The Planthunter’s Royal Botanic Poetry Trail

There is something very powerful about the way gardens and poetry affect us. In many ways, they encourage similar states of being. They both can provoke reflection, observation, and connection to something deep within ourselves. This alone makes a garden the perfect setting for reading poetry. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of their own private leafy retreat to ponder prose,  but how about I let you in on a garden I know of? It’s huge, ridiculously beautiful, in one of the most sought after locations in the world, and open to all. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, of course! I spent an afternoon in the gardens searching for the ultimate spots to read poetry, made a map, and have now created the (very) unofficial The Planthunter Royal Botanic Poetry Trail.

1. Lewis Wolfe Levy Fountain

This fountain was built in 1889.  A bronze statue of a young woman surrounded by reeds and wetland animals sits atop a granite base, framed by four bubblers. It is surrounded by some very interesting plants, especially the mountain cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculalta), which I have a huge plant crush on. I love its textured leaves, contorted trunk and weird form. Such an interesting plant!

Anyways, back to the poems. So, we need a poem to start things off…? Well, how about this:

The Public Garden
By Robert Lowell

Burnished, burned-out, still burning as the year
you lead me to our stamping ground.
The city and its cruising cars surround
the Public Garden. All’s alive—
the children crowding home from school at five,
punting a football in the bricky air,
the sailors and their pick-ups under trees
with Latin labels. And the jaded flock
of swanboats paddles to its dock.
The park is drying.
Dead leaves thicken to a ball
inside the basin of a fountain, where
the heads of four stone lions stare
and suck on empty fawcets. Night
deepens. From the arched bridge, we see
the shedding park-bound mallards, how they keep
circling and diving in the lanternlight,
searching for something hidden in the muck.
And now the moon, earth’s friend, that cared so much
for us, and cared so little, comes again—
always a stranger! As we walk,
it lies like chalk
over the waters. Everything’s aground.
Remember summer? Bubbles filled
the fountain, and we splashed. We drowned
in Eden, while Jehovah’s grass-green lyre
was rustling all about us in the leaves
that gurgled by us, turning upside down…
The fountain’s failing waters flash around
the garden. Nothing catches fire.

2. The Succulent Garden

Oh how I love this part of the gardens! Succulents and cacti are some of the most sculptural, as well as weird, plants on earth. I could spend all day in the succulent garden at the RBG. Except in summer. HOT!

Whilst sitting under a clump of a rather wild looking aloe, and searching for serious poetic inspiration, my friend Luke said, ‘Hey George, what about Doctor Seuss?’. Of course. What other wordsmith could possibly match the nonsensical wonder of the succulent garden at the RBG??

Excerpt from ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’
By Doctor Seuss

Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored.  there are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame!  You’ll be famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t.
Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.

All Alone!
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go
though the weather be foul
On you will go
though your enemies prowl
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

3. The Begonia Garden

By this point in your wanderings, you may need a little respite, especially after the harsh madness of the succulent garden. You will need shelter, some greenery, and a little prettiness. So you will detour off the main walkway, and meander through the informal mulch pathways of the begonia garden, and upon finding a secluded park bench, you shall sit and drink in the calm beauty of the space.

A spot like this needs something a little more serious than Dr Seuss, yes, something thought provoking and rich. Something like this:

The Fountain
By Charles Baudelaire

My poor mistress! your lovely eyes
Are tired, leave them closed and keep
For long the nonchalant pose
In which pleasure surprised you.
In the court the bubbling fountain
That’s never silent night or day
Sweetly sustains the ecstasy
Into which love plunged me tonight.

The sheaf unfolds into
Countless flowers
In which joyful Phoebe
Puts her colors:
It drops like a shower
Of heavy tears.

Thus your soul which is set ablaze
By the burning flash of pleasure
Springs heavenward, fearless and swift,
Toward the boundless, enchanted skies.
And then it overflows, dying
In a wave of languid sadness
That by an invisible slope
Descends to the depths of my heart.

The sheaf unfolds into
Countless flowers
In which joyful Phoebe
Puts her colors:
It drops like a shower
Of heavy tears.

Oh you whom the night makes so fair,
How sweet, bending over your breast,
To listen to the endless plaint
Of the sobbing of the fountains!
Moon, singing water, blessed night,
Trees that quiver round about us,
Your innocent melancholy
Is the mirror of my love.

The sheaf unfolds into
Countless flowers
In which joyful Phoebe
Puts her colors:
It drops like a shower
Of heavy tears.

