Thursday, November 20, 2008

Closing Time in the Gardens of the West

In the introductory text to my Brilliant Corners book, I wrote that "such scruffy moments of revelation do not reflect the neat view of a university and the process of learning that the public relations people have in mind, and nearly all of them have been tidied up or built over in the meantime." Well, they're at it again. I'm sad to say that the Botanical Garden has been shut until further notice, so that they can demolish the old greenhouses.

Now, let's set aside the inconvenience to those of us with idiotic projects to pursue, and acknowledge the clear health and safety hazard presented by those wonderfully decrepit greenhouses. I think what bothers and alienates me most is the anticipation that, whatever replaces the old greenhouses, it will certainly not be anything as useful, and it will inevitably be something unimaginative, one-dimensional, and utterly lacking any personality or the potential to acquire it over time. Above all, it will lack the quality which the Japanese refer to as wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic rooted in a Buddhist understanding of the world,
reflecting the imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness of existence. It is a bitter-sweet acceptance that nothing is finished, nothing lasts, nothing is perfect. Its prized qualities are usually said to include simplicity, roughness, asymmetry, modesty, intimacy, and the revelation of natural processes at work. It is the difference between appreciating the patina and wear on an old coin, and scrubbing it off with Brasso. A semi-derelict greenhouse has wabi-sabi; a row of concrete planters do not.

We'll see. In the meantime, expelled from lunchtime Paradise, I'm looking for a new hunting ground.

The Gates of Eden

Who told thee that thou wast naked?

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