Sunday, July 1, 2012

Phoenix Botanical Garden: Art vs. Nature

“They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em”
 – Joni Mitchell, 1970

Well, Joni, here at the Desert Botanical Garden they are cacti and today they’re charging all the people $18 to see ‘em. “Don’t it always seem to go….”

Newer versions of Mitchell’s iconic song have updated that detail in the lyrics, as high as $25 and “an arm and a leg,” as far as I know. But whatever the price, when people are paying that much to see plants, whether trees or cacti, they don’t want to be disappointed, do they? They expect to see something better than they would see if left to their own devices in natural parkland.

“The people” want to see beautiful examples of each species, perfectly formed. In attractive groupings. Nothing broken, rotten, mildewed, or shriveled with the heat. This is Phoenix, where it has been over 100° since May 29. So, the gardeners here have put little black mesh blankets over some of the plants to protect them from the harsh sun. Yes! The delicate ones, I presume.

Botanical gardens are to nature what fine art ceramics are to dinnerware. You won’t see these plants this way out in the wild just as you won’t see a Voulkos plate in your kitchen cupboard. The cacti here in the garden are not natural features of the landscape; they are works of art.

I like art, of course. I also appreciate a beautiful garden. But let’s not confuse it with nature.

At the Desert Botanical Gardens that relationship is explicitly symbolized at the entrance where internationally renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly, has installed Desert Towers. The spiky forms of the sculpture mimic tree fronds, agave leaves, and cactus spines. Because it harmonizes so well in gardens, Chihuly’s popular (some say populist) work graces many a Botanical Garden.

Back to cacti. I find the cactus covers very curious. It’s obvious enough that they are sun shields. What is not obvious is why a cactus needs to be protected from the sun. They do grow in the desert in the sun, do they not? And why would one cactus need a sun shield while another of the same species doesn’t?

I ask a friendly gardener.

She says that some plants are more sensitive to the sun than others and that some “are just not planted in the right place.” She went on to explain that some plants need morning sun and others afternoon sun. In nature they would grow in places where the topography or adjacent plants would provide shade at the proper times. If they sprouted in the “wrong places” they would wither and possibly die.

Darwin would understand.

What she suggests by inference is that the gardens’ designers laid out the plantings with aesthetics as a priority rather than a regard for appropriate natural conditions. Like I said, this is art, not nature.

Aesthetic considerations go further than landscaping and flower arranging. Some of the sunshades are meant to prevent a perfectly natural consequence of being out in the hot sun: shriveling. The vertical ribs on a cactus act like a bellows, expanding to absorb water when it is available, contracting during dry conditions. The gardener tells me that while shriveling is natural it’s “not as pretty.”

So I guess if I’m paying $18 I don’t want to see a naturally shriveled cactus but an unnaturally plump one. Just add water and sunscreen.

What are the implications of this desire for perfection? (Which, after all, reflects many of the values of our advertising and consumption driven culture of ideal body types and bloated serving sizes.) Will people who visit the gardens be disappointed when “real” nature doesn’t measure up to these standards? What a tragedy it would be if this experience were to diminish enjoyment of actual nature or reduce its perceived value.

Educational signage around the grounds describes the natural environments appropriate for each of the varieties, as you would expect. Natural history museums do likewise for ancient environments. At what point does one become the other? Cue Joni: “you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone….”

My hope is that people will come away from this encounter with extraordinary, artistic nature inspired to explore more of the ordinary natural world for themselves. I’m quite certain that the good folks who work here feel the same way, too.

The strangest paradox of this veiled garden, it seems to me, is the relativity of aesthetic judgment. The cacti are covered with black fabric in order to maintain an artificially aesthetic biological standard. But which is uglier, naturally shriveled cacti or undeniably unnatural black shrouds? Whose aesthetic experience are they preserving? Certainly not mine or that of the few other brave souls who have ventured out into the heat today.

It feels as though I am walking, not through a gallery of beautiful plants, but a funeral parlor for nature.

Of course, I love it! What a metaphor! I don’t know about the other visitors today, but I’m getting my $18 worth.

This is part 1 of a two-part installment from my Phoenix experience. To read part 2, click here: Phoenix: it’s a desert out here!
On Arts Without Borders I also wrote about the Phoenix Art Museum: cool in the heat.
To read about why I went to Phoenix in the heat of summer read: The wilderness of immigration detention.

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