Opinion » John Rember

Tan Kew

No, No, Tan Kew

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Yesterday we were at Kew Gardens outside of London, working on our tans. Really. It was 76 degrees. Not a cloud in the sky. After a long gray winter, thousands of British people had emerged, hunched and squinting, from their dark underground tunnels. They walked with us through the vast sunlit and manicured acres of the Gardens, singing British hymns of joy and warmth, of which there are precious few.

We had sunscreen, and used it, but the April sun this far north packs a wallop. We were tired, burnt and dehydrated by the end of the day. So was everyone else. We witnessed pale milk-and-roses faces become an angry shade of red. Also necks, backs and legs, and myriad other body parts in desperate need of tans—these were sunburns that were going to peel and peel good.

Crowds of screaming schoolchildren became quiet and sullen as they cooked in the sun, ushered by their teachers from rhododendrons to azaleas and back to rhododendrons. By afternoon, it was possible to believe that the very shrubbery was whinging, although the sounds could usually be traced to a small child wanting please very much please to go home.

The Garden is the largest plant collection in the world, with specimens numbering in the millions. The Princess of Wales Conservatory is a glassed-in hectare of multiple climate zones, a kind of Noah's Ark for plants in these days of global warming. Elsewhere in the Garden, 30,000 varieties of trees, flowers and shrubs compete for space with the rhododendrons and azaleas.

It is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer vegetable abundance of the place. Its fake Roman ruins, small Greek temples, artfully curving paths, fountains, lakes, Japanese gates and gardens, a 10-story pagoda, Kew Palace (where George III raised his children) add to the impression that Kew is a green heaven or at least a place as much like a green heaven as generations of gardeners could make it, given 260 years to complete the painstaking grooming of every square foot. Everywhere you look, the world has been manicured, trimmed, pollarded and pruned.

Lots of people on wheels. The Gardens have their own constabulary, serious young people carefully bicycling between shuffling pensioners. But by far the most people wheeling about are being pushed, either as babies in prams or ancients-of-days in wheelchairs. They give a mild melancholic ashes-to-ashes atmosphere to the place, helped along by Kew's showcased compost heap, "the largest in Britain," which emphasizes the cycle of life that begins in seed and ends in rich loamy fertilizer.

Kew is a place of peace, in spite of its location directly under an approach path to Heathrow. Descending airliners pass over every other minute or so. There's nothing quite like looking up and seeing an A-380, the world's largest passenger plane, a thousand or so feet above, so big it has a billboard painted on its belly, moving so slowly it looks like it will fall out of the sky. It goes over, whistling and shrieking, and just when you think you're safe, along comes another. But after awhile, they fade before the glory of blossoming trees and the flowers, reduced to an occasional instant of shadow as they fly between you and the sun.

Kew is a place of solitude, in spite of the tens of thousands who occupy it on days like yesterday. It's partly British reserve—easily adopted by visiting Americans—which creates an invisible shield around everyone who communes fixedly with a plant. But aloneness exudes from the multitudes of single older people, tentatively identifiable as widows and widowers, who occupy the memorial benches that line the walks and waterways. Plaques on the benches remember people, now deceased, who loved Kew, or loved the view from a bench, or loved a tree in front of a bench. More massive public memorials contribute, paradoxically, to the sense of private grief, as does the sheer weight of three centuries of history. A few boisterous shouts are heard when a school group comes through the gates, but the Garden's atmosphere soon works its anesthetic magic.

As anyone who has ever grieved knows, grief is not a form of darkness. It's an intense kind of stilled light, sometimes intolerably bright, as we discovered when we toured the Kew Palace. There, interpretive panels detailed King George's descent into bipolar madness. He was said to have had a sound mind and happy marriage through the births of his 15 children, but soon thereafter his mind deteriorated. He suffered horribly, going through hellish guilt and depression following his manic episodes. The palace's histories noted that the king's insanity played a part in his inability to deal with the responsibilities of empire. The result was the American rebellion and independence, which would not have happened had the king's neurotransmitters behaved themselves. For want of an appropriate dose of lithium, a whole world was lost.

One can only wonder, considering the mental condition of so many public officials of the American Empire, what losses will result from their madness. Certainly we have seen enough British war memorials during our time here to think that when rulers go crazy, sons and daughters and often the meaning of life itself are all lost. One can wonder about the gardens we might create in compensation.