— Translation by William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

4. The Fig

There are plenty of fig trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens. But none with leaves quite as impressive as the Ficus dammeropsis (Dinner Plate Fig). This is perhaps my favourite tree in the entire gardens, and a wonderful place to sit and read some poetry. You could start with the bible (I’m not sure it’s officially classified as poetry. Fiction, perhaps?!), right at the beginning where they talk about sewing fig leaves together to cover their privates. Either there was not a dinner plate fig to be seen, or Adam & Eve were rather large. Anyway, tuck yourself in under the deep shade of this tree and get poetic. With or without a bible. God’s orders.

Genesis Chapter 3, Verse 7

‘When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.’

5. The Pond

Everyone likes a pond. Especially when the lotus plants are dying. Very poetic, if you ask me. Sit on the edge, quietly, quietly. Listen to dragon flies buzzing, tourists chattering, and (hopefully) frogs croaking.

Frog Haiku
Matsuo Bashô

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

6. The Choragic Monument

This great monument is a replica of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. It was presented to the Royal Botainc Garden in 1943. It’s big, bold, and rather impressive. A good spot to take a lass/chap who likes big things on a first date. Snuggle up against the base and read him/her some Walt Whitman.

These, I, Singing In Spring
Walt Whitman

THESE, I, singing in spring, collect for lovers,
(For who but I should understand lovers, and all their sorrow and
joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?)
Collecting, I traverse the garden, the world–but soon I pass the
gates,
Now along the pond-side–now wading in a little, fearing not the wet,
Now by the post-and-rail fences, where the old stones thrown there,
pick’d from the fields, have accumulated,
(Wild-flowers and vines and weeds come up through the stones, and
partly cover them–Beyond these I pass,)
Far, far in the forest, before I think where I go,
Solitary, smelling the earthy smell, stopping now and then in the
silence,
Alone I had thought–yet soon a troop gathers around me, 10
Some walk by my side, and some behind, and some embrace my arms or
neck,
They, the spirits of dear friends, dead or alive–thicker they come,
a great crowd, and I in the middle,
Collecting, dispensing, singing in spring, there I wander with them,
Plucking something for tokens–tossing toward whoever is near me;
Here! lilac, with a branch of pine,
Here, out of my pocket, some moss which I pull’d off a live-oak in
Florida, as it hung trailing down,
Here, some pinks and laurel leaves, and a handful of sage,
And here what I now draw from the water, wading in the pondside,
(O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me–and returns again,
never to separate from me,
And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades–this
Calamus-root shall, 20
Interchange it, youths, with each other! Let none render it back!)
And twigs of maple, and a bunch of wild orange, and chestnut,
And stems of currants, and plum-blows, and the aromatic cedar:
These, I, compass’d around by a thick cloud of spirits,
Wandering, point to, or touch as I pass, or throw them loosely from
me,
Indicating to each one what he shall have–giving something to each;
But what I drew from the water by the pond-side, that I reserve,
I will give of it–but only to them that love, as I myself am capable
of loving.

7. The Shade Tree

After all this poetry, and all this wandering throughout the gardens you probably just want to stop. Put your feet up. Rest in the shade. The cool, dark, delicious shade of a truly magnificent tree. This kaffir plum (Harpephyllum caffrum) is most certainly magnificent. On a hot summers afternoon it’s densest of dense dark green canopy is something of a wonder. Lie back, look up and read this ode.

Trees Need Not Walk The Earth
David Rosenthal

Trees need not walk the earth
For beauty or for bread;
Beauty will come to them
Where they stand.
Here among the children of the sap
Is no pride of ancestry:
A birch may wear no less the morning
Than an oak.
Here are no heirlooms
Save those of loveliness,
In which each tree
Is kingly in its heritage of grace.
Here is but beauty’s wisdom
In which all trees are wise.
Trees need not walk the earth
For beauty or for bread;
Beauty will come to them
In the rainbow—
The sunlight—
And the lilac-haunted rain;
And bread will come to them
As beauty came:
In the rainbow—
In the sunlight—
In the rain.

8. The Sneaky Herb Garden Spot

Ahh. To be surrounded by the wafting scents of lavender, rosemary, mint, etcetera whist reading prose about gardens… Now, that is some kind of paradise. Luckily for you dear Planthunter reader, all is within your grasp. Squeeze your way between the very tightly planted box hedge to the park bench next to the herb garden and bask in the sensory delights. Take a moment, a moment of happiness with your real life or imaginary lover.

A Moment of Happiness
Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi

A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden’s beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.