London Calling: A trip to Kew Gardens
Just as I adjusted to the city we boarded a train and left the country. You can never see all of a place in one week — especially not London.
Kew Gardens: A place fit for royalty because it was made for royalty
It’s the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world.” Technically, the site was founded in 1840, but its construction began long before when Edward I — the King of England from 1272 to 1307 — relocated one of his courts to nearby Richmond in 1299.
Walking to the ticket booth, the blaring of planes drowned out the subtle chirps of birds and hums of chatter, a reminder that there’s seldom any place in the world to retreat to that’s not yet touched by humans — an empowering but frightening fact of the anthropocene.
Like so many places in London, modernity and antiquity collide at Kew. These meetings are harmonious at times. At others they’re discordant, a mash-up of old British culture and rampant capitalism.
A century ago the modern world was already to be reckoned with in the gardens. Virginia Woolf published the short story “Kew Gardens” in 1919 and touched on this matter.
“In the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul…there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaslessly one within another.”
Despite those relentless Chinese boxes (I’m still trying to figure out exactly what Woolf meant by that), Kew is, of course, still a beautiful place to visit.
You can see the countless botanical sketches, so carefully painted they nearly look real. Eat lunch next to the River Thames on a sunny day. Wax nostalgic imagining all of the people who’ve strolled through the gardens over the centuries. Find virtually any kind of plant, perhaps a sentimental one from your childhood, as Brandon did in the Magnolia Grove. The grove is mostly younger magnolia trees and wasn’t incredibly impressive, but for he who grew up on Magnolia Avenue in Modesto, California, it was a must see.
My favorite specimen was an old chestnut-leaved oak that’s stood on the same ground for nearly two centuries. At 37 meters (121 feet) tall, it’s the biggest of its kind in all of Great Britain and Ireland. Standing underneath its canopy reminded me of the blue oaks that roll through California’s golden hills. Oaks have always been one of my favorite trees — the way their branches twirl and twist and give my eyes space to wander, creeping across the branches as I imagine what it was like when our ancestors lived in the trees.
Trees like this are a testament to the connectedness of our world. I remember being amazed in biology class back at Modesto Junior College when Ms. Greene taught me photosynthesis and respiration. I glanced over these years before in high school biology, but once I had to memorize them in college I saw how they the processes are mirror opposites of eachother — like puzzle pieces.
I’d sit in class and ponder the implications of this:
“The carbon that we exhale is inhaled by plants and made into food.”
“We eat that food and it becomes part of us.”
“Eventually we die and return to the earth.”
“We break down into — among other things — carbon.”
“Some of that carbon is eventually returned to the plants and then again eaten.”
“Does that mean that I eat my ancestors?”
This is all so indirect it’s hard to even think about, and I’ve never read about this extrapolation in a book. Science texts are much too dry to go into it. But realizing this intricate connection between nature and humanity left me awestruck.
There’s something rejuvenating about spending a day in a garden, especially for a jet-lagged vagabond. Perhaps it’s because we’ve evolved to be in nature.
When I was 19, I read Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. In it he explains his theory of Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s not recognized as a clinical disease, but rather a deeper explanation for the prevalence of behavioral issues like ADHD in children. I became so frustrated by how disconnected we are from nature in the modern day world, despite how important it seems to be for healthy psychology. Louv’s book influenced me so deeply, I chose my college major based partly on it. If you’re not spending much time outside, or if you’re feeling down or having trouble focusing, consider reading up on nature deficit disorder. But before you do, take a stroll outside.
If you’re in the London area, Kew is worth checking out. Entry is about $20. Get the student option if you can, which will split the cost, and plan to spend at least 3 or 4 hours there to take it all in. Whatever you do, wear comfortable shoes.