Saturday, March 5, 2011

Other Peoples' Gardens: The 2011 Philadelphia Flower Show

Many years ago in Boulder, Colorado, a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks labored for several days, on full public view, to create a sand mandala. A mandala (Sanskrit for "circle") is a spiritual tool, a visual representation of sacred, cosmological space, and is used to acutely concentrate our spiritual reflections and inward journeys that in the end remove us from our selves.

At the end of the process of sand mandala creation--a painstaking endeavor requiring uninterrupted powers of concentration, a steady hand, a perceptive eye, and an aesthetic precision that presumably emanates from divine concentration--the monks ritualistically destroy the object. As some chant, the sand is swept into a pile. Oddly, unexpectedly, the vibrant colors (the reds, yellows, oranges, greens, blues, whites, blacks, pinks) all become green.

At the particular Boulder event I attended, the monks packaged the sand into tiny packets and distributed them to those in attendance. Viet and I retain ours to this day: one package is positioned in the lap of our bronze Buddha from India, the other on a very old wooden reclining Buddha from Java or Bali, I forget which. And when this was handed to us, the monk issued stern instruction, nay, a commandment: never let this package touch the ground, for if it does, its spiritual powers dissipate.

The remainder of the sand was carried to the banks of the Boulder creek and dispersed in it, as a series of chants and bells swirled around us.

Flower shows are the sand mandalas of the gardening world: temporary, almost other-worldly constructions. In Boulder, a few hundred came to witness; for the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest indoor flower show in the world, tends of thousands of people make their pilgrimage to witness, to absorb, to seek design ideas, to relish, to escape ordinary lives replete with their ordinary demands. Pilgrims may arrive with many purposes and intentions, but all in the end are transported, which is exactly the point of pilgrimage in the first place.

Like the mandala and the flower show, gardens, too, are mediums--and by this I do not suggest that gardens ought to be viewed as purely instrumental. Quite the contrary. Gardens assume a life and a meaning separate from that intended by their creators. And these lives and meanings are only in part determined by the spectator's multiple and varied intentions and perspectives.

This year's Philadelphia Flower Show theme is Springtime in Paris. As one strolls into the convention center complex, one immediately encounters the centerpoint: the base of the Eiffel Tower. It is, like its model, grand. It commands attention. It rises above, it elevates as we strain our necks to see its top. We are delivered into the heavens above, our eyes lingering at the space between the tip of human creation and the infinite beyond.

Exhibits beckon, all peculiar vignettes of other places in others' lives, real or imaginary:

a grand salon of opulent Paris,

a campsite,

a maison,

a modest country house,

a Parisian carousel and various scenes of street life,

various storefronts,

and Underground (catacombs) Paris.

After one adjusts to the throngs of people (courtesy of my friend Sachyn, I attended on the "media and members only" preview day), one comes to be transported--if only for a moment--outside of oneself. We are invited to linger outside the boulangerie, or by the boxwood hedge outside of the salon, peering into a life that is not ours, a life that perhaps we wished to live but that should remain not ours.

By the evening of March 13th, the flower show will become mandala sand, its whole deconstructed, swept into a vast whole, its various parts (re)distributed, reminders of a moment in time when time itself stood still for just long enough so that we could become other people, walk the streets of another place, and look back into ourselves, just beyond the boxwood hedge that defines the edge of our lives...

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