Monday, June 20, 2011

French Maze

I bet you've never been to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.
Why would you. It's just South of the Seine, like the Eiffel Tower, and the two green spaces are like opposite bookends, framing the historic city center. But while the Tower is unique, tall, sexy, and instantly recognizable, the Jardin des Plantes is not. It's big, sure, and not unfrequented - by students, escaping from the hustle of the Quartier Latin, and by families, letting steam off in the gravel walks and in the unremarkable and overpriced zoo - but it's one of those places that doesn't scream Paris. It could be anywhere.
The people walking here are locals. Not a tour bus or a phrase book in sight, for a kilometre or more. grandparents pushing strollers and holding small hands, triptychs of women, showing the three ages of one face. Dads with grubby nails taking a professional interest in a herbaceous border.
There isn't a lot of what you might call real gloire to the Histoire of the botanical garden, and a small museum spreads a paltry range of exhibits through three or four showrooms. There's a painted giraffe that's rather fetching, and one of those big models in a glaring glass case. You pay to go in, really just so's you can use their clean and spacious loo, which in Paris is always a big deal.

Every city worth its salt was getting a Jardin des Plantes by the 1600's; Paris was a bit of a latecomer. This is a working garden, not a place of pomp and circumstance, that's why. University cities like Pisa, Padua and Leiden had led the way in the previous century. A botanical garden was a classroom, sample store, and examination paper all rolled into one. This was where students wishing to become medical men, herbalists, or even canny merchants, came to learn what the leaves and flowers of medicinal plants looked like in different states: seedlings growing in the ground, flowering, overblown, wilted, and dried.
They learnt to discriminate between similar looking plants with different medical properties, or none at all.
No more passing off powdered parsley as some exotic Asian miracle cure; these guys could tell a coriander seed from a mandrake particle at fifty yards. This systemic approach to the study of plants would in time lead long-latin-word-lover Karl Linnaus to develop his taxonomy of the plant world, still a part of botany today.
 But nobody comes to Paris to stare at a patch of Rudbeckia Fulgida. You could do that at home. Or at somewhere hard-core, like Wisley.
There is a hill in the Southern part of the jardin des Plantes, close to the gate that takes you neatly out into the neighbourhood of rue Monge  and the edges of the Sorbonne. Perhaps it's a natural feature, or originally a  Parnassus, which is an artificial hill, a standard feature of  Renaissance and Baroque gardens. More about that some other time.
The fingerpost pointing up the hill is labelled Labyrinthe. What labyrinth? you'll say. There's a single path, leading up to the top, with no dead ends, and no doubling back.
Gallic cheating. Definitely not cricket. Also, that's a very narrow bench.
Oh, it's a hedge all right, some sort of evergreen concoction. There is an iron pergola in the middle, at the top of the hill, but hold on. The French have got the wrong end of the stick, apparently. Do they not get how a maze works?
Plus, the hedge is full of holes, which give it a moth-eaten appearance. You can see the dark underbelly of the hedge, as dry and sterile as bones. Some go right through, some burrow into a particularly wide section of hedge, and are lost to the darkness.
It seems a worse rip-off than the horrid little zoo, with its depressed wallabies and motionless monkeys. You can't get lost in here, you can't even cut through - unless...
A man in his 70's approaches slowly. Behind him is a little boy, walking gravely by himself. He is about four or five. I would take a photo, but the grandfather's bland, patient, reserved eyes are watching every move in the surrounding quarter mile, while giving the child the impression that he is completely inattentive. It is an impressive performance. You can sense it being absorbed into the future, in the impressions of childhood of a man, the man this boy will become, when he remembers his long-dead papy and their trips to the Jardin.
I would take a photo, and then you would see the miracle of the labyrinth.
You have to be about five for it to work; any older, and you's be too tall for this underworld, any smaller, and you'd be too scared. The holes in the hedge lead to another world, a frightening, thrilling world on independence. Inside the hedge the child sets his pace, his direction, all the time knowing that the grownups are just outside, following the spiral path to the top.
Heart beating choices in the twilight of the evergreen.
Life as a labyrinth.

1 comment: