Kew with Martin

An unavoidable extra day in London yields a most pleasant result: a day-trip to Kew Gardens with my friend Martin, Zen priest and master garden designer – he is the author, with his wife Alxe, of Landscape as Spirit ( Given his background in designing massive gardens with waterfalls, lakes, and huge stones all over the world, the chance to see Kew – the living result of the Victorian need to collect and categorize, in this case botanicals of every description – through his eyes is not to be missed.

Martin and I go way back to when he was my student in the early 90’s, but our deep friendship dates from the time when he picked me up and gave me a place to recover in the aftermath of my family break-up.  Over these two decades, I have seen him flush and destitute, secure and ass over the edge, 30 employees and none, in the bosom of his family and wracked with grief as tragedy overwhelms – and he always has the same calm demeanor, philosophical attitude, childlike curiosity, and Buddhist detachment that many people claim but so very few inhabit.  My brother, mentor, and friend.

Along with mowing lawns, I have generally ‘graduated’ myself for many years from taking subways whenever and wherever.  As Kew is way south at the suburban end of the District Line, the Tube is likewise unavoidable, but the London Underground has improved in the years since I lived here – the cars cleaner and smoke-free, and on this day there are no delays.  There is “Mind the Gap”.

Martin is dressed in new Zen robes (polyester and wrinkle free), which make him look priestly and striking amid the downdressed Londoners.  His small porkpie hat and large-knobbed walking stick adds to the eye-drawing mix.  His wife Alxe, English by derivation and East Coast by education (and therefore more conservatively attired), is a small but forceful woman who likes big dogs (who have thankfully been left home on this 50th birthday tour of England).  Through the miracle of SMS, we meet without hassle.

The street from the Tube to the park is lined with identical row houses, but they must be pretty pricey given the BMW’s, Mercedes, and even an Aston-Martin in the drives.  First stop inside the gate is the Palm House, a huge white metal and glass arboretum with the largest of the plants – huge palms of every description scrape the ceiling.  It is so humid inside that I shed my sweater and Martin is constantly wiping his camera lens, and it’s a relief to slip outside again to the row of mythical beasts – the Griffin of whatever, the Yale of Broadhurst, the Lion of England – all rampant and holding an heraldic shield passed down through generation from Tudor or Plantagenet titles.  What a lot of nonsense the Queen must have to know!

The waterlilies are next, huge leaves like boats and exquisite blossoms.  The young fella in his waders has a bucket sitting in one of the tray-like leaves, spooning out the duckweed with a net.  Most of these only bloom for a few days, and many only at night, he says, and require a singular beetle to come in and get the pollen when they are open and transfer it to a male plant.  It is one of the best arguments for evolution – God would never have designed something this messy, haphazard, and imperfect.  But then again, God did.

Although it is certainly Kew as I remember it from the 80’s, there is much that is new: the Princess of Wales Conservatory (Augusta, not Diana) replaces temporary greenhouses of succulents in a huge new building of six different climates: Step through a door to enter a desert full of cactuses, another to luxuriate in varieties of orchid, another to wilt with the tropical ferns, another to peer into the carnivorous plants, and another to tiptoe under the vines.

Another new element was the Treetop Walkway, which takes you 100’ or so up into the canopy, making me nervous as it swayed.  I could not keep from looking down through the mesh floor to the forest floor way too far below.

Aside from the new rock garden, which did not meet Martin and Alxe’s design standards (too boxy and unimaginative), and the new Japanese gateway (good, but not up to what I saw in Japan), everything we saw in this Eden was good.  The trees – huge and from all over – were especially welcome.  Kew was hit with a huge windstorm some years ago that took out hundreds of unique trees and left the head gardener in tears, but no damage was in evidence now.

The surprise, that Martin dragged me to unwillingly as I was getting ‘museum feet’ in the late afternoon, was the gallery of botanical art.  Though I was prepared to be bored, the marvelous watercolours and drawings easily straddled the utility-beauty gap, consistently conveying more than any photograph could manage.  Especially amazing was a moss painted onto the reverse side of a windowpane; I had to peer over the top to reassure myself it was not just moss stuffed in behind glass.  Others so captured the essence of the wild grape or fig or magnolia that you could palpably feel the artist’s love.

I am not a gardener or a farmer, though I work in the garden and live on a farm.  I am an urban dweller, even in my town of 600 souls, hooked to the internet and cell phone, with an embarrassing wealth of friends spread over every time zone.  Martin meditates for hours to days on the spot of a new garden before beginning the design.  I admire and even envy him his inner space, but plants move too slowly for me; I like the pace of humans, as destructive as they are.  For several hours, I slow down to Martin’s pace with Martin’s eyes – the slow shaping of the landscape over decades into a vision that matches the setting, the plants, the climate, the people – it’s such a gift, to see through another’s lens!


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