache for a number of seasons. Can you talk about why you decided to write the book at this point, and are you continuing the study?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: I wanted to get the book out because, for those of you who read it, it's called Finding Solace in the Soil. I worked with a number of Amache survivors on the book, whether it was because they shared with me their stories, they shared with me family photographs, their own remembrances. So I really wanted to get it out while those folks could see it and appreciate it, and also give me some feedback on it, so to be my ethical peer reviewers.

I had six field seasons worth of data at that time, which is a lot of data. I knew if I waited until the project was all the way over, it was too long. So I was excited to be able to pull together the information that I had from the over a dozen gardens that we've excavated and the hundreds of gardens that we've surveyed. So I felt like we had enough data. But I will tell you that there will have to be a second edition because of the new information that's coming out, both through our survey, through some of the digitization of our digital imagery, and also through this just blockbuster excavation that I just got back from.

I will say we have worked on lots of different kinds of gardens, lots of the entryway gardens that people built for themselves as you're coming into your barrack. We've also looked at some of the public space vegetable gardens as well as public space sort of center-of-block gardens. What we hadn't looked at before this field season in terms of excavations were mess hall gardens, which are really important because people stand in line at mess halls. They spend a lot of time there, and gardens really relieve some of that…sort of the boredom of standing in line. They also in the High Plains importantly provide shade, which is particularly important during the summertime.

So this summer, we identified a mess hall garden that wrapped all the way around a mess hall that used lots and lots of pieces of concrete that are left over from the process of building the camp because all of the buildings are on concrete foundations. So they're taking some of these, and in some places, they're just using them to make the walls that are just set onto the ground. But in other instance, we had this amazing feature that takes these and then put them all together with fresh cement into what we first looked at and thought was a pond. As we investigated it more, we've decided that at least on some occasions it was a waterfall.

Giri in archaeological practice

Dr. Clark measuring the drainage hole on the pond/waterfall feature with an Amache descendant High School interns
Dr. Clark measuring the drainage hole on the pond/waterfall feature with an Amache descendant High School intern.

Photo courtesy of Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker

Dr. Catherine Cooper: In certain parts of the book, you've mentioned the concept of giri How does that relate to the archeological practice you've set up at the site?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Well, so giri is really interesting. It's a set of relationships that people find themselves in. They have overtones of both gift and obligation. I kind of learned this in just being at many community events where I showed up. There were always like gifts to be given away, and then the expectation that you will send a thank you. Then these relations kind of continue on. I started to think about the remains that we found at the site as giri. So that they are a gift from the past, but they're also an obligation to the future. So we exist in relationship with them.

Then if we think about them in this way, by teaching my students this concept of giri, I think it helps them understand that it's more than just data, right? It's more that working with these things obligates us to both them and to the people who made them and to the people who care about them.

Dr. Catherine Cooper:From what you said about why you wrote the book, when you wrote the book, the book is giri too. What will people see of the gardens if they've visit Amache today, as opposed to what the survivors would've experienced when they built the gardens?

Interpreting the remains of a landscape

current appearance of a garden at Amache
Current condition of a koi pond garden at Amache.

Photo courtesy of the DU Amache Project

Dr. Bonnie Clark: You're going to have to have some imagination. Because the vast majority of the plants and the vast majority of what we would call more hardscaping, so limestone walls and things like those, are evidenced by relatively subtle... You might have some decaying limestone that suggests that underneath there, there would be a limestone wall.

The thing that is the most striking and that people will see are trees. There are thousands of trees at Amache. Every single one of them either was planted by an Amachean or is the descendant of one of those trees. Because it's up on the High Plains on a sort of terrace up above in like these sort of stabilized sand dunes, so no trees belong there. So each of those trees that are in the original location, and many of them are still alive. Now, some of them are dead, and they're standing. Some of them are dead and fallen. But the ones that still survive, I like to think of them as witness trees. So they were there at the time. And now we can be there and have a relationship with them.

We have a few other things. There are some roses that still survive 80 years later out at Amache. A few other plants that were transplanted that are survived, especially the cactus. So there's some Cholla, which is a type of cactus that doesn't really grow right there in that part of Colorado that has been transplanted. Those have survived. So it's the very hardy plants that have survived. But you're not going to see some of the other stuff that I get through pollen. You're not going to see the lilies. You're not going to see the cattails. You're not going to see the dogwood or the plum trees.
Historic photo of koi pond at Amache
Historic photograph of koi pond garden at Amache.

