Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Tower of Babel in ruins

Iraq is in the news a lot. It is one of the four main birthplaces of urbanity. One is the great Chinese river plains, the others are the Nile, the Euphrates river and the Bengal river basin.

Cities were created and grew on these great river systems. And cities vanished. Today, one looks at Iraq and seeks in vain to see how anyone could have lived there in the past. Deserfication and urban degradation has taken their toll and the land is no longer fertile. The final insult to the system has been the pumping of oil and the incessant wars over control of the oil, spilling toxic wastes in their wakes. Eventually this land will be literally unihabitable by any organsims.

To understand humans we look to the past for guidance and instruction. One thing I used to wonder about in a lazy fashion was the ancient Greek tourist claim about one of the seven wonders of the world: the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Greeks lived in a tough environment, the soil was rocky and gave back grudgingly and only after much toil. The glorious prolific growth of this ancient great city, probably the most urban city of 400 BC looked like Paradise to the Greeks. In my mind, it probably was a multistory group construct of great size and as you approach it by river or by chariot, it rose like a shining green mountain and the singing of the birds must have been heard from far away as flocks of various sizes and colors rose and circled this magical city. Traveling ever closer, the details stand out, a riot of flowers, the sweet smell wafting across open well tended fields. Red and white and yellow flowers cascading down terraces, palm trees cutting down the harsh light of the sun, waving feathery fronds in the light breeze.

Cities even today smell awful but this city smelled like a rose.

In China, the people in cities enclosed gardens to keep the city outside. In ancient Rome, each house had an inner garden. The Muslims took the Roman method, gardens were behind walls and hidden. This "hide the garden" idea was the ideal for thousands of years in thousands of places until the British invented the modern form of gardening and the French invented "Parks in the city" as an ideal outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Gardens became extroverted again, the only other time this has happened since the fall and annihilation of Babylon.

I went on line to find pictures of Babylon. Nearly all of them show a great paucity of greenery. This is odd, it was supposed to be HANGING gardens which means plants overflowing their bounds and draping themselves across everything. Yet no pictures show this. Not one. They show terraces with plants upright or semi enclosed gardens on various levels but not a single HANGING plant.

Well, I garden and I grow on a mountain and I use hanging plants all over the place. They adorn the balconies of my house. They grow down steep hillsides. You can do this, the Babylonians did this and why is this such a mystery? Why do people have trouble picturing this?

The history of gardening is interesting. This is different from the history of agriculture. In the Middle Ages, peasants toiled in open fields and in the cloisters and castles the people planted gardens for growing herbs and other necessities. The cultivation of flowers was extremely limited.

Except for the rose.

The rose came from the same place Babylon arose. It came to Europe via the Persians who admired the rose and cultivated it. The natural rose has only five pedals. But its aroma is enchanting. The Persians expanded the size of the rose and multiplied the pedals as they strove to make it more colorful and aromatic. The rose was the foot in the door for flower gardens everywhere.

In China this role was played by the beautiful peony.

I had a Victorian rose planting which I dug up at an abandoned house in Brooklyn. The roses were very dark red and smelled heavenly. I propagated many rose bushes off of this one plant and every house I developed was given several of these bushes as a gift. All summer, my open front porch areas or the iron fence of the brownstones would be smothered in these old time roses. People walking down the street in heavy traffic would pause and breathe deeply. "May I pick one?" was often heard and I would smile and snip one off for each bush produced thousands of blooms.

The joy on troubled faces was fun to watch. I would sit on the porch or front stoop in the late summer evening, reading the paper and chatting and watching the flow of humanity, it brought me great pleasure to give this pleasure.

This is what Babylon was.

And She was greatly hated. It isn't merely political. Many a non gardener who thought flowers were frivolities would look at the Seventh Wonder of the World and grind their teeth in rage. The city finally was put to the torch by garden haters. It no longer exists, the ruins concealed by mud and dreck for centuries, the only memory was from hateful screeds in the Bible attacking the place and worshipful urges to visit from the ancient Greeks.

Alexander the Great visited, sword in hand and fell in love. This is why he died there.

This competing idea of "the ideal city" still troubles us. Medieval painters showing Heaven would make it look like a beautiful park that is full of rose bushes. Paradise to the Muslims was an enclosed garden. The ancient love of growing things is as deep as our monkey past. At the same time, if you look at humans who dwell in jungles, they strive to cut down the trees and remove the plants as much as possible. Where humans dwell, desertfication grows. This is also due to our past. We were driven out of the Garden of Eden during the Great Ice Ages. Living on the vast savannas killing animals, we struggled to survive. We take this bitter legacy back into the jungle as we recolonize them.

When we tried designing space colonies back in the 1970s, many scientists had various views about how a colony should look. In the fifties, it was all utilitarian all the time, shiny chrome and glass. By the seventies, a number of scientists were avid gardeners as well and we all agreed at various meetings that the L orbit colonies would look like...the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Several of us made experiments in multi level gardening and it was pleasurable to do and to look at. The Japanese animators have pulled our research and used it in animations about space like the Gundam Seed series. A must watch (you can download this stuff online from this

The Arizona project, Biosphere II was concieved as a pilot project to prove you could live in a space colony successfully. It was utterly derailed by the mad idea that one should have ALL environments in space! This folly doomed the experiment. I wrote before hand that we must have intensive gardens to produce both the food and the air we need for health. This, I proved by growing all my food for one year on less than an eight an acre in Tucson. I had dwarf fruit trees, the fig, the date, persimmons, pomegranate, orange and olive trees. There were hanging vine plants, even the watermelons grew in hammocks, never touching the ground. Chard and broccoli and a multitude of vegetables grew under this. Rabbits had their hutches and chickens raised coops and the debrie they ejected was mulched.

It was beautiful. When I left it, heart breaking to lose.

The Biosphere II project became mired in mistaken ideas of humans in nature. We are destructors. We can't cohabit in fragile environments, we destroy them. We even utterly destroyed the environment of Babylon and are now making it totally toxic to all living things.

The only thing we can do is create gardens and use them wisely and carefully. We have to prove we are careful wards of our own cities. We have to fix ourselves.

In New Jersey, with rising despair, I lectured about wise gardening. All those pretty lawns you see are mostly toxic waste dumps. To keep only grass growing without sheep, people use poisons and toxins to make it look like a natural environment. It is a dying land, not a lush land. Eat the grass, you die. And then they wonder why deer won't eat the grass but eat the flowers instead!

I have open fields now. Deer graze alongside the sheep or the horses. They never touch my flowers. They prefer to eat the grass. If I poison the grass, the animals will die.

Back to the glorious rose: in the 20th century, gardeners discovered how to make roses mutate into many colors and shapes. The very shapely "Tea Rose" was created. This has a very long stem and nearly no thorns. It needs great care to tend and often many chemicals to keep predators at bay. It is genetically weak and prone to diseases. Unlike my sturdy Victorian rose bushes that grew effortlessly if you toss them banana peels and egg shells every few weeks, these require surgical intervention to grow. They are very popular. Unlike my Victorian beauties.

Tea roses look beautiful and are nearly totally without perfume.

We bred them to look a certain way and killed off the thing that made Babylon so delightful: the glorious scent of the roses.

We are destroying our planet trying to live in the Garden of Eden.

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