ABOUT US   
   

STEFAN REISNER

The founder of the BOTANIC GARDEN in Ubud was inspired by the works of Peter Joseph Lenné and Duke Pückler who created the Royal Gardens in Potsdam and Berlin, Stefan’s native town in Germany. Pückler bankrupted himself twice with his passion for creating parks.

As a youth Stefan published two novels, some poetry and plays for children’s theatre which are still performed throughout the world, this year in Japan and Brazil.  After a career as a journalist with GEO and stern magazine with which he had a stint as Correspondent in Hong Kong for 12 years,  he moved to Bali. , Here he ran the little PURI ASRI HOTEL which became a rallying place and famous watering hole for hacks and artists.

After the sale of the hotel, Stefan wished to create something for the benefit of Bali to safeguard its unique culture and environment. The idea of a Botanic Garden emerged when Faizah, his companion, found a large piece of unused land just outside of  Ubud.

Since February 2005 mountains have been moved, rivers excavated and thousands of plants brought in from around Asia as Stefan’s dream slowly became a reality.


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The Ubud Botanic Garden

Some remarks on our Philosophy of Gardening

When I told an European friend about my plans to create a Botanic Garden on the Island of Bali, I was immediately labeled as an eccentric. The whole of Bali is a botanical garden, I was told, so why undertake such a costly project ? Wouldn’t it be like bringing owls to Athens?

Well, I answered innocently, I guess there are not so many owls these days on the Acropolis. Of course trees and flowers, grasses and palms grow in abundance on Bali – but who gets to see them? There are actually very few places to walk in nature.

Not to forget the vast and carefully managed Eka Botanic Garden in Bedugul with its beautiful trees and meadows. How lovely it is to see the families gather here for their Sunday picnics! But this garden is at a high altitude, situated in a volcanic crater and has therefore a very specific flora which grows only in this environment. The tropical vegetation of the lower southern lands wouldn’t survive there.

When I was a hotelier in Paradise (that’s how the people of Bali describe their island) I was questioned many times by curious guests as to where (for heaven’s sake!) they could find a lush tropical environment to walk in. One can indeed go by car from the airport up to Ubud without seeing anything other than antique shops, galleries, petrol stations and the occasional rice field. The beauty of the Island had been thoroughly concealed by developers, the tourism industry and small entrepreneurs behind strings of dwellings of all sorts. The radiant green still exists behind all the development but too often remains undiscovered.

Our idea is to make the fertile land of Bali accessible again, on footpaths.

In the past when foreign travel was dangerous and expensive, Botanic Gardens were established for those who could not view the tropics first hand. Exotic plants were brought home to be admired by the curious. Palm Houses were erected in northern climates and when snow piled up outside, water lilies bloomed in crystal domes.

By the way, those glass houses which were designed to bring the climates of Tahiti or Sumatra to Europe, had a deep influence on modern architecture. The 18th century’s wine garden of Sanssoucis, where grapes and lemons had to grow behind glass walls due to Prussia’s harsh climate, inspired the architect Bruno Taut to develop a theory of transparent architecture which consequently led to the Bauhaus and the first glass and steel tower by Mies van der Rohe in Chicago. The glass and iron architecture of the Gardens in Kew and any other Botanic Gardens on the Continent was soon adopted for railway stations and the first shopping Malls of the Belle Époque.

The fascination of the hothouses was enormous. When I was I child in my hometown Berlin, the flowering of the Victoria amazonica was announced in the papers and father took us by tram to the steaming tropical glasshouse to join the curious crowds.

We could turn the tables and construct a Winter Garden in the tropics, with snow machines and conifers to give the locals (who certainly can’t afford the exit tax) a vista and feel of the far north. But these days such a venture is too much like an amusement park or fair ground.

Our visitors will be Indonesians, local expatriates and tourists. We like the logic of trying to do what art does, as Paul Klee once stated, “To make the invisible visible”. What is invisible to most is often the obvious. Modern minds are fed by the sensational, and so the beauty of the all-to-common is overlooked. To rediscover the obvious and create a place to contemplate the mysteries of nature seems like a worthy venture.

Why is the palm against all laws of gravity growing so tall and high? We just don’t know.