Photo courtesy of the Amache Preservation Society

So those, again, you have to kind of use your imagination to know that when you see these trees, they were also accompanied with all sorts of other rich plantings. There were wooden fences. There were pergolas. There were benches. There were bird houses, just a lot. There's definitely hints of it. You can see little concrete ponds, like the one that I was talking about, it's very visible. It's right there at the mess hall. But others again, are going to take a little more imagination.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Amache has recently become part of the National Park Service. How does that affect your work going forward?

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Well, it means that it's going to be even more collaborative than it is already, which is kind of amazing given that I work with such a broad variety of stakeholders from high schoolers to Amache survivors. So now we'll roll in another partner in terms of thinking about our planning, and how we're going to curate the collections that come out of it. So we've got a lot of conversations that have happened. But every National Park is, as you know, and all parcels of land that are managed by the federal government, are supposed to have a full archeological survey. And most of them don't.

So the fact that we are systematically slowly going block by block through Amache to do this means that we are helping the Park meet an unfunded mandate. I actually was just on a Zoom call with the Park Service staff today. So they are really hoping that we can continue this really robust collaborative research program and kind of roll them into the planning of it and the management of it.

The importance of gardens

Dr. Bonnie Clark: Well, first off, I think that reading through the book and just looking at the photographs and spending a little time even going to the Amache website, is to think about how when you're singled out, that you don't have to respond to inhumanity with inhumanity. Like you can do something beautiful and humane in response. Like you can build a garden in your prison.

In fact, you probably ought to build a garden in your prison because it's going to make you feel a whole lot better. It's going to keep you in tune with some of those natural cycles that being out of control like kind of spins us into unhealthy patterns. That gardening in particular can kind of help us be literally grounded in a way that's much more healthy for us. So that's kind of one of the, I think, the takeaways.

I also have a sort of recipe for an Amache-inspired garden. This is just based on the hundreds of gardens we've surveyed and the over a dozen gardens that we've test excavated. You need to find something that’s value has been overlooked. So maybe it's a pot that is already cracked. You're going to still use it to plant something in. Or maybe it's a corner of your yard that has been underappreciated. Or maybe it's some other castoff that still might have some beauty within it, if set in the right way.

Then you want to include something that relates to your heritage, so maybe it's a heritage plant. Maybe it's a stone from a home place or an important location. Maybe it's even an object that has some of that kind of connection for you. Then you want to do something that's local to where you are, to where the garden is. So maybe that's a native plant. Maybe again, it's a stone that you've gathered from nearby. Then you incorporate all of those into some kind of a little design.

So I actually have a little Amache-inspired garden in my backyard that I sort of took that template and made. It's in a broken pot. That then I take where the broken part is, and that's where I trail out the trailing part of the plant so that it flows over and kind of looks like it belongs in there. Then my local thing is I have a stone that I actually picked up at the Arkansas River, which is what flows nearby Amache and also is in the southern part of our state. I also planted a native plant in there. Then I have a piece of stone that I actually picked up from a favorite family fishing hole in Utah, which is where I'm from.

So something that I want people to hope, to sort of embrace, from the Amache story is about how the Asian American heritage and Asian American history is American history. In terms of the vast impact that, in this instance, that Japanese had or on farming practices throughout the United States. The way that as they were dispersed across the country during World War II, that they made all of these different connections. I am out there at the site or even telling the story, and people come up and they talk to me about like, "I know someone who was at Minidoka, and they are a family friend." Which is the National Park Service site and former incarceration camp in Idaho. Or, "I grow this particular type of vegetable that I found out recently was developed by a Japanese farmer." Which is so true of so many of our really important varieties of both sort of vegetable crops as well as flowers.

So that's kind of one of the things that I think these gardens help us see is the way that there's this deep history of horticulture and connection to nature that sort of flourished in Japan, was brought to the United States, and then flourished here in this very interesting and complicated way and in a complicated time.

Dr. Catherine Cooper: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today.

Amache National Historic Site

Last updated: July 20, 2023