Saturday, November 7, 2009


Last week I went to the land of cars. That was not part of the plan. It just happened, as a consequence.
With a glance at a calendar I realized the famous Botanical Gardens of Berlin would close for the season with November’s coming. That would be in two days.

Yikes. It was still early and the day was almost sunny. I grabbed my camera and my book bag and went.
To get there, I had to take the U-Bahn line 2 from P-Berg to Potsdamerplatz, rise from the earth to the street, cross to the other station, where a statue falls from the sky and flattens its head against the earth. For there I would take the S-Bahn, an entirely different system, deep into the suburb of Dahlem where the Botanical gardens extended as part of the Free University of Berlin.
The trains come quickly, every few minutes, and so I hardly had to wait. Up from the earth, cross street and a bit of platz, and broad escalators back into the depths. And, I was sitting on a comfortable seat and on my way. Before too long we climbed above ground and I saw Yorckstraße stop. The name Yorck made me wonder if German and English shared that word, but it turned out it was from an English military man who had made a contribution here and had the street named after him. His name also graces a network of movie theatres.
For a month now I have been thrown myself into the freedom the U-Bahn and S-Bahn offer. I find new stops, get off and roam to know the city better. It seemed I could get almost anywhere with only a little walking.
I could even get into the suburbs where cars reign supreme. Though I know lands of cars. I am from the land of cars. Still, I was surprised for some reason to run into it here, though I knew it had to exist.
After almost fifteen minutes of increasingly suburban stations, though graffiti--some very graceful--still decorates many walls, we arrived at the Botanical Garden stop. I walked from the station into a place different.
At first I thought it was just that I did not see older buildings like those of Prenzlauer Burg that have been restored, then I noticed there was obviously more money here because of the design of the buildings. But it was more. I walked down a treelined street from the train stop, accompanied comfortingly by small businesses, and then it happened.
A broad avenue, three lanes on each side raced before me. It was treelined and had a sidewalk, but I saw no one walking. Instead cars, lots of cars, and busses, raced down the avenue in a roar of air and motor. I looked left and saw a store with a big parking lot in front of it. I looked right and in the distance, through the arch of trees, saw high rises in the distance. I left the land of pedestrians and turned onto the narrow sidewalk for unfortunates in the land of cars.
Following instructions attached to the street sign that said “Botanical Garden” and then had an arrow, I started walking. Across the street there was a high brick wall and in the distance I could see what looked like single family mansions. At my side were comforting five or six story apartment buildings, in the Berlin style, but more modern, less ornamented.
The leaves have started falling from the trees and a light carpet covered the sidewalk. Like a boy on my way home from school I found myself shuffling my feet through the leaves as excitement rose in me. It is so cool to feel the weight of leaves against your shoes and hear their shawoosh and faint crinkle as they move before you.
I came up on two elderly women walking side by side and catching up on something or other. I paid them no attention as I swooshed by them like a fifty-four year old pre-adolescent lost in the immediacy of leaves and feet. I laughed to myself with the pleasure.
And so, I walked and shuffled half a mile or so to the gated entrance to the Botanical gardens. No one was at the ticket booth. I thought of just going in. Had I been in Latin America I probably would have but here, for some reason, my conscience stopped me. I waited to one side while a woman pushing a baby carriage came to the window and looked inside. Still no one there. She looked at me and then back at the window.
A woman with salt and pepper hair had crept up and was seated there now. The woman with the carriage paid and then I paid.
A vast parkland of paths, grass, trees and shrubs crafted to be both natural and well designed opened to the left and to the right were domed greenhouses closed to the public by a formal garden and a small shop, with a pumpkin sign. Halloween has conquered here.
A wide path unrolled itself between them and I followed it, snapping pictures as I went. I came upon a swath of cedar knees rising from the ground, something I had not seen since I was a child in Georgia. Sure enough, they were American cedars. I was walking through vegetation from the East Cast of the United States, according to signs scattered here and there, while most large plants or clumps of smaller plants had identifying stakes with their name in German and Latin. I thought the vegetation must be what had been making me so comfortable. I just felt at home.
I am not used to that feeling while in a different country from my own. Even Canada, a country that shares a long border and a deep, common heritage still feels different. When I was a boy and we would go for our Saturday outings to Juarez, on the other side of the river from El Paso. if we walked across the bridge, then I loved to stand with one foot in each country, to simultaneously feel estranged and at home.
