The irresistible lure of nature

May 9, 2016

When I learned about plans for a Garden Bridge to span the River Thames like an arbour of greenery linking north to south London, I was fascinated. The bridge – originally an inspirational idea of actor Joanna Lumley – seemed like a fantastical scheme, perhaps even an impossible one.

Its award-winning designer Thomas Heatherwick, whose visionary work includes the London 2012 Olympic Cauldron and the UK’s amazing “Seed Cathedral” Pavilion for the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, has stated that he believes The Garden Bridge will be “an extraordinarily special place, either to race across, relax in or look back at the rest of the city’s sights”.

Certainly, the creation of these five garden glades with more than 100,000 new shrubs and flowers, and 270 new trees growing out of two specially designed planters, could be used by some as a new park to relax in. It will surely also act as an extraordinary super-sized window box for many who live on both sides of the river and have no outdoor space of their own.

The real appeal may lie in the plants that The Garden Bridge supports, the choice of award-winning horticulturalist Dan Pearson. Because whatever remarkable towers, cathedrals, castle and other physical structures we create, humans throughout the centuries have revered their gardens just as much.

Indeed, the drive to contain and perhaps even control nature is as strong today as it was at the time of the Shang Dynasty 3,000 years ago. We know that large enclosed parks were established then for kings to hunt game with their friends, in the valley of the river Huáng Hé. Spaces were designated for growing fruit and vegetables, platforms or terraces were built so that the king could survey his lands, and ponds were dug for boating and fishing.

Incredibly those traditions and human preferences seemed to have remained constant throughout the past millennia. Think of the micro-managed yet vast gardens of Versailles, which took 40 years to lay out, or the Grade 1-listed “rooms: of Sissinghurst Castle’s estate, designed by Vita Sackville-West.

It seems to me possible that we enjoy gardens because we experience, almost like some minor deity, the thrill of creation and control? In a landscaped garden, it is us that decides what grows where, sometimes paying less attention to nature’s own designs.

Or is our enjoyment perhaps the converse confirmation that we are so very human, that we must always give over control to a higher power when we work with nature – be it God, Buddha or a simple cry of Hope. We can plant a seed, water it and care for the young plant which may grow. But the very finest gardeners know well that one can only do one’s best, that nature may have other ideas for our grandest of designs. Gardening is sometimes simply the truest expression of the triumph of hope over experience.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation