The Ancient Modern
The Garden Tour / Joshua Alan Sturgill
As we were led through the carefully tended rows and beds of the botanical garden, I noticed that our guide kept referring to the medicinal parts of the plants, and little else.
He mentioned uses for the bark and the leaves and the roots. He spoke a little about the history of the plants and where they came from. He frequently referenced old folk remedies that modern chemistry had either debunked or verified. He talked about cultivation for practical purposes, and how this is achieved through selection and experiment.
But I was fascinated by the fruit. Every tree and several of the shrubs and vines were covered with beautiful, fragrant fruit—much of it completely unknown to me. Some of it I can describe: Fruit like purple apples, and great squashes that smelled like persimmon, and long, bean-like fruits covered in orange stripes. Some of the most interesting shapes were the less colorful. These fruits were almost the same color as the leaves of their parent plants—a kind of camouflage or even (could it be?) a kind of modesty.
Our group was jovially talkative, and kept asking the guide questions. I waited for someone to ask about the fruit. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it—and it almost seemed that the fragrance, which had been rather subconscious at first, suddenly intensified as I focused my attention on the appearance. I assumed it was just at the height of a harvest season, because everything looked perfectly ripe and ready to eat. Color and smell were obvious invitations to taste and touch.
But no one asked. No one even mentioned the fruit—or the perfume-like odor I found delicately intoxicating. All the questions had to do with how to use the plants, and the guide was really knowledgeable about this. I began to wonder if people were even taking time to look at the plants, or if they were solely focusing on the guide’s explanations.
Was it nonsense to think that no one mentioned the fruit because no one was looking? I considered this. But the fruit was so alluring. The colors and the fantastic shapes were, once I saw them, the real delight of the gardens. I couldn’t imagine that any particular “fact” about history or use (as undoubtedly practical as it might be) would be considered more important than what was obvious to me: this garden was meant to be enjoyed.
Finally, almost at the end of the tour, I mustered the courage to call out to the guide over the chatter of my fellows. I asked him, “Can you tell us anything about all the fruit everywhere? Is it edible? Is it nourishing? Does it taste good? Can we try some?”
He smiled a friendly, slightly embarrassed smile. “Well,” he said, “that’s not really what we study anymore. We’re trained more to know what the plants are for. Actually, I’m surprised you asked, since most people don’t even notice. But, I’ve heard that it is edible. I’ve never tried it.”
The tide of curious talk swelled again, and I’m not even sure that anyone paid attention to my question or our guide’s response.
But I did notice, just before the tour was over, a little girl who had fallen behind us. She was standing perfectly still, staring up at a cluster of bright orange fruits like tiny grapes—each bore a slightly different hue, and the less ripe were pinkish, so the effect was a bit like looking at the painting of a cloudy sunset.
I saw her looking up, completely transfixed. She wasn’t smiling or reaching. She seemed beyond thought, somehow. Then, she closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply through her nose. She looked just as if she would have reached up to touch the fruit, if she had been allowed. She was taking it in with her eyes and nose, because it was too far away—too far from her experience, from her grasp maybe, and certainly from what she had permission to do. I felt that she couldn’t really believe that something so beautiful was also real.
And then a woman called out, who must have been the girl’s mother. She gave the fruit one last longing look, and then ran back to join us. I heard the woman say, “stop wandering. And pay attention,” she added, pointing to the guide. Then she took the girl’s hand and pulled her back into the crowd.