I started to read this history of a garden and soon realised that what I was actually reading was a history of so much more – a struggling settlement, a growing city, and a developing nation. More than any building or natural landscape, this Garden holds the layers of Australia’s 200 years of European settlement as well as the lighter footprint of many more years of indigenous occupation. And it is a story well-told, with multiple voices adding colour to this woven tapestry of discovery and loss, exploitation and love, export and import, neglect and care, and loyalty and deceit. ★★★★½
Yes, it is a roller-coaster of a ride! Who would have thought that a public garden could inspire so much love, often clashing with an equally solid force of public and political indifference? This is a remarkable book and not just for those who live near this equally remarkable garden. It’s a story of how public gardens have fared in Australia and their place in our lives, as cultural institutions, repositories of science and knowledge, displayers of beauty and just places of fun and relaxation.
To be truly worth reading, the story of any botanic garden has to be much more than a list of achievements or the loving tales of those who give it countless hours of devotion. This Garden is a jewel in Sydney’s crown with its prime harbourside location and proximity to its CBD, creating green lungs for the city and a perfect open-space setting for that magnificent built icon, the Sydney Opera House. And this book teases out that tension between a garden and a city bristling with tall buildings, revealing that the Garden’s story has been, and still is, one of political importance too, as its defenders have tried desperately to hold onto its public funding and its detractors and attackers have tried to budget cut, asset strip and undermine it by neglect.
As expected, the book begins at the beginning, with Aboriginal Education Officer Clarence Slocklee’s analysis of the Garden’s first layer – what this piece of land meant to the indigenous Cadigal people, who were quickly pushed out and then fenced off by the first European settlers when they set up camp on this very spot in January 1788. As Wogganmagully becomes Farm Cove, the Garden’s second layer begins with the settlers’ pitiful and soon aborted attempts at growing food. Today, the Cadi Jam Ora garden tells that sad story of indigenous loss but also reminds us of enduring traditions and respect of place.
From this introduction, the book zooms out so we can see the Garden’s place in the greater scientific and botanical world and then dives back into the detail of its history and evolution. Although the whole book has strong and eloquent writing, what a standout chapter we have here by garden historian Colleen Morris whose history writing is among Australia’s best – pithy and contextual so that we understand why things happened as they did. We start to get glimpses of the strong personalities who have shaped this garden, whose names read like an Australia flora Who’s Who – Fraser, the Cunningham brothers, Bidwill, Moore and Maiden. We start to see how this parcel of land we call the RBG Sydney has been managed and pushed about by both supportive and appalling state governments, and affected by professional jealousy and personal preferences.
And there are so many other good reads – Dale Dixon on one of the Garden’s great strengths, its collection of remarkable trees; Paul Nicholson on the Living Collection; Jimmy Turner writes of the Garden’s individual special gardens; and Karen Wilson on the Herbarium. Miguel Garcia covers the Daniel Solander Library and the many treasures that it holds, like a first edition On the Origin of Species and a magnificent collection of herbals dating from the 16th century, now on display in a fascinating exhibition in the Red Box Gallery in the Garden.
Jill Hankinson details the Garden’s many sculptures and Elizabeth Thilow its art; Colleen Morris again on its vast collection of botanical illustration; and Jennie Churchill on the birds and animals that live within the Garden.
This brings us to another stand-out chapter, Brett Summerell’s on Science at the Gardens. The role of scientists in a botanical garden is acknowledged as a given by both horticulturists and gardeners, but do you know what these people actually do? I discovered that I was embarrassingly ignorant of what goes on in those indoor and open air laboratories, the Garden’s role in horticulture and agriculture, and our position, as Australians, in international plant science.
Although we must credit Joseph Maiden with putting Sydney on the international scientific map, I was also impressed at the leading role women have taken in science at the Garden, like Dr Joyce Vickery, Barbara Biggs and Gwen Harden.
The book’s later chapters tell the stories of the many people who, every day, work in and for the Garden. We read of both staff and volunteers, who manage; maintain; cultivate and plant; sort, code and catalogue; conserve and mount; prepare and label; educate and guide; write and fund raise; and work as honorary research associates like the wonderful Barbara Briggs.
There are also the people who use the garden: the school children who come to learn; the tourists that relax in its leafy greenness; the couples that marry here; the joggers who every day pound its pavements; the artists and writers who seek inspiration; and, of course, those who, like me, feel a trip to the city is not really complete without even just a few minutes spent walking its paths and marvelling at its magnificent trees.
I must mention here several very impressive things about this book.
First is the wonderful photography. Jaime Plaza’s and Simone Cottrell’s visual record of the Garden is extraordinary, providing decades of high-quality images that bring the Garden vividly to life. The photos are beautifully composed and have razor-sharp and long depth-of-field focus so you can see everything clearly. I am so over books with garden photos that have one tiny bit of a leaf in the middle ground in focus and everything else in front and beyond in arty-farty blur. None of that here thank goodness!
Second is the historical images, sourced from the Library’s vast collection assisted by the encyclopedic knowledge of Miguel Garcia. One even dates back to c.1859, taken from the bridge over the Garden’s small creek. Except for the impressively tall top hat, the scene looks remarkably like it does today.
Third is the captioning, some supplied by the chapter authors but many written by Editor Jennie Churchill. Too often captions are boring, lazily repeating words already in the text without adding anything to the image presented. I am guilty of this myself. By contrast this book’s thoughtful captions add hugely to an understanding of the images presented, delivering us wonderful new titbits of information and witty words without being so long that they distract from the prose. Make sure you read every one!
Fourth is Jennie Churchill’s editing itself. As with any large publication with multiple contributors, particularly volunteers, there are difficulties with differences of opinion, occasional bruised egos and the need to diplomatically give slow writers the hurry-up. Putting together a book of this size and complexity and making a smooth and cohesive narrative from so many different authors is worthy of a major medal from someone.
And last is the book’s excellent design by Kerry Klinner. Enjoying a book is not just about its content; its design has a big role to play too. Here we have photos that are big enough to see good detail and that are positioned so that they are decorative and informative but don’t intrude on the flow of prose; the font is large enough to read easily, and there are headers that make it easy to navigate the information.
There is only one jarring note to me about this book. I’m loathe to mention it as the rest of the book is so superb but I know if I hadn’t been given this book to review, it would have made me less likely to buy it. I think that the cover is bloody awful. There’s nothing wrong with the photo in itself – it’s balanced and clear. But I find these lawn-splatting Victorian-era garden beds to be one of the bug-ugliest parts of the entire Garden. Sure, you need a Harbour Bridge or a glimpse of Opera House to give a sense of Sydney but surely there are better viewpoints that can deliver these? Every time I look at the cover I shudder and if someone one day prints a different dust jacket I will gladly buy it.
And where to now for this Sydney icon, this place of beauty, this scientific establishment, this place of love and, often, this bone of contention, this Royal Botanic Garden Sydney? In our user-pays world, the harsh reality when a garden is free entry (unlike most of the world’s botanic gardens outside Australia) is that it must find other ways to fund itself. We must protect what we can but be pragmatic about necessary change so this extraordinary palimpsest of Australia’s past survives as intact as possible.
Whether you love Sydney or even if you’ve never been there, I think this is a book that will be enjoyed by all.
The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney: The First 200 Years
Edited by Jennie Churchill
Halstead Press, 2015.
Hardback 272 pages.