by Fraser Hibbitt for the Carl Kruse Blog
Under the aged and rusted wrought iron arches of Kew Garden’s Palm House, feet and faces meet and disperse between the narrow spaces left by the leaves. Two winding iron staircases are set front and back inside this elaborate glass house, offering this view of disorganized bodies moving through subtle shades of green; the gentle complexity of natural forms hover and fold into one another almost endlessly. Dim windows, burdened with tropical humidity, fill in the gaps between the iron arches that enclose the space. Looking up, one feels they are in a giant ribcage.
The Kew Gardens Palm House
Winding down the staircase, the mixed scent of earthen humidity which rose to the top becomes individuated; minute intricate forms abound and unsettle. Low hums of conversation and feet pattering along the narrow floor ways; a whistle of steam begins from some place through the myriad fronds, and then ceases. “Well, that was then…but now since…”: two women sit on a corner bench; meanwhile, behind them lies the Peepul tree of India, towering remarkably, spouting green branchless tufts of leaves. The two rectangular walk-ways, at either end of the glass house, meet a larger square in the middle. It is straightforward, mathematical, and yet one never feels complete.
I happened to smell one plant directly that gave off an intense musty odor. Starting back, three young children raced by, saying: “this is the way out!” “No, it isn’t!” “Yeah, look behind here…”. Turning to follow, I rounded another corner and remembered the name ‘Coco-de-mer’ which I had met as I entered. Admiring the strange forms, I met, again, the two elderly women speaking on the bench, from another angle: “He hasn’t seen her for a few months”. An unfurling fern was edging its way onto the aisle of the walk-way space with such patience. Two young men were following a root, pointing and mapping its course. Peering up to where I had once been, through the blend of green forms stacked and superposed, the under chin of a man strolling along the balcony – effortlessly, his face merged into the kaleidoscope of forms.
On leaving the glass house, a murky form lingered outside the door, struggling with the handle. Pulling the door to, her face appeared clear in the day: aged and happy: “It was a lot heavier than I thought!”. Grey skies above and an immediate expansion of space. The rose garden outside the glass house is heavy with potentiality, already buds are conspicuous, but for now the skeletal structures remain waiting. Kew Gardens, outside and few figures in the distance. Following the ‘Pagoda Vista’, flocks of Redwings flying from tree to tree; one leaving, now two, and then the whole lot – for a minute an oval form is made in the sky as they find purchase on another tree.
The Temperate House is much larger than the Palm House, and, the name suggesting, the air is cooler. I wasn’t aware until I had arrived at the gardens that the glass houses closed in an hour. The first flurry of forms in the Palm House had decidedly overwhelmed me. The Temperate house was leisurely. It wasn’t possible to get to the heart of it all, stumbling over the Linnaeus in small print. Taking out the folded map – Woodland walk, Treetop walk, Princess of Wales Conservatory, Ginkgo Lane, Herbarium, The Orangery… Instead, I pondered a few plants I’d never seen before.
Kew Gardens is home to the ‘largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world’. Their glass houses are a wonderfully surprising study of form. It is not purely an aesthetic pleasure, though that is very much part of it. In these glass houses, packed and apart from the open air, there exists the subtle and creative individual adaptations to life. A collective difference is the first thing that strikes the eye from the balcony; the force of life balanced, and continuously manifesting in striking oppositions.
This attribute is harder to discern in the able bodies wandering the grids of nature’s curious experiments. It does, however, strike one as they pass the two elderly ladies opening their lives to each other; the energetic, hurrying feet, of the children weaving through the aisles; the two young men pointing, observing the roots, fascinated. It is, strictly speaking, a false comparison, but it does no harm to collapse the two together. The Peepul tree, or the sacred fig, was signposted: ‘it is believed the Peepul tree was the tree under which the Buddha received enlightenment’. Immediately the two, Buddha and the tree, are joined into some harmonious unity; Staring at the tree, it seems right that it should have been so. Slowly, the association wears thin under the iron ribcage – other forms begin to speak, all of the would-be histories, all of potentiality.
We are bound up with the plants and trees in seeking, seeking a way underneath the sun. There is no surprise in the myth of Yggdrasil, or the solemnity of the Yew tree, both in a way bridging the passage between heaven and earth. Unfathomable nature has gifted the perfect symbol as we plunge in the murkiness of interiority, gasp at the baffling questions over life’s direction – as far as we know, nature, has no need to question, only to act in creative ways: the unthought of pathway towards sunlight, unexpected growth; an image of what we only gain subtle hints of throughout our lives.
The sky was a shifting pool of white and grey. The glass houses were now shut and the park too was shortly closing. Heading back to the gate, I stopped under a large Scott’s Pine. The branches formed from the top of the bough had cast themselves free as if they were a pair of arms struggling out of the neck of a shirt. One branch went down, vertically; the other squirmed overhead. Turning to leave, I noticed, behind the bough, springing up from the grass, a whole heap of late winter crocuses: small light purple cylinders hiding the yellow stigma, hidden for all this time, but always becoming.
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Other blog articles on great botanic gardens include the ones in Berlin and Miami.
The blog’s last post was on Mysterious Signals in the Milky Way.
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Love the Kew Gardens!
One of the world’s great wonders. All hail Kew Gardens.