One of the reasons I’m slightly obsessed with botanic gardens is that the earliest impulse to create them integrated science and religion within their leafy bowers. The 16th century monks who planned and planted Europe’s first botanic gardens did so as an act of devotion to God. They collected seeds and specimens from all over the world in an attempt to recreate the original botanic garden – Eden.
The idea was that after the Fall, Eden had disappeared to some far flung location, and expeditions were sent to go find it. The alternate thinking was that Eden had been flung asunder, its treasures distributed all over the world, and again, explorers were sent to go find those pieces and bring them home. Planting botanic gardens meant putting the pieces back together again in homage to a Creator. And in collecting plants found in different locations, growing in varying soil types and climates, the puzzles of biogeography began to be addressed. Who lives where and how they got there continue to be important scientific questions today.
Our world, at least in the United States, is a far more secular place than Europe in the middle ages. But many of us have an intuition that those monks were onto something.
The idea of an original, whole nature, is an abiding desire. We know that global change is having negative and potentially disastrous effects on species and their habitats, but this bad news often feels like it is coming from far away. We want to help nature by reducing our carbon footprints, but many of us have to get into cars every day, to go to work, to drive our kids to soccer practice.
How can we connect ourselves back to the green heart of life, how can we take direct sustenance from the procreative powers of nature, and how can we help heal the fractures in our imperfect world?
Well, in many American cities, we can start by taking the bus to our botanic gardens. I live in San Francisco, so for me this means a jaunt to Golden Gate Park, accessible by multiple public transportation options, and abetted by a free shuttle inside the park. I usually ride my bike, which truth be told, is often just as fast as the bus. Either way, within a half hour I’m ensconced in a truly beautiful collaboration between man and nature. San Francisco Botanic Garden (SFBG) is organized mostly by geographic region, so a stroll through its various gardens can be a bit of an academic exercise, if you’re so inclined. Our New Zealand, Native Plants, and Chilean Gardens all display the glories of what is known as a mediterranean climate, with cool, dry summers and wet winters. Other people will preference SFBG’s world-class magnolia collection or redwood forest, but my absolute favorite is the Ancient Plants Garden. Walking among these crazy sci-fi trees and vines, the ancestors of today’s plant life, I feel the sense of a green pathway back into the mists of time.
One way to consider the network of arteries that extend from the Garden’s green heart to points all around the city and beyond is the birds-eye view. Many of the birds who tarry feasting on the Garden’s perpetual blooms also venture well past its boundaries, carrying nectar and seeds to little patches of greenery all over town. Even planted meridians on busy roadways provide pieces of habitat connectivity for birds, butterflies, and other bugs looking for food and a place to rest. San Francisco is on the Pacific flyway, and is a productive stopover for birds on their way North or South, depending on the species and the time of year. Watching birds come and go I like to think of them stitching up the distances between far-flung geographies and thus creating one continuous fabric of life. Other locations have their own stories, and one of the great pleasures of living in a place is investigating who else, besides humans, uses it.Because nature is in fact going on everywhere, even across big cities.
Most American botanic gardens have traditionally showcased the glories of plant breeding to create bigger, showier, or more exotic flowers. Today botanical gardens have become home for many species that are threatened or endangered in the wild.
For more than ten years, scientists have documented species shifting where they live in response to warming temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. Plants and animals that are no longer able to thrive in the climates where we have historically found them are on the move. But they haven’t settled into new homes yet – and since temperatures keep rising, it is likely that not all of them will ever find suitable dwelling again. Botanic gardens are important safe houses for many of the world’s most delicate species, providing a comfort zone while the “new normal” asserts itself.
Botanic gardens today are in a position to play a central role in educating people about nature, and in providing access to its beauties. Botanic gardens are connected with each other through organizations like the American Public Gardens Association, and as an active professional network are perfectly positioned to bring a big, unified message to the public about the centrality of nature in all of our lives. Botanic gardens already exist, and they already have devoted corps of volunteers who help to keep them running. What they need is more public support, and more visits from the people who live around them. The San Francisco Botanic Garden is currently raising funds for a sustainability center that will help involve and educate our populace about how plants grow and how biodiversity works. And when the learning is done, we’ll be able to step into the Eden at the heart of Golden Gate Park, and enjoy the world as a unified creation once again.
I wrote this piece for Richard Louv’s Childrenandnature.org site, which is rich with thought and material. The photo above is taken by Saxon Holt at the San Francisco Botanic Garden — he’s likewise a wonderful photographer.