Garden-Going and Reading
Visiting botanical gardens is, for me, a literary endeavour, not a scientific one. I can’t even claim a desire to get closer to nature. For most of my adult life, I’ve made a point of visiting botanical gardens while on holiday, not to linger in the shadehouses or the herb gardens, but to find a quiet spot to get on with whatever holiday reading I’ve brought with me. I like reading in settings where the surrounding greenery offsets the white glare of the page. And, so, I’ve visited botanical gardens in Europe, Australia and North America in the company of, amongst others, John Cheever, Patricia Highsmith and Dostoevsky.
The Russian accompanied me to the Orto Botanico di Pisa in 2012 where I lugged a cheap copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky, it’s fair to say, was more interested in human nature than the flora greening the environs: Dostoevsky, the writer whose novels (Devils, Crime and Punishment) perhaps more any than others demonstrate how human nature cannot be pruned or shaped into perfection, like, well, a garden. Russia, incidentally, has more botanical gardens than anywhere else in the world.
The Orto Botanico di Pisa is the first university-run botanical garden in Europe, founded in 1543 by botanist Luca Ghini, some 336 years before the first instalment of The Brothers Karamazov appeared in print. Most of the botanics I’ve visited were centuries-plus, older than the books I was flicking through, which puts a twist on the notion of ‘ars longa, vita brevis’.
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