Often in life, we complain about how little others do for us, how few good things happen, and how hard life is.
This is probably true. So when I experience an exception to the rule, it really stands out, and I wonder who has made this possible.
The exception worth nothing is the rose garden of the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens in Emmarentia. I consider the experience of them to be a gift, because they are arranged, tended to, and put on display for none other than the pleasure of the public, who are free to come by and claim the beautiful views that their taxes have entitled them to from sunrise to sunset, every day.
Arranged and tended to, clearly with much care. A close observation of each rose bed reveals the healthy aerated dark soils, covered with winter-warming mulch blankets, and bushes that have retained their regal dignity through regular attention to clipping, spacing, spraying, feeding, and sprinkling when dry.
Labels pinned into the ground tell the story of varieties collected from around the world, including some prize-winning stock of South African cultivars. Moreover, I am aware from the park’s website that, quite proudly, each year, they add a new variety.
Meandering through this presentation of colours, perfumes and petal folds, with the sound of splashing water in the background, is an experience that brings the senses into full alert. Once the journey starts, it seems to never end, and one is guided along walkways that curl in and around ponds, down and out of stairways, over bridges, under pagodas and across stepping stones. One could almost suspect that these gardens were created with the intention to seize the innocent individual passing through and subjugate them relentlessly to its romantic charms, until they surrender their attention, mood and will to the spirit of beauty, elegance, peace and stillness.
Indeed some couples already have. They came early to stake their claims to the best of the shady corners where they are now lying in peace and chatting idly, or perhaps the choice views over the descending landscape where they are holding picnics and reading their books. And then there are always those who occupy stretches of lawn for just themselves, their blankets and their beloveds, and where it is clear that they care for no other such pleasantries as each other. (Truly, there is no park in the world that is too public for lovers not to attempt to carve out their own private space, and where, innocent as it all may be, one feels one is intruding unless giving them a particularly wide berth.)
There is an importance to all this, which should not be lost among the apparently frivolous nature of going to the park for some innocent (presumably) frolicking about.
It is deadly serious business, but sometimes betrayed by the fact that the provision of parks is not always the top of public agendas.
And so I will make this argument: that I believe such things play a fundamental part in life, and in any society’s survival or revival; and that too strong a belief in the prioritising logic of Maslow’s hierarchy is to blame for any misunderstanding here.
Arranged in order of immediate necessity, Maslow would have you believe that once your immediate physical survival is assured, all else is an added extra, there for additional fulfilment, but hardly anywhere as critical. And for as long as humans deep down never feel such security anyway, they remain somewhat trapped on the first rung of continuously engaging in constructive pursuits.
I believe different. I think that all that we describe as art, culture or leisure is not society’s “icing on the cake”, but the very glue that holds it together, preventing it from completely pulling itself apart (not that I fancy the thought of making cakes with glue).
I would like to suggest that art and culture provide the safe space where this world of different thoughts, minds, opinions and demands can be safely aired; where its stressed individuals can breathe out; where the tensions that could otherwise boil over into a breakdown of order, can find an alternate channel for expression and potential understanding; where friends and family can forget the ever imperfect situations of all our human lives and come together to find joy nonetheless; where we can exit the burdens of modern-day life momentarily to rediscover our basic human selves; where we can feel some corner of peace away from the anxieties and stresses that eat away at our healthy functioning, and renew ourselves for the next period ahead; and where we can find joy and meaning in life, and make the burdens bearable and the road being travelled, well, at least momentarily, worthwhile.
In fact, all leisurely pursuits, to my mind, are as constructive for the individual as any working activities, and indeed, they go hand in hand. If compared to a pair of lungs, then working is the process of breathing in the air that allows the basic functioning of the body to take place and thus ourselves to live on. But breathing out – meaning whatever artful, cultural or leisurely ends we pursue – allows us to recover, to exhale, to release the by-products of stress and exhaustion, and thereby becoming ready to breathe in fully once again … and thus can we carry on living.
It is thus, in my mind, entirely appropriate that the city of Johannesburg makes beautiful public spaces available for such “breathing out” to occur. Amid the hardships that we must all inevitably endure, so must we also find the courage and robustness to carry on. The joys that surround us — many of them so much more abundantly and freely available that we realise — is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and society if we would allow ourselves to just go and experience them.