Robert Douglas-Fairhurst: it's glasshouse party season

December 8, 2006

Four Seasons Festival - winter

Oxford University Botanic Garden

One of the many pleasures of the BBC's Planet Earth series has been each episode's coda, which sets out to explain how particular sequences were filmed. These "diaries", like most other kinds of diary, have largely been records of boredom punctuated by sudden bursts of activity: days spent hunched in the undergrowth to capture a few seconds of a whirling bird of paradise or a pride of lions swarming over an exhausted elephant.

They remind viewers of everything that the finished programme's slick sequences encourage them to forget: that nature does not usually fall into neat patterns without an editor's guiding hand; that most of nature is indifferent to man rather than actively hostile or welcoming; and especially that the television screen on which these dramas are being played out, a window to the world's furthest reaches, also separates us from what we are looking at.

Even viewed on high-definition television, there is something about these attempts to repackage nature into anthropomorphic stories (mother whales singing to their barnacled offspring, or raiding parties of chimpanzees chasing rival gangs) that produces an odd mixture of fascination and indifference, like any other piece of theatre in which we are helpless to interfere.

It would be tempting to think that this is only a modern problem. But versions of it can be seen in earlier attempts to bring human spectators closer to nature. When Charles Daubeny, Oxford University's Sherardian professor of botany, created the Water Lily House in the university's Botanic Garden, it was one of the wonders of the engineering world: a huge tank inside a glasshouse that allowed him to recreate a patch of the tropics in the heart of the city. In 1851, the same year that the Great Exhibition opened in the Crystal Palace (the Water Lily House's grand architectural cousin), Daubeny offered the local population an unprecedented chance to view the giant Victoria amazonica - a water lily large enough to support the weight of a small child - for the price of one shilling. It was the Victorian equivalent of Sir David Attenborough folding back television's glass screen and beckoning us inside. The reaction varied from apathy to outright hostility: here, too, nature was what people preferred to look at from afar, through newspaper reports and travel books, rather than confront face to face.

All the more reason, then, to applaud the Botanic Garden's latest attempt to invite the public inside its tiny but dizzyingly complex ecosystems.

"Winter", the latest in its series of "Four Seasons" festival weekends, is a welcomingly homely affair: visitors are greeted by stalls selling local produce and an enthusiastic man in a badger suit; children are encouraged to make shadow puppets in a small storm of glue and glitter; a cheery double act accompany tours of the glasshouses - "a little voyage of discovery" - with some carefully scripted debate about the wonders of plants and the dangers of over-exploitation: a perfect mixture of the feel good and feel bad.

But the real stars are the plants, and it is inspired of the organisers to have planned a "Christmas Pudding Trail" in which nutmeg, cloves, almonds and other ingredients can be discovered in their natural state. Brushing through the jungle and sniffing the steamy air: even HDTV can't do this.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is a fellow in English at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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