It was a barrage on the senses. The hot sun drew beads of sweat on my face. I heard the rush of a nearby waterfall and yearned to feel its cool mist. My eyes feasted on the purple Cryptostegia grandiflora blooming beside a path and other exotic foliage layered like strokes of a paintbrush. In the distance, jungle drums rose to a crescendo.
Here, 270 miles west of London, a park called the Eden Project is to plants and ecology what Disneyland is to fun and fantasy. Since opening in March 2001, two translucent eco-igloos called "biomes" have stood as the world's largest conservatories, according to their builders. Less prominent but equally charming are abundant environmental artworks, including my favorites: copper figures writhing in a Dionysian dance inside a simulated Mediterranean vineyard.
The park is billed as "the living theater of plants and people." If you view the biomes and outdoor gardens as a dramatization about the interdependence of humans and their habitat, the stage — a part of the Cornish countryside devastated by mining — begins to make sense.
The $137-million project operates under the auspices of the Eden Trust, whose mission is to generate awareness of the environment and inspire visitors to protect it. My husband, Warren Lancaster, and our 9-year-old twin boys, Cameron and Lachlan, found the place as entertaining as it was educational. That none of us was of a botanical bent seemed irrelevant, as was the fact that the Eden Project wasn't even on our original itinerary.
Bond — James Bond
We had been touring Devon for three days earlier this month. Our hosts were my former college roommate Anne Jackson, an artist, and her husband, Nick Smirnoff, a plant physiologist at the University of Exeter, so I suppose a visit to the Eden Project always was in the cards. All my boys had to hear was that scenes from the recent James Bond movie "Die Another Day" had been filmed there, and soon we were crossing into Cornwall with Anne as our guide.
This Eden was designed to be discreet. Even though the surrounding terrain — ravaged by mining and left barren — could have used a distraction, we didn't glimpse the park until we were practically on top of it.
The project covers 35 acres of a former clay-mining pit, and it's dominated by the Humid Tropics Biome. About 785 feet long, 360 feet wide and 165 feet tall, it's big enough to house the Tower of London and more than twice the size of the Warm Temperate Biome.
From the top of the Zigzag, the path that leads through the grounds, the bubble-shaped biomes looked like a set from a 1950s sci-fi movie. I expected giant antennae to rise from behind the honeycomb of hexagonal panels, each made of inflated layers of plastic film. I laughed when I later saw "The Bee," a towering sculpture by Cornwall artist Robert Bradford that salutes the importance of pollination.
The long queue closer to the biomes turned out to be visitors lined up for a Cornish pasties stand. Unwilling to wait, we went to the cafeteria for sandwiches and salads — all organic and eaten with wood utensils.
Anne told us that the Humid Tropics Biome was the most dramatic, and Lachlan lunged in its direction.
But with food still on the brain, I insisted we make the Warm Temperate Biome our appetizer before the main course.
"Ahhh," Anne sighed as she crossed into the simulated temperate climate of the Mediterranean, Southwest Australia, the tip of South Africa and parts of California. "I'd like to live here."
I agreed, enticed by the dry air perfumed with thyme, lavender and ginger lilies.
Signs and exhibits were reminders that we were here to learn. Unlike the ill-fated Biosphere 2 project in Arizona, Eden was envisioned from the start as more an educational showcase than a scientific experiment. No crew lives sealed inside, separated from the outside world.
The point here is to invite inside and educate as many people as possible. We learned, for example, that an olive grove supports more animal species than a pine forest. Walking through a reproduction of South Africa's fynbos (fine-leafed bush scrublands), we read that 5,000 of that habitat's 7,000-plus plant species are found nowhere else and that these species are threatened by pollution and human encroachment.
Both biomes emphasized that we are dependent on plants not just for comfort but for survival, above and beyond the breath of life they provide from oxygen. It was a profound statement delivered in a gentle, palatable way. I couldn't imagine a more clever classroom — or art gallery.