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Planetary Garden as Fantasy Island
– an Arboretum of the Anthropocene –
Click the image above to see a sample of research initiatives at the LA Arboretum over the years. The transformation of landscapes and creatures to suit and beautify a human-altered world vis-à-vis smog, fire, electrification, waste management, and engineered cultivation of plants in laboratory conditions.
Every week I looked forward to hearing that deep voice proclaim: “Welcome to Fantasy Island!” This is how Mr. Roarke, an impeccable host to fantasy fulfillment seekers greeted every new crop of hopefuls. They always arrived by seaplane, one that Tattoo (Roarke’s trusty assistant), spotted in the sky. He would yell, “De plane! De plane!" while ringing a bell in a crow's nest perched aloft an ornately red-trimmed house. The seaplane would taxi over and the guests come ashore. Women in grass skirts put lei garlands of bright flowers around their necks. The botanically-minded viewer can't help but ask themselves: are those of Arabian Jasmine, or perhaps Plumeria? Maybe I see some orchid mixed in?
This was the opening scene of the hit television show Fantasy Island (1977–1984), but this was also unmistakably the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. The seaplane landed on Baldwin Lake, and the house with the bell top is no other than the historic Queen Anne Cottage, both found in the LA Arboretum’s “Prehistoric and Jungle Garden” – itself a fiction of time and place nestled within the urban chaparral of Arcadia, California.^
Screenshots from episode 10, season 1 of Fantasy Island – Top Right: Tattoo ringing the bell atop Queen Anne's Cottage. Bottom Right: Visitors taking in the Hawaiian paradise that is in fact suburban California – the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, formerly known as LASCA, an acronym for the "Los Angeles State and County Arboretum," the Arboretum's original name.
At six years-old and growing up in New England, I had never been anywhere so seemingly tropical, exotic, warm, and lush; I welcomed the telepresence of this imaginary world while the snow fell outside. As the leis and the vistas of the opening credits suggested, this Fantasy Island was meant to some kind of Hawaiian or Pacific island, craftily conjured within suburban LA. While this particular Cali-waiian fiction made sense within the logic of Hollywood's silver screen (which made extensive use the Arboretum as a shooting location), it also relates directly to the origins of the Arboretum itself.
It was Samuel Ayres Jr., a professional dermatologist and amateur horticulturalist, that first had the vision of an arboretum in Los Angeles, and it came right after his own fateful vacation to Hawai'i. As Ayers described it,
“When we got back from Hawaii I looked around and said, ‘My
God, something ought to be done about this.’ Our return to California
only emphasized the monotony and lack of color in our own
landscape.... I didn’t know how to correct it, but every time I thought
of Hawaii and all that natural color, I felt it had to be corrected... The
most likely way to bring about such a transformation in our
landscape would be to establish an arboretum where new plants
could be introduced, studied, and planted...” ^
To Ayres, the Southern Californian landscape was something in need of improvement, in fact a kind of color correction. In its naturalness and placedness, he felt that the chaparral was inherently lacking, but also ripe for imaginative domestication. An early supporter of the Arboretum, John Ford recalled how Ayres' "own charming estate... and his beautiful collection of colored slides started my mind searching for some practical implementation of this idea." In this way, the Arboretum's role as a backdrop for cinematic fantasy is completely in keeping with its founding institutional mission: To dream and then transform what is into what one might want it to be, making this place some other place altogether.
This is why the Arboretum grounds feature areas like the "Australia Discovery Area" and the "Spiny Madagascar Forest" as well as a wide range of Mediterranean plants. The Arboretum was premised on the globalization of life and landscape.^ The settler colonial mentality that turned The Americas European also sought to turn it African and Australian. As Arboretum horticulturist, George H. Spalding, commented in the Arboretum's journal Lasca Leaves, “Many West Australian native plants thrive under much of the same condition as our California natives. What could be more logical then, that we grow and test more of these plants?"^
The Arboretum pictured in the 25th anniversary edition of Lasca Leaves. I colorized this image to reflect on the founders' aspirations. For a project borne from a desire for more color, it's notable how, for the first thirteen years of its publication, it featured solely black and white images. March 1973, vol. 23, no.1.Roll over: A bird's eye view of its grounds, a garden island within a suburban sea.
