Stepping into it, I was immediately impressed by the size of the space, with plants towering as high as ten or twenty metres overhead – perhaps more – their fronds spreading out against the lattice of the frame, as well as the high temperature – perhaps 30 degrees Celsius – and humidity. I moved fairly slowly along the paths, and found myself alone in a corner, or at an installation, on several occasions. On one such, I had just left a Malaysian house and home garden – a small wooden A-frame structure with corrugated iron roof and wall panels – where the path started to climb a little and turned to the right. Through the undergrowth came the recorded sounds of a variety of amphibians, birds, and peoples – including, after a time, the hunting calls of the Baka peoples of central Africa. I noticed my tee-shirt had started to cling to my back, where I was sweating. The combination succeeds in conveying, I imagine, at least a sense of the interior of a tropical rainforest, within obvious limitations. The majesty of some of the specimens was certainly arresting. We may be accustomed to the textures of tropical stems and leaves – many of our house plants are, of course, tropical species – or familiar with tropical foodstuffs or raw materials, but not to the size of those in evidence here or with the guise of the plants from which we derive our bananas, coffee, or the rubber, we use, for example. Musa, or banana plants, seemed to me exuberant and other-worldly, with large, paddle shaped fronds, and bunches of familiar fruits hanging above a large purple flower spike, yet to open. They would : I grew up in beech forests. I could barely begin to close my hand around the stem of a large bamboo plant. The best part of two hours must have passed before I left through the doors to the Link building. I spent about another hour in the Mediterranean Biome, and another cafeteria for lunch, before making my way back up the side of the pit, through the Visitor Centre, and out to the lockers and the motorcycle bays.
I left the Project enthusiastic about my experience but not without a few misgivings. The mission, in itself, is obviously laudable – and seems close to my own. There is no more important question than the nature of the Earth System, and the Human System, and their relation; and education of the public in these matters is essential. There is much to like here. For one thing, gardens – and gardeners – are extremely important. By 2043, gardens, rather than field systems, will characterise our rural areas : organic market and home gardens, and teaching gardens, of just a few hectares. Gardens on this scale, like Eden, or the Lost Gardens of Heligan, in Pentewan, not far away, will remain the exception. It was thrilling to see the tropical plants, and the architecture in its own right; the buildings exploit a number of technologies that we need to introduce across our built environment, like wind power, and rainwater harvesting. I found the transformation from what could as late as 1999 have passed for a lunar landscape, or did apparently pass for the planet of Magreathea in the 1981 BBC production of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, into a garden, most satisfying.
My unease began with my being startled at the price of admission – I think it was £27.50 on the day – though as would happen again at the Centre for Alternative Technology, in mid-Wales, I found my purchase also covered an Annual Pass. As I left, I had a brief conversation with another visitor who said her son had also visited seemingly a number of biomes in Singapore, and been very impressed. A member of staff at the lockers then added that I had visited at a quiet time, as attested to by the empty spaces in the extensive car and coach parks, whereas most parts of the Project, except the Rainforest Biome, first thing, had seemed fairly busy to me. I cannot give a fair account of whether the Trust, with the Project, achieves its mission, or even the variety of its activities – and it is not my purpose here. I think I felt – and feel – overall though, that it has not got the balance right between education and visitor attraction. As I shall explain, plants are a major part of the biosphere and the Earth System. The fate of humanity will likely turn – very soon – on the relation between the Human System, and the living planet, particularly plant life – that present in the oceans and seas and on the land, where we are causing a sixth mass extinction, and deep in the lithosphere – the Earth’s crust – where the remains of ancient plant life have fossilized over hundreds of millions of years. It is not that the Project neglects these matters. One installation I encountered in the Rainforest Biome – a number of banners, at the side of the path – carried the words, including warnings, of, I think, leaders of communities living in the Tropics. Another, Palms, a sculpture in wood, stood before a bed of plants in which a single banner explained the origins and peril of fossil fuels. Yet I had not learned in the course of my visit that an area of tropical rainforest three times the size of South West England has been lost, each year that the Eden Project has been open; nor had I been made aware of the missing rainforest in this corner of Britain – the temperate rainforest that could be restored north and east of Bodmin, as far as the Celtic Sea and the Bristol Channel; nor what the likes of people able to afford to visit such visitor attractions – often via high carbon infrastructure – must do now to avoid disaster. There is a contradiction, I think, between its mission, and evangelism, and its method. As an institution, it is quite ordinary in some respects, being hierarchical, and,’compet[ing] to deliver goods and services’, in its own words, ‘[j]ust like conventional companies’. It is no surprise then to read that Eden Project International Limited has now been established to ‘drive the establishments [sic] of Edens around the world’.