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The Eden Project

Great Britain went into this year with a spate of tourist projects for the Millennium which, to put it kindly, didn't come off very well. The violently swaying foot bridge across the Thames which is now closed, the huge Ferris wheel which didn't start on time, and the Dome which, after a disastrous launch, is, well, still a dud. But there is one Millennium development few have heard about yet, even in Britain. It's out in Cornwall and Robert Lyle says this one promises to be different... very different.

The Eden Project
by Robert Lyle

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The Eden project defies description. Let's start by noting that it is a 220-foot deep, open pit left from years of china clay mining. Inside, two enormous geodesic domes, called biomes, are being built, hugging the cliff walls and enclosing huge areas of ground. The largest biome is big enough to hold the entire U.S. Capital Building with the statue of Freedom atop it's dome, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House all together. And there'd be enough room left over for four football fields around the edges.

Even then, the two biomes connected by Temptations, a 500-seat exotic market restaurant, are the smaller part of the whole. They're nestled at the edge of a 30-acre global garden that will fill the rest of the clay pit. Yes. It's all a garden.

Smit: "Kids find gardening very, very boring. I mean, they find even watching paint dry more exciting than that."

Tim Smit is the inspiring genius behind Eden. He says adults are bored by gardens too. He got bored being an archeologist, so became a successful music producer. And then he got interested in human kind's dependence on plants.

Smit: "When I give public talks, I often get a razor blade out of my top pocket and I say 'Do you know what would happen if I cut across your scalp and slowly started to peel the skin off your body?' "

Smit doesn't want anyone to nod off.

Smit: "And they're going, 'Oh.' 'What would you die of?' I say, 'other than the shock,' you know. And no one knows. And I say, 'You'd die of oxygen poisoning! Your skin is what protects you from oxygen poisoning.' I say, 'Think of the green bits on your planet a bit like that. They're the opposite. They are what actually creates the oxygen you need to breath and if you peel it off, too much of it, everything goes to ruin."

Choosing the right words about the Eden Project is tough because there is nothing like it. Here's what you see as you wander through.

That largest biome looks and feels like the humid tropics with an Amazon rain forest growing to full height, Asian and African tropical settings, and crops like rubber, chewing gum, vanilla, and cocoa growing all around. Inside the smaller dome, it's still gigantic, you're in the warm temperate zones of the Mediterranean, California or South Africa, with citrus and olives and cotton.

And outside the domes, filling the rest of the pit, is the largest garden. Eden, people call it. Picasso meets the Aztecs. It's a series of interlocking, crescent-shaped terraces telling the stories of plants that started wars, halted epidemics, inspired artists and continue to feed, cloth and shelter us. It has names like Flowerless Garden, Plants in Construction, What's Brewing, and Living With Stress.

Eden is called a "living theater of plants and people" because Tim Smit and his friends believe long-winded botanical diatribes filled with Latin names put people to sleep. They want us to understand first that humans are utterly and completely dependent on the plants of this planet. So, before going down into the biomes, you walk into the Visitor's Center. There, among things you see is a stage filled with a family of life-size wooden puppets, Mom, Dad, kids and pets, in a normal looking home. But this little show is anything but typical. Smit calls it "Dead Cat."

Smit: "It's a breakfast scene of a family, all automatons, having breakfast. And suddenly, the orange juice disappears out of the mugs, you know, and the corn flakes disappear and the fruit disappears and everything disappears until eventually you're left with the cat by the fireside, who's making strangling sounds and it dies."

As the cat suffocates from lack of plant-produced oxygen, the clothes are whisked off the life-size automatons with wires. All the wood furniture is propelled into hiding and the characters slump dead. There are no computer effects, just simple, clunky marionettes. But everyone loves it. And gets the message. That's exactly what Smit wants, to create an experience that cannot be forgotten.

Like an exhibit about grapes. Seems innocent enough. But not the way Smit first presented a model of the exhibit to the project's top scientist. It was an orgy.

Smit: "It was a Bacchanalia, you know, with a giant bull in the middle dancing and all of those elves and things, but with strange things like, have you ever seen Heronimous Bosche paintings? They're all like these characters. There's a couple mating in a boat. There was blood. It was highly charged and neurotic. And the Director of Science walked in and he saw this, and he went, 'What's this?' I said it's the grape exhibit and he swallowed. He looked at it. Then he got down on one knee and he looked at it and he said, 'Whoa' and chuckled. And I said, 'That's taken you a few minutes to enjoy that, hasn't it?'. And he said, 'I get your point!'"

You can see the orgy scene exhibit amongst the vineyards in the smaller biome. It will be life-size sculptures with real actors occasionally inserted to keep it interesting. These exhibits are just the decoration on the cake of Eden, designed to bring you up short and make you think as you absorb the immensity of this place.

The Eden project won't fully open until next spring but you can get a sneak preview through Thanksgiving. From the raters-edge Visitor Center, don a construction helmet to ride a land-train down into the pit for a close-up look at the spidery biomes, covered with plastic-wrap-like air-pillows, the largest greenhouses ever. You'll never look at a garden in the same way again. From near St. Austell, Cornwall, I'm Robert Lyle for The Savvy Traveler.


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