Why Should the Devil Have all the Best Tunes?

Ian Darwin Edwards asked this question during a presentation at the BGCI congress in Cape Town, South Africa 10 years ago. It was a catchy way of saying that when it comes to capturing the public’s attention, advertisers are veritable Pavarottis while we in the garden world can be pretty tone deaf.

A decade later, it’s still a good question. Public gardens are still trying to find their voice. In the face of massive climate change and mass extinction, we’d better hurry up.

The head of public education at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Edwards noted how advertising agencies have the diabolical ability to use clever storylines, entrancing tunes, evocative images, and wicked humor to sell us things that are unnecessary, and often unhealthy to boot. He recalled wistfully how the Coca Cola Company hit the jackpot in 1971 with its ad featuring happy young people from around the world singing their hearts out from a hilltop. Their song, “I’d like to teach the world to sing/ in perfect harmony,” soared to the top of the pop charts and helped Coca Cola reclaim its status as most popular soft drink.

Annoyingly, Madison Avenue has even managed to appropriate our turf, exploiting green images like flowers and panoramic landscapes to peddle products that do great environmental damage—think monstrous gas-guzzling SUVs lurching up (previously) pristine alpine peaks. As Edwards pointed out, Coca Cola and other companies don’t just sell a product. They sell a lifestyle. “Surely,” he declared, “it is possible to make a tree, a rainforest, or a rare plant as satisfying as a can of Coke or a new CD” (he was speaking before the age of the iPod).

Finding the Right Metaphor

Of course our marketing should be as viral (if not virulent) as Madison Avenue’s. It would be great if we too could come up with a jingle capable of infiltrating the collective human consciousness as brazenly as the common cold bug invades the human nose. But at a time when over a million species could be at risk of extinction as a result of climate change in the next 50 years, that’s a little like fiddling while Rome burns. We can certainly use a new tune, but we also need a new story. Once we’ve got a compelling message, then we can employ the methods of the media mavens to convey it. The crux of what they do is tell stories with such an economy of words that the message is reduced to a simple metaphor. Hitting the pleasure centers of the human brain in the process instead of spreading gloom and doom certainly doesn’t hurt.

By definition meaningful arrangements of plants, gardens have always been about metaphor—they have always told stories. The first European botanic gardens were established by early medical schools. The oldest of them all, the Botanic Garden of Padua, Italy, was founded in 1545 for the study and cultivation of medicinal plants. Metaphorically speaking, such a garden could be likened to a green pharmacy or medicine chest.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and other gardens of the 19th century were created at a time when botanists, rock stars in those days, were bringing back boatloads of exotic species from the most remote parts of the globe. Victorians flocked to see marvelous orchids, bizarre pitcher plants, and other weird and wonderful species in the spectacular glasshouses invented expressly to display them. A garden of that era was basically a botanical curiosity cabinet. In fact, the term “plant collection” is still used today to describe what a garden is all about—giving us all the gravitas of an assemblage of tchotchkes on a shelf.

In recent years this metaphor has been dusted off and given a more erudite spin. Now we call ourselves living encyclopedias of plant diversity, an image bound to generate all the excitement of a musty 32-volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica.

In the 20th century, science and horticulture at botanic gardens got a divorce. Botanists by and large lost their celebrity explorer mystique and today are more likely to be seen poring over dried specimens in a herbarium. Most people don’t know what a herbarium is. From their point of view, botanists now live in the ivory tower. Meanwhile, horticulture went its own way, creating green spaces for private contemplation and public pleasure, like Japanese gardens and Jekyll-esque herbaceous borders. This metaphor of the garden as sanctuary has a long pedigree, captured in ancient images of gardens holding back beasts, bandits, and other terrors lurking beyond their protective walls. But is retreat really a metaphor that can save us from massive climate change and mass extinction?

As horrific species loss has become increasingly apparent, some gardens have transformed themselves into centers for plant conservation. One promising metaphor that has been used to portray these gardens is botanical ark — harking back to Noah and similar flood stories of other cultures that, alas, will become ever more relevant as sea levels rise in response to global warming. Emergency room is more accurate than ark, as scientists pull out all the stops to save critically imperiled species. Some of the techniques being used to stave off extinction have the allure of science fiction, from somatic embryogenesis, which involves bombarding bits of stem or other ordinary plant tissue with chemicals to create embryo-like structures without the need for sexual reproduction, to cryopreservation at minus 256 degrees Fahrenheit. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden has come up with a cool metaphor for its thousands of cryopreserved seeds, spores, cell cultures, tiny shoot tips, and embryos. They call it a frozen garden.

To be truly effective, however, we need to be more than encyclopedias, sanctuaries, and botanical trauma centers. Like Coca Cola, we have to sell a lifestyle, a way for people to live in this world without destroying it.

21st Century Botanic Garden

Living laboratory is the metaphor my colleagues at the Great Park Design Studio and I use to describe the botanic garden we are creating in Irvine, California. Here, spectacular plantings and striking high-tech structures will create rich experiences of the natural world. But instead of typical plant collections and traditional landscapes frozen in time, we envision zones of engagement where people will be immersed in the beauty of this Mediterranean biome and challenged to learn from the local ecology to build a sustainable future. Visitors will be more than passive viewers of plant displays. They will collaborate with scientists, horticulturists, artists, and educators in the search for new ideas and new technologies that enable people and the rest of nature to coexist in a mutually beneficial way. A variety of outreach initiatives will help members of the community use this new knowledge to improve their neighborhoods and workplaces.

Such a futuristic story with a green twist just might appeal to the pleasure centers of the American brain—the kind of can-do spirit that was once so proudly on display at World’s Fair exhibits. Consider Futurama I and II at the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs, GM’s wildly popular visions of things to come, complete with a “Hotel Atlantis” for undersea vacationing, automated superhighways, vast suburbs, desert irrigation, and jungles crisscrossed by roads. (What can I say? The tune was great, but the story was deadly.) Today, public gardens have the opportunity to build on this culture of optimism and the deep bond between people and the rest of nature that is hardwired in the human brain. It’s time to seize the day, catalyzing the kind of energy, passion, focus, and urgency that put a man on the moon by creating spectacular landscapes and structures that advance the knowledge and practice of sustainability and make a bold innovation statement, just as glasshouse designers did in Victorian times.

A Living Theater

Told the right way, living laboratory can be an exhilarating story. And what better way to tell it than living theater? That’s just what the Eden Project in Cornwall, U.K., calls itself—a living theater of plants and people. Working with artists of all types, the garden is testing a variety of entertaining forms of education and interpretation to pique the public’s interest in plants and sustainability.

The show has been a big hit. Since opening in 2001, Eden has become Britain’s hottest tourist attraction. Families flock to the former clay pit in a far corner of England to see the two gigantic, bubble-like greenhouses they call biomes, the biggest conservatories in the world. Bacchanalian sculptures cavort among grapevines in the Warm Temperate Biome. A 70-ton seed was recently installed in “The Core,” Eden’s educational center, one of the biggest sculptures ever carved from a single rock. In a 70-seat theater the world’s first mechanical marionette show using life-size puppets and images on a giant projection screen tells the story of how plants are essential to life. Rapt audiences of children watch performances by a troupe of live actors. Musicians from Brian Wilson to Moby and Muse perform at an annual concert series called the Eden Sessions.

I’ve heard some people pooh-pooh the Eden Project as “botany lite.” Not everything they do is a resounding success. And Eden’s visitors are still essentially viewers, not doers. But if we want to do justice to the tradition and the plant life we represent at a time when so much of the living world is teetering at the brink of oblivion, we should all be as inventive and fearless as they are.

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