Let us view nature from the perspective of humility. These day, to talk about beauty is seen as a little outdated and concepts of utility and profitability are preferred. I’m personally enjoying the privilege of the old to be a little outdated!

We have to keep in mind that the traveler of today has different intentions than the traveler of the past. First, travel is nothing extraordinary anymore, not the amazing opportunity of a lifetime it once was. The western middle classes now travel to distant shores for amusement and to compare the reality with images they have already seen. Modern travelers have seen everything before they even walk into the aircraft. Adventure has already been experienced through the Adventure channel, and the secrets of nature can be observed on Breakfast TV.

Our mission is to bring our visitors in direct contact with Bali’s colours and aromas, smells, natural patterns and structures. Our garden architect, John Pettigrew, is even talking about a garden for the blind where the sensual experience will be a completely different one.

The garden planner has to work with the space and living material of plants. The park is like a palace with the sky as roof and many different rooms, secret chambers, galleries and staircases through which the visitor is guided through vistas and perspectives without feeling tutored. There are windows and walls, ballrooms and pissoirs and the visitor should feel the excitement of discovery, walking over swinging suspension bridges. S/he is encouraged to trespass into Nature.

Forget about television and touch with mind and hands Nature yourself. Come to a standstill after thousands of miles of noisy travel. That should be the message of our garden.

Indeed, to call our garden a Botanic one might be a little outrageous. We will be far from achieving anything like scientific completeness. But at least it hints at our dream.

“Realize your dreams!” was one of the innocent slogans of our generation in 1968. We don’t know yet why trees grow upwards.

We didn’t plan an amusement park in the American style. The industrialized and commercialized fantasy world of Mickey and Daisy would only cover what we would like to make visible. Visitors to our park will not enter into a world of documentaries. We won’t supply elephants or caged birds but we’ll try to rediscover and unearth Paradise in a kind of agricultural archaeology.

I admit, it looks like a romantic dream to discover the blue flower.

And of course we are seeing the creation of a garden as a work of Art.

In Bali , art is so universal in daily life that we are hoping to open a new dimension beyond the realms of painting, dance and music. The Art of the Garden.

In fact, setting up a garden is like painting with living material. We have to consider a material that grows and changes, ages and dies.

When we started to think about gardens we soon face all kinds of questions, from the practical to the philosophical.

The gardener experiences, in fact , the virtues of cow shit as well as the futility of human knowledge.

That the world could be seen as a garden was imagined from the dawn of time, and that the gardeners of the world fell from grace was preached all along. The philosophy of gardens reaches out beyond theology to politics and sociology.

In Europe the history of the garden can also be written as a history of law, of order and of democracy.

The gardens of the Greeks and Romans were used by sportsmen and by philosophers alike who walked around asking awkward questions. Parallel to the development of European societies, when those gained their civic and democratic structures, the garden become a public place for ordinary citizen. When the kings and queens lost their feudalistic powers to constitutions, they were equally forced to open their estates which they now occupied not in a personal capacity but as representatives of the people. The exclusive royal resort became a public people’s park. In the Champs Élysèes, war widows had the privilege of renting garden-chairs to the promeneurs. And Maria de Medici’s Luxembourg Park today houses the Grand Guignol, the satiric Puppet Show where the mighty are ridiculed.

This tradition couldn’t develop in Asia where no civic society asked for piazzas and public parks in which to gather and talk and relax. Tropical culture doesn’t share the concern for the preservation of nature. Survival often depends on containing the wilderness, fighting back the overgrowth. Whereas in the north, the palms have to be groomed and guarded.

Botanical Gardens have their traditions in science. In the European Middle Ages they were set up in monasteries for the study of herbs and medicinal plants. The garden was seen as a pharmacy. Nowadays it’s not necessary to study botanics in the garden. Scientists swarm out into the rain forest to look for DNA that could be worth patenting!

In the Enlightenment, horticulture become an object of rationalist study of the mechanics of nature in royal courts. To discover the exotic and bring it home was to be an obsession throughout the centuries. It was for fun and curiosity but also served solid capitalist interests; the explorers opened the path for exploitation and trade. The spice plants made beautiful collections and drawings in botanical cabinets, but the real interests were solid mercantile ones.

