Do homo sapiens have a purpose?
Nik Meergans, a British artist now living in France, once remarked that if we humans have any purpose in life, it is to mix things up. Humans like to take things (plants, minerals, people) from one place, one country, to somewhere else, and stir things up. It’s what we’re good at. Why, I’ve often been called a stirrer. We take minerals from one place and make steel train lines, we take coffee beans, load them on ships and send them off to Melbourne to be pressed into service. The Eden Project explores the idea of mixing to the max: one crop, one exploitation, and one cargo ship at a time.
It was a quiet walk through mist-rain from the YHA down to The Eden Project in Cornwall. Past fruit-flavoured (strawberry, melon, mango, pineapple, lime … ) carparks (they expect a lot of cars!!), past a gorgeous orchard surely older than twenty years (the Project’s age), to join a stream of people arriving into the visitors’ centre. I was one of the first of the day to buy my £35-year-pass. Only, I shan’t be back this way. Is it a little bit expensive for a day trip?
I took the information booklet that acts as an entry pass and went straight away to coffee and cake. (Is it vegan? I think it’s gluten free? Shall we look that up and read out all the ingredients to make sure the customer is well and truly reminded they’re a weirdo?) Once seated and relaxed I perused the information book. It’s so thorough I couldn’t really grasp the concept on one quick read. However, it is a great reminder of what you’ve seen after the event. I dressed in my waterproofs and walked outside into the Eden Project.
Previously, I was under the impression the Project was a glorified botanical garden, and initially I wasn’t impressed as I marched the long way through the Climate System and the incessant light rain (Cornish mizzle – cross between mist and drizzle). I asked a gardener about frogs (silent in the rain) and he said there were lots. They find them in random places, but he dodged the question of them singing. Maybe English frogs are quiet?
Into the Core, where a museum display illustrated big universes and microorganisms, and then I turned a corner and saw ‘Blue’. It’s an 8.5 metre ceramic cyanobacteria, the smallest form of life, emitting random scented smoke rings like a giant hookah-smoking blue peanut. Here art and science began to provoke thoughts.
The smoke forms a perfect O for oxygen, the beginnings of life. There’s an inspiring film about the origins of the sculpture and the international team (Studio SWINE) that created it. I enjoyed watching different people interact with the rings. One boy would make up his mind at the last minute; either smash it or loop it over his arm like a bracelet.
The Core houses a variety of changing exhibitions and displays to inspire and create wonder. The current is ‘Invisible Worlds’.
After examining the inner world, I went outside again to find a biome. Two of these giant bubble shapes nestle into the hillside of what used to be a quarry. Built like insect eyes, in the misty rain of the morning, they appeared ghostly and perfectly suited to their environment.
The Mediterranean Biome is smaller, built up into a cliff, and represents plants and crops found around the Mediterranean, South Africa, and Western Australia. Now, I really was intrigued, as only recently I’d visited both WA and SA on my journey to the UK. Olives, grapes and bougainvillea, oleanders and proteas, fine leafed SA rarities and WA banksias side by side, describing my shore experiences! And if you want good mixers, geraniums and agapanthus, amarylis and gladiolus are all originally South African.
But it was when I entered the Rainforest Biome, probably twice the size as the drier climate, with tall lush canopy trees almost brushing the inside of the dome, walkways through the glossy green treetops and that enormous ocean liner sculpture at the entrance that I began to feel a real affinity with the scope of the Project.
Not only are we treated to a recreation of a rainforest, seeing a collection of plants from four different zones: Southeast Asia, West Africa and Southern and Central America, but also industrial crops such as sugar and coffee, cacao and rubber, palm oil and spices, giving more than a hint of past exploitation and colonial greed. As we travel through the Amazon rainforest photos of indigenous tribal people describe their vulnerability as ongoing destruction continues.
A great, international story unfolds, from seed to plate, soil and microorganisms to tall trees and orangutans. The story is enormous, yet school children run across a rope swing bridge that highlights how a rainforest creates its own rain, screaming cheerfully when the fog cloud is turned on. They don’t get wet, but you can be sure the teacher will expect them to talk about their canopy experience when they get back to school!
You can climb to the very top where the temperature was 31 degrees Centigrade the day I visited. Many clothes are shed in this biome! I noticed a school group participate in the chocolate adventure – one youngster even dressed as a Mayan God. I attended a coffee tasting and discussion as we stood near a group of arabica and robusta bushes. What countries grow coffee successfully? Who is exploited? What happens when the plants escape the farms and invade native forests? I also happened upon a tea tasting – guess the spices – you’ll have to visit yourself; I’m not going to tell you.
Thinking of Australia, very little interest was ever taken in First Nations’ use of plants as medicine or food. Instead the mixers brought English trees and vegetables, European fruits and insects and, of course, foxes and cane toads. There was even a group called The Victorian Acclimatisation Society who amongst other imports made the deliberate decision to bring in rabbits: ‘if it lives, we want it’. Destructive ignorance and trade above all other considerations.
The immediate Eden Project message is clear, your weapon is your wallet. Gentle suggestions encourage consumers to try single origin, certified products. If supported by Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance, even better. You’re supporting farmers to grow more sustainably, more intelligently and feed their grandchildren into the future. We’re a multicultural world. But are we?
Underlying stories of colonial domination and oppression are present for those who have had their thoughts provoked.
For adults in any doubt about climate change, there’s a chance to see some well-presented evidence. If they don’t ‘see’ it, then their children might. There’s a hopeful assumption that we’re all working together to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and we are developing enough new technology to get moving yesterday and there’s more Eden Projects all over the world. Look for them in Hobart and Angelsea in Australia and the redzone in Christchurch, NZ. Theres a new water project in China, which will also be reflected in Cornwall due to a destructive earth slide in 2020. There’ll be one in Costa Rica, one in Chad, Northern Ireland, Morcambe, Dundee and Dubai. Visit if you can.
The art continues in the extensive gardens and surrounding displays. For locals there are concerts, playgrounds and changing exhibitions. What a wonderful way for us mix-it-up humans to reconnect with history and look at the entire planet as it was and is and how it could be. All this within a few hectares. Travel without travel. But I have traveled; I’ve sailed halfway around the world on a liner. I’ve brought things to the UK: my Taiwanese iodine, Canadian moisturiser, Australian metal water bottle, some biscuits from Cape Town.
I docked at Southampton in late April after spending six weeks at sea on The Queen Mary 2, the only ocean liner in active service. She’s not a cruise ship – she’s a liner – due to the deeper keel, higher speeds, greater engine power, the pyramid shape for stability and overall endurance. At least, that’s what the designer, Stephen M. Payne told us in his presentation.
From indulgent cruise to cargo liner in a plant museum. How long can humans keep shipping avocados from Peru to London? Potatoes from NZ to Australia?
And try this on for size …