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A decade in paradise

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Tim Smit Tim Smit | 07:00 UK time, Sunday, 5 June 2011

It is a year of grand anniversaries. 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of The Eden Project, since St Patrick’s Day 2001, and the 21st year since the rediscovery of The Lost Gardens of Heligan.

Bulb mania at the Eden Project (Photo: Ben Foster)

Bulb mania at the Eden Project (Photo: Ben Foster)

There's been an awful lot of dirt under the fingernails in that time - and across Britain, a renaissance in interest in horticulture in general and growing your own in particular.

Heligan’s massive abundance of British vegetables, soft fruit and cut flowers and Eden’s global gardens speak of plenty. They make real our dependence on the natural world and plants in particular, and this is something that stirs feelings of contentment that have roots thousands of years old, from when we were hunter gatherers.

I have a theory that Heligan and Eden are two sides of the same coin. Where Eden holds the promise of transformation from Ugly Duckling to Swan, Heligan represents another fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty.

Both have their roots in longing and redemption. Gardens are not simple matters of beauty: they represent for many of us the only agency we have upon the world, bending it to our desire. With the passing of the seasons the theatre of life and death plays out in front of us, but always, while we breathe, there is the hope of another season!

A year ago I read an extraordinary book “The Garden; An essay in the human condition” by Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian at Stanford University.

In it, he talks of paradise – Eden. He says that it is interesting that Eve actually wanted to leave Paradise, as did Odysseus, who, offered a life on Circe’s enchanted Island, still preferred to leave for the barren lands of Ithaca. Harrison makes the point that for us humans paradise has to be fleeting, a moment.

The garden is a metaphor for those moments. When leaning on a spade the garden is perfection. The moment has great joy and yet a little sadness at the knowledge that only further toil will keep it so. Paradise without the effort is worthless as it doesn’t hold the mirror up at the part we play.

It makes you think. Gardens are so often sold to us as lifestyle choices. How wrong this is: gardening and gardens are far more important than that.

So…our birthdays throw up memories of the great achievements, the wonderful plants, the concerts, the millions of guests that we have welcomed.

They throw up too the bitter-sweet memories of  friends and colleagues who have passed along the way, but, most of all they bring you back to that haunting phrase, “only the imagination can lead you to meaning”.

For me, the meaning is clear: we are reminded that we are part of nature and not apart from it, that for all our vanities we each have our time and our season: and, if we do not strive, we have no hope of reaching paradise, not even for a moment.

Dutch-born entrepreneur and former rock music producer Sir Tim Smit is co-founder of the iconic Eden Project, built in a former china clay quarry near St Austell in Cornwall and world-famous for its massive tropical biomes. He also 'discovered' and restored the nearby Lost Gardens of Heligan.

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