Waking up in my London hotel room last week, getting ready to make my presentation at a conference later that morning, the BBC repeatedly reminded me from the telly that “today was the first day of the Royal Chelsea Flower Show”. I found this exciting news. I mean, here I was England, and what is more English than the British love for their gardens. And as I mulled this over, getting ready to leave the hotel for the day, I realized that I would have about three hours at the end of the day free. Wouldn’t it be lovely, I thought, to take some free time and head for a few hours to the Royals Chelsea Flower Show, and experience an authentic cultural archetype: London, Chelsea, flowers, and Britons. Indeed, the three free hours at the end of my day were, in fact, a karmic opportunity for this interculturalist, for yet another opportunity to experience culture’s powerful influence on how and what we believe, think and feel.
The show was an overwhelming combination of everything British, from punk to class to Victoriana to crowds of global citizens to Pimms Cups, military bands, and gorgeous, bountiful flowers, in short, people and nature, in all forms, in a perfectly British setting. I found a peaceful bench and plunked myself down to enjoy the sights and sounds, and found myself, under the influence of all things botanical, thinking about the garden as a representation of the way we think, and culture’s influence on that. Someone once observed that the English garden is designed to allow nature to bloom into what it is meant to be, with the role of the human being that of a caretaker, allowing nature to do what it does best. The result is beauty based on naturalism. Compare that to the French garden, and I thought about the various times I’ve strolled through the perfectly manicured, almost cossetted, formal French gardens of the Tuilleries, with nary a wild growing plant, or even a misplaced tree in sight. No grass, just gravel, defining boundaries and markers where this can grow, but this cannot. The French garden achieves its beauty based a vision of perfection, and man’s role here is to apply rational control over nature, in order to achieve this mathematical representation of precision. Beauty in both gardens, but defined in different ways, and achieved through very different human behaviors. The resulting values of both French and English societies, the way we educate our children, our expectations regarding the role of children and adults, students and teachers, managers and staff, and yes, even the way we grow our gardens, are all powerfully determined by our culture, indeed. Thanks for the learning, Royal Chelsea Flower Show…and for some beautiful flowers!