Anthroposcene in Bloom
Lasca Leaves (referred to onward as "Leaves") turns out to be a remarkable record of the Arboretum's origins and ambitions through changing times.^ Found among its leaves is not only a treasure trove of botanical knowledge and Southern Californian history, but also documentation of a period of time now known by and Earth Systems scientists as The Great Acceleration. In fact, Leaves' first year of publication,1950, coincides with what scientists take as the first year of the Acceleration and the unprecedented intensification across a whole range of parameters on a planetary scale: population size, water usage, food production, transportation, technological development, greenhouse gas emissions, surface temperature, and natural resource extraction, to name a few. Over this period of time, the Earth is transformed such that humans become the primary biogeochemical force on the planet, in a geological epoch many suggest should be called the "Anthropocene."
1950 is when modernism hit its full stride, with all of its positivistic notions of human control and economic growth in full bloom. Take as an example the sentiments of John Ford, the LA County Supervisor, in his essay "To Make our Land more Beautiful”published in the third issue of Leaves, in which he described the remarkable alterations to Earth processes involved in making a place like the Arboretum possible:
“The bringing of water to this region by giant aqueducts called for engineering feats of unmatched skill. It made our
desert and semi-desert areas blossom as a rose. Our agriculture, following standard patterns of irrigation, began to
expand a hundred-fold because of the courage and foresight of Mulholland and his “dreamers” who with him bought
us those artificial rivers of water. Industry has followed in the wake of agriculture. All about us has risen evidence of a
vast man-made empire.” ^
A vast made-made empire, aka the Anthropocene. "Yes, life will become more beautiful, and more profitable, in Southern California because of the arboretum’s program," continues Ford. The colonial ambition to both improve upon, and profit from, nature couldn't be more clearly stated. He concludes that, “The Arboretum is helping Southern California come into its own.” How? Precisely by making it less endemically Californian, by introducing 'exotics' of every possible sort to become naturalized to the semi-desert of LA.
Of course, by1950 the world was already much smaller than it had been just 10 years earlier, as the first director of the Arboretum, R.J. Seibert, noted in his essay in the inaugural issues of Leaves:
“Daily we are confronted with the realization that distance is no longer
significance. We, as Americans, are far from being isolated and entirely
self-sufficient population. We find ourselves munching on a nut from
Brazil from a can containing Bolivian tin. Our coffee comes from Costa
Rica. Our car tires contain a proportion of natural rubber from Sumatra
– yes, and a dominant tree tin the Southern California landscape is
Eucalyptus from Australia – despite the GI who expostulated when he
arrived in Australia: 'Oh, I see you grow ‘our’ Eucalyptus here too!'" ^
Arguably, then, the Arboretum wasn't doing anything that hadn't already been done – it was just another (especially beautiful and fragrant) means by which a trans-global mycelium was being cultivated, albeit at a faster and faster pace. In the context of this global meshwork, however, Seibert saw the educational value of the Arboretum and its aesthetic potential (in the original sense of the word) to nurture a deeper awareness of ecology among the public.^ “We are surrounded with countless necessary articles of everyday life which came to us from distant lands," he observed," and about which we know absolutely nothing.”
Experimental Gardening = Futurity x Practicality
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the Arboretum throughout its first 30 years was its commitment to experiments that directly addressed the practical environmental challenges facing Los Angeles. Since its beginning, the Arboretum undertook studies on the cultivation of drought-resistant as well as fire-resistant trees & shrubs, plants suitable for roadways or parking lots – and perhaps most impressively – on the effect of city's endemic smog on plant growth, going so far as to breed their own smog resistant petunia, the "LASCA Pink."
While in 1951 a "man-made empire" of the kind John Ford described felt like something to brag about, by the late 1960's so much had changed in terms of the planet's physical conditions, and awareness of them. In an essay called “Poor Plants – Poor People” in a 1969 issue of Leaves, Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit opened with the observation that:
“With smog alerts, eye irritation and oil slicks, it is quite timely and fashionable to talk about problems which have to do
with the medium we live in... It is disappointing , but nevertheless true, that we are not the rulers of the world, that we
are not free to do anything we want. The laws of nature govern us as well as the smallest piece of living and dead
Twenty years into the Great Acceleration, the strain upon the larger system was impossible to ignore. The research at the Arboretum reflected this, engaging in a fascinating mix of in pragmatism and science fiction. One need only consider the articles featured in the December 1974 issue Leaves to get a sense of this:
"Smog-Tolerant Petunias Developed at the LA State & County Arboretum"
– The breeding of a hybrid that could tolerate LA smog: the "LASCA Pink"
"Hydroponics, Principles and Guidelines"
– The basics of growing plants without soil
"Tall Trees and Test Tubes"
– Using advances in tissue culture to propagate trees
"A Landfill Botanic Garden"
– The first of a three-part series on tone of the arboretum’s affiliate sites, the South Coast Botanic Garden, built
on top of one of the city's primary garbage dumps
In this light, a number of the horticulturists of the Arboretum appear to have been cleared-eyed tinkerers of a new botanical world on hybrid planet. There is no overly romantic notion of Nature haunting their work, the troubling realities of the human transformation of landscape are confronted head-on, and with the can-do sensibility of late modern America.