Many of the great travelers were botanists and collectors and thus become -- sometimes innocently, of course -- the scouts of colonialism. Sir Stamford Raffles personified perfectly the adventurous union of scientist and conqueror and the biggest stinking flower of the tropics was named after him.

In our times fauna itself has become a traveler.

Since long ago, there has been a history of migrating plants. In fact many of the species found now on the Archipelago are immigrants from Amazonia, from China or Siam. Hybrids came in as foreign money makers. The indigenous orchids of Indonesia are rather modest looking, so more spectacular hybrids were imported. In the global village the gardener can pick specimens from everywhere. Seeds and plants are offered on the internet globally. There are fashions in gardening, too. We expect that pitcher plants will be the next rage. We’ll soon see pitcher plants digesting flies in home gardens around the world, but not mosquitoes which they spare!

There are, of course, laws and regulations on transmigrating plants in Indonesia but they are rarely considered, and enforced only by the authorities for reasons other than conservationist. Fines and punishment are for the sake of the bureaucrats.

The Asian Emperors remained in their Forbidden Cities and every family was happy if it could erect a high wall around the family compound. Thus Asians are not familiar with the concept of public space and city planning is unusual. There are no promenades or avenues and where they do exist, as in Shanghai, they were planned by colonial powers.

The greatest Garden of Indonesia, Bogor’s Botanic Garden, was founded by Dutch Colonialists centuries ago.

Garden architects and planners in the European tradition set the gardens up as they saw and understood society: as places of law, of order.

The Dutch Garden of the Oranjes were models of mathematics and reflected in some ways the Dutch interest in fortifications. The baroque garden had no interest in the natural but set up the garden as a model of an ideal world of order.

The rectitude of the burger’s life was to be seen in the alleys and hedges.

When the Duke of Dessau wished his park planted, he ordered the troops in and 2000 men brought the same number of trees into earth within an hour.

The rationalistic and man-centered French garden where the sun-king was the centre was replaced by a landscaping that one called more ‘natural’ with the rise of liberalism. The Prussian Queen Louise not only got rid of her corsetière and showed her breasts naked but also set up a artificial ‘natural’ landscape of hamlets and dairy farms. As it was the fashion with many Queens.

The Public Garden of the 19th century was also a place for education. The students could learn about nature and this learning was for everybody. Health and Hygiene was another rationale for gardens. In London and Berlin, trees were planted to fight against tuberculosis. There were now playgrounds for children and public sport grounds were set up. City councils wished to offer something useful to the people. In London’s Hyde Park there was even a corner assigned for free and unpunished speech.

In Asia gardens remained the domain of the rich and powerful or the places of the scholarly and religious elites. Western gardeners wanted to gain reign and custody over nature, an approach which is alien to Buddhist thinking. Nature is nothing mankind should govern, creation as birth and death in nature just happen without any obligation of man to interfere. To control his own mind seems difficult enough for man. Gautama Buddha sat under two large Sala trees but that was of no significance to the philosophic Theravada Buddhism. It was later that the tree become an object of worship, to accommodate the masses for whom the austere philosophy of the Buddha lacked colour and mystery. The idea of creating the model of a world and cosmos with a garden, though, was familiar in Asian thinking. Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was just that; its ponds and temples were models of space and mirrored heaven.

But in general, nature is seen in Buddhism as a battlefield of desire and thus highly disturbing on the path to the blessed nothingness of Nirvana.

The final Buddhist Garden is even void of plants: in Zen Gardens stones alone allow the thinking to rest clear and undisturbed.

The Gardens of Islam are the secret perfumed antechambers of heaven only accessible to the blessed. The women of the household were allowed to pick the oranges behind high walls. As men of the desert the Arabian conquerors were highly interested in the working of waterworks. The fountains and drainage systems of the Khalif gardens in Spain still functioned in our time, as practical as the water systems of the Roman Empire.

In Hinduism, the garden is the temple ground well guarded by warriors from the other world. Demons and spirits dwell in a nature, which is not a place to wander around in darkness. Stone creatures of all sorts populate these frightful areas.

In Christianity there is a vast theology produced about gardens on earth and heaven and man somehow failed as gardener and is not really allowed to enjoy the pleasure of gardening without sweat and toil.

