In the parking lot, this place seems to have a fixed identity recognizable by smell—it’s the Berkeley Hills, in the summer, dry and sagey. Through the garden portal, the pay kiosk, the scene complicates to carnivorous pitcher plants. To the right, into California, stands a sign “Berkeley Hills,” which remasters the context of here, flips visitors into a diorama.
The garden map is not the terrain. We abandoned its folds and set up our studio sensibly near Strawberry Creek, which runs through the middle of the garden, a locatable location—downhill to the bridge and between the men’s and women’s bathrooms, instead of where the Cloud Forest meets Asia. Besides, people always arrive at water eventually and settle there.
Most of the plants are rooted in soil structurally and texturally different from the soil of their native place and fight pathogens foreign to them, by definition of their being examples of plantings from around the globe growing on the site of what was previously a California dairy farm. But only the horticulturists notice their immigrant straining toward survival. We have paid our fee for an eclectic playground of tropical palm trees and supersize rhododendron flowers dripping perfume. We’ll consume this metaphor of the globe as a trouble-free place with absolute access. Here I am, click!, next to the giant whatsit.
This is heaven, to some, in the sense of being a perfectly ordered, autonomous, new world, each bed or frame regulated by the university, the authoritative collector of these culturally valued objects. But I hazard most of us don't care. We want the age-old escapade with place—meet its dangers and survive them. So let’s ask the gardeners to describe the recent deer kills on the boundary, to show us the piles of large scat inside the garden and where rattlers were seen. Place is interactive habitat; it is not backdrop or ever still.
Alert now to an animate geography, we eye the greenhouses behind Keep Out signs. And catch the desire for more hybridity and displacement in ourselves, to be that caterpillar eating its way along the vine in the sunshine. Or we visit the thief in ourselves, decide what we wish to steal, as if to insist on making this place autobiographical.
In keeping with the research on getting lost, we find ourselves progressing centripetally and close now to where we began. At the Oak Knoll in the California section, under the canopies of (uncollected) native oaks, looking west, we see home—across the San Francisco Bay, the place from where we’ve come. Gaining prospect and shelter at once, and able to read this land instinctively if it’s familiar to us, we’ve reached the most survival-advantageous place. All agitation and violence in us dissipates. Physical space cedes to social space, a picnic and encounters with the gardeners or a visitor who’s an expert on native peoples in the Berkeley Hills. Place, finally, sturdily, grounded on multiplicities of human relation, “pincushion of a million stories” (Doreen Massey).
- Hazel White
In this living museum of plants, the dirt and dust that are actants in this ecosystem along Strawberry Creek settle on the signage. The botanical names are in Latin, but part of the name often rings straight through from colonial times: European names in genitive form, denoting “of”: henryi, parkeri. A museum then with a period stigma, an outdoor replica of a room of polished European furniture, say, owned hundreds of years ago by successful capitalists. In moments of recognition here, memory trails of cruelty and control open to the repercussions alive in present time.
Visitors seem more drawn to timelessness. Green light through the foliage of dawn redwoods streaks moss and creek, resurrects primordial time, preconsciousness. It places the sun on our arms, revalorizing direct experience. Here we are. Hic et nunc. Comforted in the deep durée of time. The DNA of the redwoods around us matches fossils from 65 million years ago, an example of morphological stasis. Seemingly forever, their roots access moisture, their tops flourish in the blue sky. We can imagine mortality and disturbance are not on the table.
It’s lunchtime, but Ken Bates, horticulturist at the world crops garden, eats lightly because a heavy meal is uncomfortable when bending over garden beds all afternoon. The deer seen often now in the undeveloped back five acres is probably asleep. We learned about the deer in the same hour as Eric Schulz, horticulturist in the Mexico/Central America section, took us to the 1991 landslide site, where in the wintertime an elderly man had held forth to us about paradise and was drawn away by his partner when he asked her if they should now talk to us about sex. There was that time, and the time the man spoke of long ago, visiting this very place when the trees were young, planted densely after the slide, and there is also the time of telling this to Eric, who later thinned the trees. Eric says he might have met the man one time, and a few minutes later tells us he had thought he might work this section of garden forever, but his body is wearing down. Time is a crumpled handkerchief—Michel Serres.
Our time here, as poets, has been a form of “untime”—marginally related to the prevailing measure of productivity and profit in the Bay Area and mirroring the gardeners’ “decelerated pulse of daily accomplishment” (Emily Apter), as they sweep the paths again and again. As I write this, on July 27, 2016, two months before the project ends, time feels foreshortened. My mother is slipping into dementia, Denise’s mother has cancer. One of our collaborators, Chris Carmichael, associate director of collections, is retiring before he expected to. The future is arriving. Outside the garden, we have been witnessing and protesting social injustice. These are our times. Climate change is occurring. Fascism is on the rise.
