The Garden of Us
We stumbled into the Garden as if by accident, even though we planned on spending the morning there. It was a family day. Boni, Amara, and me. In the area surrounding the Garden, police vehicles lined the streets and cops stood on the sidewalk. Their presence was ubiquitous and, in contrast to the children’s street fair taking place on the outskirts of Prospect Park, it was jarring. We walked one way around the park only to find the entrance blocked by the police. We walked another way around only to find a barricade. It was a gray day in late Summer or early Fall, a day where you keep putting on and taking off your jacket. We asked an officer “where was the entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden?” She politely pointed us back to the direction from whence we came. This was the weekend of the West Indian Day Parade. This year like others, despite the police presence, people were shot and killed for reasons which must have made sense to the person pulling the trigger.
We walked around, past the Brooklyn Museum for the second time, finding a small entrance on Eastern Parkway. It was still morning but soon the Garden would fill with tourists, escapists, nature lovers, those lost, those found, and those trying to escape the city sounds. On this day, the Garden was open to all without a fee. It must have been a Saturday but thinking back it could have been a Sunday, too.
What does one expect when one enters a Garden? The young lady at the gate handed us a map. We took it but the map served us no purpose. Why need a map when you have nowhere to go? In some respects just making it to the Garden was some sort of Karmic journey; the hundreds of decisions made navigating crosswalks, incoming traffic, crowds, bicyclists, dog walkers, “should we get coffee now?”, the police, the fair, the knowledge of the West Indian Parade, the ominous feeling of death soon to take place in the surrounding streets amongst the colored flags and music, the depth of night and the changing of vision from the brightness of day, the emergence of slumbering spirits awakened by the drums with hands of fire. Each decision sent waves of energy spiraling away, bouncing off in every direction, changing the thrust of life on levels great and small, each effect perhaps coming back in our direction long after we are gone, but coming back none the less to multiply itself with other seemingly inconsequential actions. All of this coming straight at us after we left the subway. Then we reached the Garden.
This Garden had been serving the purpose intended by its makers since 1910. Each year nearly 1 million people visit amongst the 10,000 taxa of plants. With all the visitors one must consider the possibility that, perhaps in this setting, not only are the plants on display but also the humans. Put yourself in the trunk of a tree. From your sedentary space your roots grow away from you, chasing the invisible water of an ancient thirst through the darkness of the earth. While the roots grow away, you become more fixed in your position. Birds and insects call you home without asking permission. Your choices are limited. If you had a soul perhaps you may want to leave where you are but your roots keep growing stronger, your destiny more entrenched. Your life is a redundant routine of day and night while your growth is undetectable but you grow regardless. Your life would be a dull prison if it wasn't for the garden of humanity which visits you. What a plentiful garden it is! A moveable feast of people! In some ways it is difficult to discern their day-to-day life. You don’t see their hopes or fears and you are ignorant to their prejudices and beliefs. In fact, from your vantage point people, while diverse in certain ways, are pretty much the same. This is the beauty of it. But their lives do have a mystical quality about them. Their history, like yours, drives them like the undercurrent of the ocean surf. With this in mind it is easy to see the world on the outside of the Garden has continued to change and those changes are reflected on the people who come and rest in the shade created by your branches. You barely see the same person twice unless it is a gardener or staff member. When the gates close it gives you time to reflect on the abundance of humanity, the diversity. You never see the ugliness or the beauty they create. You see them as people beheld by wonder. When they stare up and admire you it has the appearance of the pious looking to God or a newborn trying to find the image of a mother in the blindness of the light. Still you are ignorant, such as the human is to you. The human sees you only for the curious beauty which is aroused by all the elements which they don’t possess. They don’t see the termites eating you from the inside. They don’t consider the gates made to enclose you. They only see your noble stature thus failing to see your existence and suffering. The feeling is mutual when you see them. You don’t see their lives, their births and deaths. You just see them with their maps to the Garden as the path brings them to you. This is the nature of your life if you were to put yourself in the trunk of a tree. In retrospect, the nature of our visit took on the character of a plotless film, a character study of minute movements, with no obvious story and no climax of action. This would be a film where the denouement takes place in the soul. That is, of course, if it was a film.