Though El Paso and Juarez share both English and Spanish and though the population is much the same on both sides of the borders--there are just more northern Europeans on the US side, but not by much--still the cities feel different. Mexico has a different urban culture than does the United States. It has a different history and heritage and has developed it. The US side loved adobes and heightened Spanish colonial, but overall was still a place of fast food, big parking lots, and convenience stores. It had a smaller population but felt bigger because of the way it stretched and stretched since people needed more room.
But this forest garden was not the desert I am from, It had pines and cedars and dogwoods from the Georgia coast where I lived when I was a boy.
I did not reflect more on the subject because a gaggle of children turned a corner and came running at me, each child in a yellow, reflective safety jacket, followed by several women keeping watch on them, also in yellow jackets. Yellow reflecting jackets in the garden! Hum...
Maybe they walked here, but this garden is in the land of cars. The must be from a kindergarten or preschool close by, I thought. I stood and watched them race by, their legs churning. Then two men came out of the forest pushing a cart of leaves and branches.
After clearing a thick clump of woods, I came on a formal garden with twin statues on either side of the entrance. Up the hill, past a reflecting pond which in the summer I am sure blossoms with water lilies stands a brilliant, geometrically complex, set of angular greenhouse. One of them is the famous Victoria House, which I read every botanical garden must have.
This set contains the Gardens’ collection of tropical plants. The roof of one is high enough to hold trees. I enter.
This is where all the people are, knotted on the small paths, laughing by a waterfall, looking for birds among the foliage.
My glasses fog as I take this in. The hot tropical air covers them in condensation. I clean them and they fog again. My camera fogs too. It takes forever, it seems, before my lenses warm enough to stop pulling water from the air and the air to take the residue of moisture away. It is hot and damp.
I roam among the paths as we move from Africa to the New World and on to Southeast Asia, the paths of jungles, and then the subtropical zones, including cooler upland rain forests.
Outside, fall has found its glory; the trees are a riot of color, among many shades of green, yellow, and red. Winter will come soon, perhaps in a week or so. But for now it is glorious. Inside, it is a perennial summer of controlled climates where plants bloom and grow and bloom some more, while people wonder among them and sigh at magnetic magenta.
I have been in the jungle and this place is eerily clean. No insects land on my neck nor sting my feet. I hear some birds but miss the squawking of hordes of parrots flying in the sky, and the sounds of frogs crying as we pass. It is the land of Other, a fantasy that is a neat as a stereotypical German house garden. The plants are from the tropics, the temperature and humidity is like the tropics, but the smell is wrong. it is just too neat. There is no rot.
Still I roam through the labyrinth of greenhouses, until my back is sore from all the standing and slow wandering among the people on the narrow paths. I find a stone bench and sit, in the cool air of an upland garden like highland, tropical Japan.
Once refreshed, I leave the greenhouses and roam paths into different combinations of temperate plants outdoors, past a lake, and wonder what winter is like here. I wonder what it looks like with snow sliding off the greenhouse roofs and clumping on the outside bushes and trees.
There is so much more garden. It is huge with trails that circle here and there around a simulated world of plants. But my stomach groans. I am hungry and thirsty. I look into the cafe back by the greenhouses, but it only has Wurst, and expensive Wurst at that, with bottled beer or sodas. Didn’t excite me.
I decide to leave the garden to find something more enticing to eat for lunch, though it is nearing three in the afternoon. Once again I find myself shuffling down the sidewalk while cars rush by. My feet rhythmically sweep through the leaves that seem to be thicker and more abundant than when I came in.
Once again, as the cars whoosh heedless of my swooshing slowly, I am hit with how at home I feel. Is it the land of cars, I wonder that makes me feel at home or is it more?
Of course I should know to be wary of such feelings, despite their pleasure and comfort. Feelings are heavily structured by history, economy, and politics, even though none of those enter our minds in awareness. Raymond Williams taught us that.
But I did not think critically about it. I basked in the fallen leaves and the land of cars as I walked and looked for food. Had I a car, I would have found food quickly. But I saw nothing, until across from the train station’s entrance I saw an Austrian Bar that had food. It offered Spätzele with chicken and a cream sauce.
So I went in and was one of three customers in that bar where the others were regulars. Each had their own place and chatted comfortably with the barmaid and chef.
My food was great. But the issue of comfort kept bugging me. It sank inside and worried me.
At home I thought to look up the history of Dahlem, the suburb where the Free University of Berlin and its Biological Gardens are located. The Free University’s administration building is called the Ford building and, as it turns out, Dahlem was in the American zone following the war. It was occupied and built up by Americans. It almost scares me to know how that fact crept up inside in the simple feeling of comfort.


  1. I am glad that you were able to visit the garden before it closed for the season. And to think that a little bit of Statesboro waited for you there!

  2. Hey Mike. At least you would know what ceder knees and slash pines are.

    Thanks for reading.