Current Issue #488

Earth Perfect?

Earth Perfect?

A couple of years ago Annette Giesecke, the Professor of Classics and Chair of Ancient Greek Studies at the University of Delaware asked if I’d contribute to a project entitled Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia & the Garden. The concepts of both a Paradise lost and the promise of a Paradise to be regained are part of our psyche.

The notion of establishing a Paradise on Earth, or a Utopia has been the archetype for gardens from the Garden of Eden to the Eden Project. Indeed, utopianism is perhaps more often explored and embraced in gardens than elsewhere. The role of gardens as a model to explore or define symbolic, spiritual, social, political and ecological meaning can be traced to the origins of civilisation. In an era of climate change and accelerating population growth the importance of the search for environmental reconciliation requires new thinking. The role of gardens as a hot house for new ideas for landscapes is now more critical than ever before. The opportunity to further explore the purpose of botanic gardens within this context was an exciting one.

I have to own up that Annette’s first choice for this project was John Parker at Cambridge University Botanic Garden but John had found himself in the middle of David Sainsbury’s £82 million donation to the Gardens and pointed Annette in my direction.

There is some irony in John’s referral as his own endeavour might be interpreted as utopian. Cambridge University Botanic Garden was conceived in 1831 by Charles Darwin’s guide and mentor, John Henslow, as a working research tool in which the diversity of plant species would be systematically ordered and catalogued. The new Sainsbury Laboratory develops Henslow’s agenda in seeking to advance understanding of how this diversity comes about. Architects Stanton Williams’ design for the Laboratory is integrally related to the Garden and indeed should be viewed as part of the Botanics. Opened in April 2011, the Laboratory is one of six buildings currently shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize (another is The Olympic Stadium).

Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation sees that, ‘Some of the greatest challenges posed by population growth and climate change will only be met by translating a fundamental understanding of plant biology into improvements in agriculture’. Sainsbury’s assessment is a considered one – Lord Sainsbury of Turville is the first Briton to donate £1 billion to charity and was Britain’s Minister for Science & Innovation under Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1998 to 2006. In 2011 Sainsbury succeeded the Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor of Cambridge University.

Whether Cambridge’s exploration of plant biology represents a utopian endeavour is a moot point. Nevertheless, this continuing Enquiry into plants remains critical for our future. The role of plants in food, water, energy and climate security is the foundation of Life on Earth. (Of course Cambridge isn’t on its own here – Adelaide has a world class centre linking an understanding of wheat and barley plant biology with improvements in crop production through the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics who’s central node is at the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide.)

Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden has just been published by Black Dog Press. While an exploration of Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s evolution missed the press, the essays explore a wide range of territory relevant to contemporary urban greening. Dennis Hardy’s exploration Plots of Paradise: Gardens & the Utopian City traverses urban utopianism from the Garden City movement to the challenges of modern cities while Steven Brown’s essay Planting my Cabbages considers the value of urban utopianism as much in failure as in success Brown observes, ‘… failure necessarily invites reconstructive dialogue, dialogue invites people and people invite productive contributions to the social garden’. The photographs by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison in this essay superbly illustrate what might be interpreted both as a utopian and dystopian vision.

Significantly the essays provide an important framework for our cultural garden heritage from Patrick Healy’s exposition of Hieronymous Bosch’s famous painting The Gardens of Earthly Delights (c 1500) to Annette Giesecke’s Outside in and Inside out: Paradise in the Ancient Roman House. Co-editor Naomi Jacobs’ contends that the garden is a utopian text, expressing a vision of an ideal relation between human beings and nature and embodying aspects of such a relation in Consuming Beauty: The Urban Garden as Ambiguous Utopia.

The perspective provided by Giesecke as a classics professor and Jacobs as an English literature professor is refreshing in garden enquiry and facilitated my essay Enquiry into Plants: Nature, Utopia & the Botanic Garden. Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle at the Lyceum in Classical Athens is the so-called Father of Botany who wrote the first botanical textbook – Enquiry into Plants. While orthodox perspectives see the birth of botanic gardens aligned with the birth of modern science in the Renaissance, I argue that on-going, systematic Enquiry is the foundation of civilisation. Indeed, the effective exploration and exploitation of plants required the establishment of botanic gardens. The critical importance of plants in harnessing sunlight and driving ecosystem function and our own physiology is something we all have to swallow literally and metaphorically.

If you want to explore the topic further as well as the book there’s a symposium and exhibitions next June at the University of Delaware and at surrounding gardens that might well be seen as utopian including the fabled horticultural excellence at Longwood, Mt Cuba, Winterthur and Chanticleer. Further details are available at

Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia and the Garden (2012) Annette Giesecke & Naomi Jacobs (eds) Black Dog Press, London. 306 pp.

Stephen Forbes, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide

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