I took advantage of the unexpected mildness of this British autumn to return to Kew Gardens last Saturday. It was one of those days when London surprises you with the unexpected. Unexpected sunshine, unexpected blue sky, unexpected encounters. The long, sluggish queue made my excitement grow, perhaps disproportionately, given that I had visited the gardens before. Nevertheless, when the ticket man handed me the map, I was overwhelmed with choice, and felt a slight fit of panic, like I always do, when too many options are available.
The first thing I did, however, was to visit the little Temple of Aretusa. This is a small structure not far from the Victoria Gate, named like other similar structures scattered around the gardens after myths. Aretusa was a Greek nymph, who fell victim, as nymphs frequently did, of the lustful gaze of one of the male gods. In this case we are talking of Alpheus, who spotted Aretusa as she bathed naked in his waters: in Greek myth, male gods have a wide range of incarnations, which allow them, in disguise, to spy and prey upon the objects of their desire. As the story goes, Aretusa, who was a devout follower of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, prayed to her patron divinity to rescue her from Alpheus’ preying embrace. In spite of divine intervention, things don’t exactly work out for Aretusa – they hardly ever do, in Greek myths, when gods try to have their wicked ways with girls; so she is transformed into an underground stream of water, running through the coastal town of Siracusa and meeting the sea by the tiny island of Ortigia, but not before the cunning Alpheus has succeeded in merging his liquid essence into hers. Despite the dubious romanticisation of rape, the story is frequently told to tourists who visit Ortigia, as the myth is attached to the unusual spring of fresh water in proximity of the sea.
But I am digressing, clearly. I started off in Kew Gardens, and ended up in Sicily! But that’s Kew’s fault, not mine. It’s like entering another world, as Alice did, falling down the rabbit-hole. Instead of going down, however, I went up, as high as I could, to the top of the tree-tops, or rather into the middle of them: simply climbing a relatively short spiral-staircase allowed me to experience the vast green canopy from a great vantage point. With your feet resting on the untreated steel structure, you may think you’re standing on top of the world, until you’re reminded that, after all, you’re still in London: the shiny steel arch of Wembley Stadium is visible from the walkway, a memento from the world outside.
As you walk around, the otherworldliness of Kew rarely fails to possess your soul, as peacocks walk past you, self-conscious of their glamorous plumage, and the light keeps changing, transforming the place, as gradually, the dark silhouettes of exotic plants, caged inside their glass prisons, are all you’re left with.
But if you look closely, everywhere you’ll find inspiration for new stories, new characters, such as the Scottish unicorn, the quirkiest of all grotesque statues lined up in an uncanny parade, just outside the Palm House.
Or you may discover, as Liam, my travelling companion did, other eyes unexpectedly watching you… just when you thought yours was the only point of view that mattered.
Above anything else, it’s the world of new words that captures my attention. Strange words, such as ‘pupate’, the action performed (or suffered by) the chrysalises as they prepare to start their new lives as butterflies: as I entered the Japanese House, I couldn’t help thinking of the complex journeys traced by the objects of everyday life. Our clothes, rarely made in local workshops, carry a heavy load of shipping miles and sweated labour, little prisons for larvae that will never experience the careless freedom of butterflies. Digressing again. I meant to focus on words. The most evocative of plant names? The ‘Maiden Hair’ Tree, scientifically known as Gingko Biloba, an Oriental tree whose fan-shaped leaves flutter in the wind as the autumnal breeze weaves gently in and out the yellowing shrubs of Kew Gardens.