It was a warm dark evening in early August. We stood in a slow-moving line outside Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, its weird glass hexagons illuminated with blue-white light. A buttercream moon hung low in the sky. Its cast weird shadows on the pavement. I think they were the outlines of a star magnolia’s knotty branches. I stood in line with my grandfather, waiting to go into the dome and see the exhibit. Behind us, my friend Roxanne was making out with her new boyfriend Dave. The heavy sweet scent of lilies and potted butterfly gingers (Hedychium gardnerianum) mingled with assorted body odors of the crowd.
When we finally got into the Climatron, came around the corner of the artificial cliff, and saw the illuminated confection of pink glass that floated above the waterlilies, I knew that I’d hold this night in my heart for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t that glamorous of an experience. It certainly wasn’t exclusive. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of people there that night. We didn’t have money for the tiny rounds of toast and caviar that were being passed out in the black tie area. I wasn’t old enough for champagne. My grandfather’s only experience of buying alcohol was the Manischewitz he bought to administer to ailing parishioners. But that night, I experienced a true spectacle. I saw saw how it could delight and entertain people who - on most days - couldn’t give a fuck about gardens or the environment.
It’s easy to laugh. Today, Chihuly has exhibited everywhere but your uncle’s garage. But that was 2006. At that point, Chihuly had four major exhibits: Venice, Jerusalem, Kew in London and Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. That was it. Seeing the glass sculptures, lit at night, integrated into incredibly curated plantings, made me realize that - at their best - gardens could set up conditions for transformative and memorable experiences. They made me want to be involved with creating such incredible spectacles myself.
There’s a tradition of humans enjoying specific elements of landscape and celebrating them as spectacles. Think about the cherry blossom festivals, or Hanami (花見, "flower viewing") held in the spring in Japan. A single cherry tree itself is a magical thing. Thousands of them in bloom are a cause for worship and celebration. Washington DC has usurped the notion of hanami and now has thousands of tourists who visit each spring just to enjoy all the pink.
Holland has its own spring spectacle - in the Bollenstreek (“bulb fields”), tourists swarm the bulb fields on foot and in helicopters when the tulips bloom, the fields transformed into giant colorblocked mats.
Even uncultivated nature gets framed as spectacle. We’ve all seen the news reports on Death Valley: “California’s Superbloom is so massive you can see it from space”. Marvel would kill for that headline.
Spectacles aren’t confined to floral events. Think fall foliage. In New England, they call the tourists who come to gawk at fall foliage “leaf peepers”. Business Insider claims that tourists spend over $3billion annually in admiring the region’s forests’ colorful senescence. While New England is the most dramatic example in the US, you’ll even find tourists crowding the broken asphalt shoulders of the 54-mile Talimena Scenic Drive in Oklahoma on those few early November weekends when the hills go orange and burgundy. Plus the overly dramatic skies.
If humans are willing to devote such staggering quantities of time, money, and attention to natural spectacles, it seems worthwhile for those of us who work in the green industry to pay attention: what makes for a successful spectacle?
Two qualities immediately emerge. For a phenomenon to be worthy of the term “spectacle”, it must be transient and significantly physically different to the status quo. California redwoods and Kansas prairie grass swathes are impressive in scale, but they’re the status quo for at least part of the year. Southern Louisiana cypress swamps go golden for a few weeks in winter, Missouri forest floors ripple with blue Phlox and pink Claytonia. Neither of those changes is dramatic enough in scale to draw the attention of crowds. A spectacle must be both temporary and physically impressive to draw significant admiration from us fickle and easily-distracted humans.
Many public gardens have been attempting to put on spectacles in recent years. The Chihuly phenomenon sparked a rash of installations at different institutions, ranging from the transcendent to the truly banal. For those of us who work in the green industry, certain exhibits and trends seem pretty much omnipresent. I’m at the point where I’ll scream if I see another photo of Amorphophallus titanum. But that’s just me. I’m sure it’s quite exciting if you’re a punter who spends most of their time watching ESPN or Real Housewives.
As someone who was raised in a family where the primary values are restraint and humility, the idea of creating spectacles seems a bit grandiose. It’s easy to point out ways that a spectacle could fail. It’s easy to point out that the money and effort invested in a spectacle could be used for something else. The words “wasteful” and “extravagant” are doing vulture circles in my head.
But our world desperately needs spectacles. There’s an oil slick of horror over many of our daily experiences of the world, hiding the wonder and beauty that’s out there. As people who love the earth, who work to understand our fertile planet, it’s up to us to frame up new spectacles. We have contact with the incredible plants and natural systems which share our earth. How can we fail to honor them by framing their glory as spectacles? It’s time to wow the world with things that are wonderful, delightful and extraordinary. No room for small dreams here.
Beyond the three central photos, which are of the Talimena scenic drive in Oklahoma during November 2017, these images were taken in June 2017 at the Olympic Park in London. These plantings were designed as a true spectacle to showcase the breadth of global horticulture during the 2012 London Olympics. Given their scale and influence, they’re a great example of a spectacle - even five years later. Planting consultants included Sarah Price, Nigel Dunnett, and James Hitchmough.