In Adelaide, the Botanic Gardens are part of our lives. We’re introduced to the beautiful gardens in prams, brought in as toddlers to explore, join pre-school visits and school excursions, court in the Gardens, marry in the Gardens, introduce our own children to the Gardens and celebrate anniversaries and milestones here. As we age, perhaps we explore the Gardens more deeply to reveal other sides of its character, introduce our grandchildren, and eventually our children or friends bring us here. The Gardens are as much a gallery of memories as a gallery of plants.
Adelaide Botanic Gardens and Botanic Park are the most visited attractions in Adelaide. The 1.6 million visits are comprised of roughly a quarter interstate and overseas visitors. The Gardens are perhaps the most egalitarian cultural attraction with age and postcode of visitors evenly spread. These numbers of visitors are massive and exceed the attendances watching sport at Adelaide Oval as well as those for other North Terrace cultural institutions. Why is this? In annual surveys of visitors undertaken with the University of South Australia, our visitors continue to tell us they come to the Gardens for peace, beauty, tranquillity and safety.
Peace and beauty are fundamental to people. Les Murray observes humans as poetic rather than rational yet poetics are now largely absent from the political agenda. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign famously saw the origins of the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” now viewed as a truism by politicians. Stepping over the political precipice into peace and beauty is viewed as rather fraught and even embarrassing. I’m reminded of Nick Lowe’s 1974 song (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?. Peace and beauty are important values to people – despite our apparent enthusiasm for ‘the economy’ and for ‘activation’ (whether it’s at the Fringe, a bar or a football match) we also require an antidote – especially one as perfect as that provided by the Gardens. Not only are the plants and their composition beautiful, but we’re immersed in this beauty. There’s plenty of evidence now to underscore the importance of such immersion in greenspace for our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Perhaps this is one of the differences between the beauty evident in a garden and the beauty evident in an art or an ethnographic museum collection.
What I’m really interested in here is how the Gardens’ peace and beauty can be best utilised to affect the Gardens’ mission to connect people with plants. The Gardens are loved and trusted with plant collections and, equally, with people’s memories. This may be sufficient in itself. However, I think there are other things too that are significant for our connection with gardens. Peter Cundall refers to gardening as a kind of “controlled patience” – in the context of this definition ‘instant gardening’ becomes an oxymoron. While the ‘slow food’ movement is a response to the impact of ‘fast food’, gardening remains necessarily slow. The public trust and authority of the Botanic Gardens of South Australia has been built on this controlled patience in working with the living collection. The living collections are the essence of a visitors’ experience of peace and beauty, and at the same time the working capital for the Gardens’ programs in plant curation, knowledge and sharing. Ultimately any garden, and especially a botanic garden, is about caring – both by the curators and by the visitors.
American landscape architect Elizabeth Meyer suggests the guiding principles of sustainable landscape design (or place making) are “ecological health, social justice, and economic prosperity”. Meyer also makes the case for the significance of beauty in sustainability. The First Creek wetland in the Gardens illustrates this connection clearly and saw landscape architects TCL rewarded with the Medal for Landscape Architecture at the recent Australian Institute of Landscape Architecture South Australia awards. Kate Cullity observes TCL’s work, as “having a common thread … a pursuit towards the intention to care and to strive for beauty and best fit.” A few cities have recognised the value and benefits of reaching beyond ‘a garden in a city’ to make a commitment to creating ‘a city in a garden’ – but we’ll leave that for another piece.
John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn includes, “the most famous equation in English literature and (one) precisely correct in suggesting the Newtonian origin of the unstated ‘proof’”. Dennis Dean here interprets Keats as quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds (for Keats and his readers, the world’s greatest authority on art of all kinds), implicitly affirming the sufficiency of the human intellect, explicitly affirming the equation of beauty and truth, and pronouncing this knowledge entirely sufficient to create the elegant geometry of such superb art as the urn.
“Beauty is truth; truth, beauty’–that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Peter Cundall’s observation might make more sense – “once you learn to create and grow a garden it’s impossible to destroy”. I think he’s largely correct. But I also think there’s something in the peace and beauty, and the gallery of plants and memories in our Gardens. Perhaps the nature of our relationship with our Gardens in the place we inhabit, our caring, is eventually as transformative as the physical act of cultivation.
Stephen Forbes, Director, Botanic Gardens of South Australia
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 7 October 2015.