We walked amongst a wide path and came down a hill. We took a right only because the few other visible people took a left. We wanted to be alone, away from humanity, as if by living in New York City oversaturated us with the understanding of the plights of our neighbors to the point where we felt no sympathy even for the most desperate of causes. Unfortunately nature had no sympathy for us. We entered a narrow dirt path. Little yellow flowers with long green stems were swaying back and forth, tapping us on the shoulders. Then Boni noticed what I failed to see...bees. Not dozens, hundreds. In our pursuit of solitude, we were enveloped in the multitudinous. There wasn’t a human to be found but the bees lifted off the yellow petals and let us know whose house we were in. They swarmed around us in the disruption of their habitat. To the tree it must have been amusing or to the apiarist it would be enlightening, but to my wife it was frightening. I was too eager for a nice camera shot to think about our safety. Luckily the bees didn’t care about us. Their confidence in numbers gave them no cause for alarm and our speedy exit was meant for no alarm to be caused.
This brings me to the illusion of solitude. We left this area and were absorbed back in the main pathways which led people to different parts of the Garden. It must have been late morning. There were quite a few people now. The Garden started to resemble other busy parts of the city. Families, couples, a lady jogging, people laughing, people taking pictures, people on the phone, people speaking in different languages, people using maps, people eating on benches. It isn’t as if the city was brought to the Garden, it was a reminder that the Garden was in the city. In the city, solitude will forever be an illusion but it's a powerful one we all need from time to time. Sometimes people go to the movie by themselves to be alone. Or they go on a walk and leave their phone at home. Sometimes they go have a few drinks without accompaniment. If you were to ask them the purpose of these actions they would most likely say “Oh, I just wanted some time alone.” But this isn’t true. They are never alone. There are people always around them. In the theater, in the bar, in the subway, in the park, on the street...they are never alone. But you can feel alone and this is the important part. The feeling. The illusion. Even the person who wants to go into the mountains. They buy a tent and travel away from human civilization. They travel for days down a road which turns into a trail and soon the trail ends but they keep going. One day they find themselves high up in the hills. They think to themselves “now I am really alone.” They sit and think and finally sleep. But this is illusion also. This person was already sleeping if they thought they were alone. The trees, the grass, the insects, the bacteria, the clouds, the birds, the mountains, the fox, the mouse. Perhaps this person thought they were alone but all these other beings knew otherwise. No singular person is an island and if you think you are an island this is part of an illusion. We are all part of something else, an extension. If this wasn't true, we wouldn’t need food. Nor Gardens.
Day to day, taking the train, dealing with people, work, bills, career, hustling, whatever this urban existence creates, we want to escape. This escape is always an illusion. Some illusions are loud and exciting like a movie (Rogue One should be good). Other times we want a simulation of nature so we go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. But it isn’t only the desire for solitude. It is the sheer human ingenuity, the amassing of different plants and trees, the curation and engineering of an urban space to simulate and manipulate the life of plants. This is real, the work which goes behind the production. It is something to admire and take with you, perhaps apply that greatness to something in your life. In cities there is always exhibits of human excellence. These add to our culture and allow us to connect. Looking back on the excursion months later, I find the Garden to be not much different than the people of the city. There are plants native and foreign to the environment but they are living together. However the environment of the Garden is sensitive to the existence of each plant. Sometimes I wish people handled each other with such care.
I have some videos of that day and it is crazy it was only a few months back. In the Garden, Boni and I found a field and Amara practiced walking. It is a long shot and the gray clouds are speeding by in the background. Now, she is running all over the apartment but that day we still had to hold her hands and help her take one step forward. In this way humans and plants are not too different. I am sure there is much more to see of the Garden. This gives us a reason to come back. Each time will be different. The plants and trees know this. When we left, to and fro the life of Brooklyn was moving and we were absorbed back into The Garden of Us.