Raw Nature vs the Bliss of Man-Made Wonders

Looking for heaven in a wildflower.  
Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay opened in 2012 and showcases diverse flora from around the world. Visitors can admire plants from tropical to temperate climates. Photo: Marty Windle/Moment/Getty Images

I have always enjoyed gardens, alone or with company. They are great spaces to muse upon the passage of time and the meaning of life. I’ve enjoyed picnics at Lodhi Gardens in Delhi, the profusion of flowers at the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir and spent a pleasant afternoon watching ducks at Regency Park in London.

Recently, I visited Singapore to meet two friends from college. We decided to visit the Gardens by the Bay, the popular city attraction. I expected swathes of clipped green grass and neat rows of pretty flowers enticing a kaleidoscope of butterflies. As I entered an enormous building, I realized that the Gardens were more of a technological and scientific marvel than an artistic arrangement of nature’s creations. The Cloud Forest sounded like the magical woods in a Tolkien novel, but when I was actually there it looked more like a scene from Avatar. A tall green tower, girdled by elliptical walkways stood under a checkered steel dome. We took an elevator to The Lost World at the top and walked down marvelling at the ready spread of flowers, plants, leaves, lichen, and tribal totems, the compression of a vast tropical forest around a 115-foot structure. The steady hush of water falling from multiple pipes mimicking a waterfall, mingled with the clicking of cameras and chatter of tourists.

Next we headed to the Flower Dome, the land of eternal spring. The damp warm mist of the tropics was replaced by a dry temperate breeze. Under the largest glass greenhouse in the world, we found natural vegetation and native flowers from South America, California, Australia and the Mediterranean. I felt amazed, informed, and entertained. Yet there was a feeling of disquiet, a sense of confusion. Over the years, we have tried to tame nature, to tease and torture its forces into submission for our survival and comfort, in service to our hubris. Meanwhile our real forests are depleting rapidly, under attack from development. And because we feel the need to preserve them in some form, we have recreated entire ecosystems, reproduced the sounds and sights of nature. We can now walk through a rainforest under the biomes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, or enjoy sun-kissed sands and palm-fringed pools of Tropical Islands resort in Germany.

Despite technological advances that allow us some measure of control over nature, I am still drawn to her raw, authentic aspects. I remembered the thrill of seeing a pug mark on the track during a safari at Corbett National Park. It was more exciting than gazing at a tiger at close quarters at the best zoo in the world. On a walk along a trail in Nainital, I recall the joy of finding a pine cone, polished to a soft brown shine, its woody petals aligned in a perfect geometry. In a rocky pool on the beach at Mahabalipuram, I saw an orange starfish flex its arms. At Oia, in Santorini, Greece, I joined thousands of people and waited patiently for a brief glimpse of the sunset over the seas, even though it was a sight I’d already seen in many postcards and films. In person, these sights afforded me a pleasure that was beyond any price.

As we returned from the Gardens by the Bay, the Supertrees, tall structures that blended wires and vines, came alive and glowed like giant candles. I wondered if we would ever be able to capture the grandeur, simplicity, and spontaneity of nature in the lavish spectacles that we try so hard to create. Humans are programmed for predictability, but long for serendipity. We are
delighted by man-made wonders, yet desire that moment of awe when we feel the presence of something great and mysterious. So we build tall buildings that scrape the skies, magnificent gardens that resemble paradise, and yet we yearn to see heaven in a wildflower in the natural world.

Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Heaven in a Wildflower”.

  • Nirupama Subramanian is a columnist and author of two novels, "Keep The Change" and "Intermission". She has also won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition prize in 2006 for her short fiction.

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