PEOPLE - A home to plants from the world over, a movie set, an occupied tribal land, a public site for education and recreation... "An Arboretum is for People" as the LA Arboretum's slogan goes; this selection of images from Lasca Leaves gives some small idea of the diversity of people this garden site has involved and engaged over its history.
Does such practicality contradict the narrative of arboretum-as-fantasy-island? Only if one forgets that the Fantasy Island of Tattoo and Mr.Roarke was also a place of seasoned skepticism, for a major narrative element of the television show was exploring what happens when fantasy meets reality. As guests came to the imaginary Hawaii-fornian island to have their dreams fulfilled (to find true love, or become a famous scholar, or multi-millionaire) they were inevitably faced with the facts and hazards lurking behind their hopes. If the grass is always greener on the other side, Fantasy Island pointed out that it is also full of chiggers. The futuring and technologically positivist spirit of the Arboretum's experimentation embraced the paradoxical partnership of reality + possibility with floral flair – living in the present by planning for the future, creating their own post-Romantic poetics of nature by endeavoring to improve upon it.
Daylilies (Hemerocallis) serve as an excellent example of this sensibility. The Arboretum's first test garden, inaugurated in 1951, was for both new and known varieties of this popular flower. It included cultivars created through cross-breeding, as well as those brought about through the power of chemical mutagens, like colchicine. The many types of Hemerocallis gave living, botanical form to the fantasies of variety in color, shape, and overall possibility that gardeners seek. The names that Daylily varieties are given by their creators a tell and a testament to desires of a second-nature. During my visit to the Arboretum in July 2018, for example,I spotted the following cultivars (inset box):
Magic Carpet Ride (Kirchhoff 1992)
Mask of Time (Salter 1993)
Beyond Riches (Carr 1999)
Volcano Queen (Trimmer 2003)
On Looks Alone (Carr 2000)
Toss of the Dice (Salter 2001)
Only Believe (Grace-L. 1998)
Macho Macho Man (Salter 1998)
Light of the World (Emmerich 2002)
Inner Destiny (Stamile 2001)
Jamaican Music (Trimmer 2001)
Spacecoast Gold Bonanza (Kinnerbrew 2002)
Inner Secret (Morss 2002)
Exotic Candy (Stamile 1995)
The names of the varieties are evocative of the titles of the many movies filmed on the Arboretum grounds, listed earlier, indeed it would be easy to interchange them. The garden is a space of imaginary worlds, of Volcano Queens and Magic Carpet Rides just as much as Jungle Manhunts and Lost Volcanos, of making fantasy a floridly floral reality to dwell within.
In the same issues of Leaves describing the first Daylily test garden another author, Hugh Evans,describes experimental horticulture as not only hopeful, but also heroic. He writes that, “no one has any business experimenting with new plants unless together with the joys of realizations, he is also steeled to endure the pain of disillusionment. He will only too often stand over some distressful subjects and in imagination hear them cry like the gladiators of old in the Roman arena — 'We who are about to die salute thee.'”^
If there are any heroes or heroines of visionary phytology, Dr. Frits Went might deserve the title. First President of the California Arboretum Foundation, more importantly he was a renowned researcher at Caltech who revolutionized the study of plant growth and physiology through his technologically advanced, sci-fi sounding innovation, the "Phytotron."^ An exactingly controlled research greenhouse, the phytotron endeavored to dissect the role of every environmental factor played of plants, in opposition to the predominant ideology of genetic determination.
In the picture to the left – taken from the popular book that he edited, Time-Life's The Plants – Dr. Went is sealing groups of seeds as time capsules to be sprouted at designated years in the future. This experiment commenced in 1947 at Caltech, the year the Arboretum was founded. The container in the lower right is to be opened in 2287 AD, some 266 years from now.