- Hazel White
“Have you seen the Puya?” Images of the 8-foot stalks of teal-turquoise flowers are spreading on Facebook and Instagram, and people are showing up at the garden to be part of something. Beauty is a celebrity—“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us” (Iris Murdoch). Beauty can also, obviously, trigger action.
Beauty as a felt experience “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication,” writes Elaine Scarry, in her book On Beauty and Being Just. Here I am, writing about the Puya. Tate Modern last year printed the Murdoch quote on the wall of the museum. Beauty is distributive, puts little beauty-identified acts in motion. And it distributes our attention outside of ourselves, requires us, says Simone Weil “to give up our imaginary position as the center.”
Might that lead to more generosity and justice? It’s been on our minds here—is this garden an escape from complexity, or could it be nurturing a care for others, increasing our capacity to act on their behalf?
Walking the paths with Denise calmed me last fall after my black teenage son was targeted by police because of a white woman’s terrible error (in thinking him 35, violent, and having a weapon), as he was saying goodbye to a white high-school friend in a white neighborhood at 7 p.m. The police spilled out of squad cars with rifles loaded and cocked and aimed them at my son’s chest. The outcome of the woman’s unrecognized bias depends on . . . ?
Plato insisted that an experience of beauty propels us into caritas, caring for others. I wish for that. And I gather support for the idea of radical change occurring. Andrew Joron writes of the “poetic-revolutionary nature of reality,” whereby complex systems “comprised of a large number of elements far from equilibrium are prone to beautiful convulsions . . . [and then] an unexpected, unprecedented superaddition to reality . . . emerges.” Poetry is a model of this “overflowing of reality,” and the garden is such a model too: tender pink blossom emerging in the sharp spines of cactus, red berries dripping transparent raindrops, an old oak crashing to the floor, a canopy of blossoms filling with syrup and flies.
Maybe Kathleen Marie Higgins is right, in saying that beauty “provides the comforting background against which one can think the uncomfortable . . . assures us that something real is lovable, [gives us] the courage to face what is not.”
The generation of multiple and multiplying experiences of beauty in this garden is perhaps already stirring the public realm, tuning it toward a new alertness, even a spontaneous reorganization. Help stoke that change. Please return to the garden again and again. Nothing would make the gardeners and staff happier.
I’m speaking of an eruption of love that sweeps into action. Hold my hand. “Justice is what love looks like in public” (Cornell West).
- Hazel White
Visitors looking around the entrance garden, designed by the horticultural staff, who know people’s desires here, pick up after and endure the consequences of them—the visitors, I sense they are already alert to what they want to do in this space. The body knows.
The common trajectory is uphill to the highest point, for the view of the kingdom, what is earned in the traverse of it, and then down to the creek and hop over and back over or even into it—the garden administration allows that; let’s call it generosity, assuming geography to be always a geography of power. If you come downhill by way of Mexico/Central America, you’ll also be extended the thrill of feeling miniature among many tall, unfamiliar, thickly planted trees. You may think you have gone too far and blurt out, in your absolute need to know, “Am I still in the garden?” Otherwise, you have entered overgrown, unnamed thickets that would block your will, the inverse of conquering.
Risking being lost is a beginning. When the world shows up as magical and potentially dangerous matter, the body yearns to get into the game, have a say-so. Gardeners do it—Gideon flicks a hose to water a vomit-looking slime, for the kick of it; Meghan points out to the public a bulb’s decision not to flower, thrills in the plant’s control of itself. One visitor, Jo, ditched propriety and told us, “The Puya is fucking stunning. I want to eat its thick meaty beauty.” And most visitors at the very least refuse the incoherence of the Latin names in their mouths, are likely to decide to call the Escallonia viscosa the maple syrup plant, helping it distribute its affectivity.
On our public walks, we encouraged people to note their resistance, in order to double the space of our conversation and dispel the authority that silences us. At the garden boundary, we all called out what the garden couldn’t shelter itself from—a roar went up and evil entered paradise: pollution, weeds, disease, error. There was a freedom to that being named.
In gratitude to our collaborators, Denise and I did not break the rules for nearly two years, though transgression seemed expected of us. (Last winter, a botanical label with the words “Distractingly sexy female” appeared next to the welwitschia in the Arid House—and we were suspected.) Recently, we were given permission to stay after dark, which we had known from our first hour in this garden, long ago, is what we wanted to do. We would cover signage; we would wear animal masks. We would give free rein to a radical “aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality” (Jane Bennett).
That evening, at 9 p.m., we returned to the entrance kiosk as promised, bereft that our trespass was over. Denise mentioned enthusiastically to the gatekeeper we had seen two deer. He translated her words back across the membrane of responsibility to the crisis it was: large animals munching on rare plants. He had to raise the alarm, call the director. We couldn’t shed the sense that we had done it.
- Hazel White