Book Review

Prest, John. The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1981.

Reviewed by Sören Hammerschmidt | March 20, 2003

As the title suggests, Prest analyses the inception of botanical gardens in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with a particular focus on their claim and project to re-collect an original, Edenic variety of plants within the confines of a single garden. Prest begins by trying to unravel the complex, involved religious significations of gardens. He distinguishes between Eden, the garden Adam and Eve originally inhabited and had to leave after the fall, and Paradise, a place of refuge and receptacle for the dead awaiting the day of judgment, but also the Paradise in Heaven after the judgment. From the former conception of Paradise derive a host of religious analogical and allegorical understandings of gardens, current particularly during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: the garden as the Virgin Mary and/or her womb in particular, the garden as meditative retreat from the world, the garden as Eden and/or Paradise (from the Middle Ages onwards these two tend to be conflated again). At this time, too, gardens were usually supposed to remain free of animals (which might damage the crops), and accordingly the Garden of Eden was imagined to have been closed off to animals, too – an idea of profound importance for botanical gardens, which would therefore not attempt to collect complete sets of all animals (though zoological gardens are interesting in this context). The next point of interest for Prest is the involvement of botanical gardens with colonial projects, and in particular with the beginning colonization of the West and East Indies. The Garden of Eden was either thought to have originally covered the entire earth in perpetual spring, and to have been broken up and dispersed into numerous climates at the fall, or it was supposed to have been a confined space somewhere on earth, and Adam and Eve had simply been chased away. In the former case, voyages of exploration were crucial in discovering and returning to Europe as many (or ideally, all) parts of the botanical puzzle that Eden had become as possible. In the latter case, those same voyages might re-discover Eden. Since eternal spring was thought to have reigned in Eden, zones of a mild and sunny climate with lush vegetation were most promising, and spurred an investment in voyages to the Americas and India. The discovery of an increasing variety of climatic zones, on the other hand, and the identification of increasing numbers of distinct plants in each, posed immense problems for claims to a complete restoration of Eden in European botanical gardens, and was eventually partially responsible for the abandoning of such a project. Since botanical gardens would eventually contain all plants originally present in Eden, and because it was thought that God had given Adam a cure for any illness in one plant or another, these gardens also had the function to re-collect humanity’s original, complete knowledge of “physick” or medicine. In this respect, of course, voyages of discovery and colonization received an immense impetus from the demands and interests of botanists and their gardens. These interests eventually also gave rise to a wide range of botanical, horticultural, agricultural, medical and other disciplines and projects, which in turn also informed or reformed conceptions of the Garden of Eden and its related religious doctrines. Last but not least, religious as well as natural scientific ideas of gardens, plants, landscapes and their uses informed and were inflected by cultural and social understandings of nature, and of humans’ places and responsibilities within it. Layouts of gardens, estates and their grounds reflected on and influenced notions of order, harmony and relation within a wider social and cultural arena, while interpretations of the “nature” and arrangement of Eden provided crucial stimulus to the aesthetics of gardening.

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