Jane Perrone’s account of her visit to the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden got me thinking about the last time I was in Vancouver, and also about the nature of university botanical gardens in general. I love that they are serious, brainy gardens, often organized according to some scheme ("Winter Foliage in Outer Mongolia") that is not apparent to the rest of us. So unlike the more touristy gardens you might visit on a vacation, like…oh, I don’t know…Butchart Gardens?
I was there a few years ago and I tried to love the Butchart Gardens, I really did. I was sure that there was something elegant and highbrow about the manicured lawns and washes of bright annuals, planted in perfect symmetry just that spring and waiting to be yanked out and replaced come winter. I tried to be impressed by the complete lack of weeds, but felt instead a mixture of jealousy and contempt: as my favorite writer Anne Lamott would say, people with such perfect gardens probably dont have rich inner lives.
I spent an hour trudging through the marked paths with my patient yet very weary mate, attempting to look interested in the rows of pansies, impatients, and dwarf dahlias that carpeted the gardens. After all, we had travelled over three hours by bus, ferry, and bus again to reach this very popular tourist destination.
Finally, though, I had to admit that I longed for the diversity and disarray of the wild; or at least the earthy, dirt-under-your-fingernails feel of a working farm, complete with rotting piles of hay and aging manure. The Butchart gardens didnt make me feel any closer to nature; instead, I felt like I had spent the last two hours strolling through a very sterile, well-landscaped theme park or shopping mall. I kept expecting some staff member with that clean-cut Disney Look to rush up in a starched pinstriped shirt and sweep away any seed pods or leaves that had fallen into the path.
Even the gift shop was too upscale for me, featuring overpriced jewelry and china with floral themes. Like a visit to the false, glittering Great Mall of America, I left the Butchart Gardens feeling exhausted, unsatisfied, and impatient to get home to my own backyard.