Instead of lingering with women and apples, man was told to labour in pain. But Catholics are forgiving when it comes to some lesser sins and so the luxury of the Italian parks and gardens in their indisputable beauty were accepted as gifts from above. And Christian monks puzzled by the intricacies of theology invented the riddles of garden labyrinths and mazes, where man can look for the right way to spiritual enlightenment.

Martin Luther, the Protestant, stated that planting an apple tree is giving a signal of hope and trust in times of war and horror. It seems that are many trees need to be planted in our days. (And a Nobel Peace Prize was recently won for planting trees in Africa! Ms Mathaai’s battle cry for planting millions of tree in Kenya was, “Do it or Die!”)

This philosophical discourse shows, overall, a very western approach I’m afraid.

As philosophy is one thing, horticulture is another. Every art needs its professional tools and instruments and banal crafts.

Our garden has to cope with all the particularities of the Balinese geography. Situated some degrees south the equator on the southern side of the island with an elevation of between 300 to 400 meters, its geological structure is very typical -- the long gorge of a little river and deep parallel ravines. There is a spring and some waterfalls. Some terraces lie sideways and some parts of the limestone hill are very dry, whereas the deeper parts of the ravines are full of water and shadow. The climate features a short rainy season with heavy rains that flood and fill a small lagoon with water, and a long mild dry season with fresh nights. It is a very comfortable tropical climate and much different from the steam house atmosphere of Singapore.

This moderate tropical climate somehow limits tropical abundance. The soils are fertile but lack nutrients; the volcanic sands are full of minerals but they are easily washed out. Humus production is difficult and nearly unknown to local farmers. The agricultural politics of Indonesia encouraged the excessive use of chemical fertilizers. With the economic crisis this could not be sustained and following a new market demand by hotels, a more ecologically sound agriculture is developing. The arable rice paddies around the Garden are highly endangered by unrestricted development. There is no zoning to regulate land use, and construction threatens our Garden as the unrestricted development of guest houses and private residences threaten the rice paddies around us.

Some plants indigenous to Bali are under threat and the regent of Gianyar expressed his administration’s interest to help with conservation. The trend to the natural that opened many spas and health establishments for tourists has begun to endanger the flora. Some herbal plants and flowers which were used until recently only for ceremonial needs are now harvested for ‘Royal Beauty Treatments’ and are becoming rare.

The tourism industry eats its own resources.

On our land we found wild growth of all sorts of ferns and bamboos, with the only plant of agricultural use being the coconut palms. We contracted this land from the Puri of Kutuh Kaja. The villagers couldn’t see any use for it and willingly leased it to us for our project. We leased the land for 30 years with the hope that future generations might appreciate and continue our work, but we won’t be here to see it. When the contract expires, we intend to give the Garden into the custody of the village.

The project is privately funded, which hopefully gives us for the time being some independence from outside interference. Of course, our means are limited but as the great garden architect Duke Pueckler stated, "To develop a garden, money is not the foremost necessity”. A friend of mine in Berlin was recently commissioned to restore the house garden of the Impressionist painter Liebermann with the sum of 2 million Euro! What an indulgence!

As we are short of money, we have to be ingenious in ideas. We are fortunate to have low labour costs. Stone carvers, masons and carpenters are affordable here in Bali and the work is of very high quality. The crafts of rice terrace construction, landscaping and modeling have a very long tradition. So much of the landscaping was done by hand with only the very limited use of heavy machinery.

Garden architecture is an international art. We would have liked to give this project into the hands of a local, Indonesian architect but by for many reasons we couldn’t find one who was comfortable with our project. Most of the Indonesian architects approached are by necessity linked to construction projects and make their money more on commissions than on fair fees, which they are too often denied.

We preferred to employ several specialized companies and not to become dependent on general contractors which are used to work for multimillion dollar hotel groups. This might invite a certain degree of chaos, we realize.

The greatest challenge might be that of patience. Western minds are trained to ask for the immediate, do it and do it know. Easterners tend to let it go, which might be just the right approach for a garden. I try to console myself with the thought that time in space is insignificant and measurable only in distances. So we walk into our Garden and we hope to see it flower faster than we are ageing. Insh’Allah!

Stefan Reisner © 2005


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