In 1786, the poet Goethe, on his Grand Tour through Europe, described his sense of amazement at the growth of the once humble leaves of a giant palm tree into the huge, majestic fan-like structures that stood before him. He was at the botanical garden in Padua, where, more than two centuries later, that palm tree still stands. It is now the oldest botanical garden in the world retaining its original structure and location. There, that same palm inspired the poet Linda France, who introduced her new project ‘Botanical’ at the Durham Book Festival in October, to muse upon the changing relationship between mankind and nature, one which, she says, we need to ‘turn around’ at this time of rapid ecological degradation.
The word ‘ecology’ comes from the Greek for ‘home’, and it is worth remembering, in the modern urbanised world, that our ‘home’ is amongst the plants we evolved alongside, and still rely upon for our health, happiness and very existence. In our modern-day cities, nature has become commoditised, demoted to a mere past-time, a distraction from the everyday world of business and commerce, and carefully confined to its neatly defined corner of the city-dweller’s life. Even in Padua, the signs of the times are ominous. ‘Goethe’s Palm’ no longer flourishes freely in the open air, but is tethered – ‘like a chained elephant’ in France’s words – within a specially erected gothic greenhouse. This greenhouse forms the ‘chapel’, in her view, in which the tree has been ‘crucified’, bled of its natural splendour by humanity’s desire to dominate our surroundings.
The confinement of nature and our insistence on building our own landscapes in place of the Earth’s magnificent natural carpet of plant-life can only have negative effects on ourselves. The Japanese, France explains, call the breathing-in of the air around trees ‘wood-bathing’, and indeed scientific research has shown that the compounds released by living trees and decaying leaves have beneficial health effects. It is as though we deny our bodies, by separating ourselves from these staples of our natural environment, the sense that it is at ‘home’ at all. The Earth, our home, is a giant garden, and that is why being in gardens – be they natural wildernesses or works of nature guided (not dominated) by man – provides such a source of psychological and physical healing. We do not need to let nature run wild to benefit from its effects, but we do need contact with nature – through spaces left for plants to grow and exhale their life-giving powers – to be thoroughly alive.
Running right through Linda France’s narrative about how she has experienced nature as part of her work in botanical gardens in the UK and abroad, is the notion that mankind lacks humility towards this ultimate creator and sustainer. The truth is that we, for all our scientific advances, do not know why certain natural chemicals are so beneficial, nor can we succeed in mastering the natural forces that surround us and that the modern world so often attempts to control. She tells of how Newcastle’s own ‘oasis of green’, Moorebank botanical garden, was badly damaged by the severe winter of 2010–2011, a force well beyond human control. But the pragmatic gardeners who manage it sought not to fight against the elements, as the builders of that greenhouse in Padua did, but rather to work with them, creating something new out of what the natural world provided them with. Our relationship with nature has to become more like theirs: manicuring and caring for what nature provides, under its direction, not expecting to wrest full control of the flora and fauna that surrounds us. If plans to close Moorebank go ahead, the people of Newcastle will have lost the opportunity to learn this lesson first-hand.
But surely society does need to learn: to regain that appreciation of our natural surroundings that we once possessed. This is where Linda’s works, poems and prose on floral themes, come into play: for through her drawing attention to the diverse characters that exist in the world of plants – a world of scents and sights unparalleled in the universe – she and like-minded artists can help us to see beyond our anthropocentric view of existence, and better perceive our place within a larger picture. That is the purpose of ‘botanical’: to put the reader in touch with the voices and visions that pervade the world beyond the concrete and steel of the city, and thereby encourage us to cease our exploitation, and begin again an era of appreciation of what this bountiful gift – this green, hospitable island in a sea of darkness, the Earth itself – really has to offer us.
We all know that many of the things we are doing to our environment – the pollution, the cutting down of forests and the encroachment of buildings onto green land – are destroying our own future, the bedrock on which our very existence is founded. And yet, the confinement of the natural world to the periphery has made many of us come to think of these as external problems, somehow not impacting on our day-to-day lives. As a result, we too often fail to act to make the changes we desperately need. Poetry forces us to see things through others’ perspectives. It cannot, as France describes, be ‘disembodied’ from the character whose viewpoint it describes. So, by drawing on metaphors between our own lives and the lives of the living creatures around us, it can help us to see beyond the boundaries we have created around our civilisation, and to realise the change in attitude that is truly required if we are to avert ecological disaster. Perhaps Linda France’s poems, and others like them, can help us onto the path of empathy with the natural world. Only then will we each take seriously the need to change our lives, for the good of ourselves, the generations that follow us, and, in truth, for life – the most precious facet of the universe – as a whole.