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Fine Gardening Lessons for All of Us

Gardens are far more than a backdrop. They truly are symbols of life's resilience, of hope and possibility, of well-being and connection to something larger, and infinitely more important, than our simple selves.
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One of the things that may surprise people about me is that the first place I head when I arrive home to upstate New York on the weekend is to my garden. After a long week in Washington, D.C. or the stress of long stretches of international travel, my garden is my place of quiet and reflection. It's my creation.

Recently I had the absolute joy of touring two of the United Kingdom's most extraordinary gardens -- each with its own twist on the important role gardens play on how we interact with our world.

This wasn't some retirement practice event of clicking photos of roses and watching birds do their bird stuff (not that there's anything wrong with that). Rather, it was a well-timed break in the action during an intense weekend of strategic planning with my World Green Building Council counterparts, Paul, Romilly, and Bruce -- from the UK, Australia, and South Africa GBC's respectively -- and WGBC's executive director, Jane Henley.

Paul, as our host, chose these two sites for their larger metaphorical perspective. One garden, designed and built for the lords and ladies of the nineteenth century, was a case study in the resilience of nature. It had been lost to time, but with a lot of grit and hard work, was restored to something extraordinary. The other was brand new, dug out of a moribund china clay quarry, capped with futuristic domes, and designed specifically to help children understand and value the living environment around them.

The amazing part of the story is that one man, a Dutch-born businessman by the name of Tim Smit, was the brains and brawn behind both these living, breathing places. In five minutes I had forgotten all about the ongoing drama of our broken political process ... our seemingly endless series of military conflicts ... the constantly droning soundtrack about how there's not enough euros in the world to bail out Italy, and the overall general anxiety about our own economy.

Thank you, Tim, for all of that, and for reminding us that gardens are far more than a backdrop for an afternoon outing. They truly are symbols of life's resilience, of hope and possibility, of well-being and connection to something larger, and infinitely more important, than our simple selves.

Since the earliest days of humankind, gardens have anchored us in civilized society. Random acts of hunting and gathering were supplemented then soon supplanted by (mostly) predictable cultivation and harvest.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were magnificent structures constructed by an ancient Syrian king to mimic the Persian countryside longed for by his wife, while advancing the critical skills of irrigation and soil erosion techniques at the same time. Our grandparents fed whole communities from them during the Depression, and still had room for swales of colorful flowers to help ease the heartache of that dreadful time.

Today, most of us weekend gardeners are grateful for a few un-jetlagged tomatoes or enough flowers to put on the dining room table, and in today's fractured world, those are not small things.

But if you want the full impact of garden splendor and how it can uplift your soul, seek inspiration in the restoration of the Lost Gardens of Helligan. Some 300 of the original 1,000 acres there have been lovingly restored to honor the hard work and effort of the good people of the 19th century who helped the earth give the best of itself.

Then go to Eden, the most kid and human-friendly place I've ever seen. All of the signage is at eye level for the typical third grader ... yes, adults have to stoop down to their level to read the clever signs. And not one of the messages talks down to anyone ... especially children.

Being at Eden assumes you are part of the plan for the future and you are there to learn your role. The Core, which is the interactive learning part of gardens, has kids "yelping" with excitement about nature, health and climate change. (Yes ... it's still ok to say those words in the United Kingdom) as they learned about energy, water, waste and toxins.

How do we recreate projects like this in every corner of every community in every part of the world? As much as large scale projects like Helligan and Eden can teach us, perhaps it's the community gardens that dot the American landscape from Boise to the Bronx that have the most to offer. Their lessons of community and collaboration, of scientific gain and pure faith are cornerstones familiar to those of us in the green building movement. Indeed, it's in these most fundamental examples of natural systems that we find the inspiration for so much of our work.

We worked hard in London on ideas and strategies that could help us expand and inspire others to engage in our efforts to make green buildings and communities more available and accessible everywhere. But it was in these lovely gardens where we were reminded that resilience and regeneration must also factor into our work.

With new ideas and hope for the future of green buildings, communities, schools, it's our gardens that can show us a way forward. And I'm sure glad to be getting home to mine!

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