Proposition13 to Proposition Symbiocene
Among all of these experiments, the greatest experiment of all is certainly the ongoing human one with the planet, the Earth as a test garden of enormous proportions, of which the LA Arboretum was an integral part and exemplar. Its own research, however, came to an abrupt end in the late 1970's at the same time that Lasca Leaves became relegated as an insert within a larger magazine.
What happened? Simply put, California Proposition 13. This 1978 ballot initiative, voted for by 65% of the population, put a permanent limit on property taxes, crippling the public funding of institutions throughout the state, including the Arboretum. The modest flow of money that kept research alive dried up. Howard Jarvis, one of the proposition's main organizers claimed that, “the most important thing in this country is not the school system, nor the police department nor the fire department,” but instead, “the right to have property in this country, the right to have a home in this country, that’s important.”^ Ironically, the deeply experimental spirit of the "Arboretum for the People" –
as it was often described through the 1970's – was undone by People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation (the official name of Proposition 13).
The Anthropocene is, among other things, a condition borne of giving humans priority over all other species to the point of their large-scale extinction. Of course, not all humans are equally given priority either – owner and laborer, have and have-nots; inequality is an engine of the Anthropocene's most damaging impacts, unregulated growth a structural premise of the epoch. In this way, perhaps Prop 13's priority on individual property over all else – such as education, safety, and research for the public good – serves as a metaphor for an Anthropocene in which such a single-minded focus on anthropos and a neoliberal demos undermines the plurality and resilience of the larger ecosystem.
Rather than accepting, adapting to (and thus perpetuating) the Anthropocene, what if a diverse and heterogenous "we" was to prioritize mutuality and reciprocity over atomistic "rights"? It is here that Glenn Albrecht's notion of a Symbiocene and a that sumbiocracy are worth considering. Albrecht argues that
From the Arboretum's Official Timeline...
1977 LASCA Leaves is incorporated as an 8-page insert into a new, bimonthly national magazine, Garden.
1978 California State Proposition 13 is approved by the voters in June. Staff positions are lost immediately, and in August The Arboretum inaugurates entrance and tram fees to offset budget cuts. Fees are $1.00 for adults, 50 cents for children and seniors and $1.00 per person for tram seats.
1979 Four ongoing research programs are terminated due to personnel cutbacks. The entire research division would be shut down in 1981.
...here for the full timeline
the way out of the Anthropocene conundrum isn't to, "further democratize a failing, biased democracy," but instead to radically reimagine the approach to nature, culture, politics. Fundamentally, the "People's Initiative" (Prop 13) and "People's Arboretum" (late modern LASCA) can be seen as two sides of the same anthropocentrism. To Albrecht,
"In contrast to democracy, which is by definition anthropocentric and capable only of partial answers to human-biased
questions, sumbiocracy requires those who govern (Sumbiocrats) to have an in-depth understanding of total ecosystems and
the symbiotic interrelationships that enable them to function. In order to live together, humans must exercise their intelligence
and ingenuity to achieve overall harmony in a community of interests." ^
Planetary gardening and fantasy thinking need to be completely rethought, not simply rejiggered or re-engineered. Albrecht's plea echoes that in Dr. Haagen-Smit's essay "Poor Plants – Poor People" 47 years earlier in which governance and politics was front and center:
"We still have a choice, but there are many easy ways out, ways to duck our responsibility: You can go away, as the
soil creatures did, you can mutate as the white moth did, or you can buy a smog suit and a gas mask. Or – and I think this
is the right way – you can fight for clean air and join the battle for intelligent land and water use. Support those
in government who are willing to pass legislation necessary to protect our natural resources. Support the officials who try
to enforce the rules and regulations."
And yet we also know this simply might not be enough. Perhaps it still operates with the underlying assumption that "man is the master"? I am convinced that the Symbiocene is the better term for both describing and imaging the planet as a dynamic and self-sustaining whole.
A spread from Time-Life's The Plants. A chapter titled "Man the Master" is as anthropocentric as it gets. The image caption reads: "...one of the relics at Angkor. It testifies to the ancient glory of the Khmers, who waxed rich raising a plant staple – rice." Ironically, ecological mismanagement of rice cultivation may have been a key factor in the kingdom's collapse. The image actually communicates one crucial fact: plants are the ones that persist well after any human civilization. While the agricultural revolution could be considered the beginning of the Anthropocene and our species' domination, from a non-anthropocentric perspective it could be just as easily be argued that certain grasses (rice, corn, wheat) have in fact domesticated us for their global benefit.