Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
A municipal garden is a beautiful contradiction, an embodiment of the struggle between nature and human control.
Visitors to The Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis on a recent afternoon stepped from the welcome center into the Garden grounds, where the skyscraper glint of the Climatron hurt the eyes even through the pines. Everywhere were competing demands: a demanding whiff of skunk and the roar of leaf blowers; the white noise of a large fountain that could not cover the screech of cicadas; the small yellow helicopter on its way to the tourist barge in the River, which spooked a squirrel digging in his lilies.
Just past the rose garden and its tangles of Chihuly glass, down the allée of saucer magnolias and sculpture, the Climatron rose seven stories and enclosed a half-acre “on a tropical rainforest theme.” Built in 1960, it was the world’s first geodesic conservatory—an idea that paralleled futurist R. Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship earth” concept, already a metaphor of technology and nature.
Fuller seemed to be everywhere when I was a kid. Groovy cousins took me to sit on a lawn with a crowd to hear him speak in the early Seventies. I saw his Dymaxion car in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. My dad, who taught at the same university as Fuller, met him in a departure lounge in India, where Fuller had been consulting.
But he was (and is) most famous for his patent of the geodesic dome, which has been replicated 300,000 times around the world. The wonder of the dome is its self-supporting skeleton of neatly-interlocking triangles, which needs no internal supports to restrict flow. It seems to mimic something from nature, though the blister comes to mind before the bubble. An attached exploration center with a glass shed roof, itself massive, is used for children’s education.
Inside the Climatron it felt even hotter, due to 85 percent humidity. A mass of variegated green filled it. Sycamore Figs, kapok trees, and even broad-leafed palms strained against the glass far overhead. (Some must be “pruned unconventionally to keep them alive in the Climatron.”) Orchids and other epiphytes dripped from real trees and fake logs. American Mangroves and wet rice grew in a shallow concrete basin. Cacao, rubber, ginger, bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, taro root, guava, avocado, allspice—all the bounty of the tropics was present. In another month the weather would start to change, but the Climatron was said to remain a steady 85 degrees in the day, 65 at night. Birds sang from the foliage.
Plants seemed chosen for their names, but that was an illusion. The names were mere words for things that thrived without permission, or even our awareness, until we found them sprouting from cracks in our well-laid plans: Poison Bulb. Voodoo Lily. Devil Flower. Monkey Cocoa. Mauritian Bloody Bell Flower. The Be Still Tree, native to tropical America.
Things that looked like other things, a resurrection by association: Torch Ginger. Lobster Claw. Flamingo Flower. Angel’s Trumpet. We flatter only ourselves.
The Garden uses the Climatron for research and preservation. Some of their cycads, a 300-million-year-old plant that looks like a palm but is more closely related to conifers, have been on display since the 1904 World’s Fair. They can live a thousand years. In an age of change, the dome acts as ark. A coastal forest in Madagascar will be gone by 2080, and, “To prepare for this scenario, the Garden is taking steps to propagate and care for [the genus] rhopalocarpus right here in St. Louis,” a sign says.
There is relief in exiting the hothouse. A short walk across the grounds from the Climatron is the tomb of Henry Shaw, the nineteenth-century merchant who left his land, buildings, and estate to create the Gardens when he died in 1889. He posed for the sculptor of his effigy a couple of years before that. His mausoleum, made of rose granite, is part folly, part Dôme des Invalides.
Through the steel bars and stained-glass windows, the white marble Shaw lies on a marble bier inlaid with bronze wreaths, looking well-fed and peaceful in his high marble collar and marble frock coat. He holds a marble rose and is draped with a marble sheet.
Like the Garden and its Climatron, the tomb is a sonnet, written as a commemoration of the past and warning for the future.