“Disaster,” writes Henry Mitchell, “is the normal state of any garden.”
The story goes that Benedictine monks cursed the island of Lokrum as their feet left it, boarding the boats that would take them away against their will. That story gets repeated often, and maybe was borne out in the later history of the island, which certainly had its share of turbulence. But it’s possible to tell the whole history of Europe as a story of churches getting built and then falling down, and I found myself more interested in the bluebells sprouting up between the cracks. In early summer, the waves tumbling against Lokrum’s stubborn shores were cerulean, sea-color, Adriatic blue. Gravel paths wound around an island of .72 square kilometers, and through such an unexpected variety of scenery that I continually felt lost, though I never left the trail.
Whoever wrote the English interpretive posters for Lokrum seized on the mystique of the monk’s curse, attributing Lokrum with a deadly, irresistible magnetism like the island Sindbad barely escaped. The writer declared that Lokrum “bewitched” Maximilian of Habsburg and his wife Charlotte with its beauty, compelling them to buy the place in 1859, long after the Benedictines were forced to leave. Lokrum changed hands many times after that, concluding with a transfer to the country of Yugoslavia in 1925, but as for the island, “his dark allure has never ceased.”
Lokrum is exactly the sort of island that pulls: visible from shore, large and accessible enough to support human life, but with the appeal of its inherent remoteness. From its earliest days, the mainland city of Dubrovnik valued Lokrum for purposes that required both nearness and separation: a lookout point, a quarantine. When I looked out from Dubrovnik—where the seafaring merchants built their free, walled city-state—and laid eyes on Lokrum, I knew the feeling. The feeling was not so different from navigating my inflatable raft over silty shallows to a trashy island sandbar in a reservoir of the Rio Grande. Far enough away to pose a challenge, and too close not to make the attempt.
An island is an imaginable space. An island has boundaries we can understand, shifting but inarguable. So imagine: two protected docks on rough, rocky shores; stone monastery walls; unfinished 16th century quarantine hospital surrounded by a centuries-old olive grove; fortress begun by the French and finished by the Austrians; crowded paths with kitschy appeal like “The Path of Paradise” and “The Cross of Triton.” And one of the most recent additions: a 60-year-old botanic garden, without which no paradise would be complete.
The Benedictines had been the first to bring new fruits, flowers, vegetables, and trees to the island. Their community was wealthy and respected, particularly after connecting themselves to a sister church in Padua, and they dined on the products of their labors. They grew greens and herbs, cucumbers, radishes, and celery, if accounts of 13th century produce in Dubrovnik’s market are anything to go by. They grew olive and fruit trees in clusters of five, and cultivated rows of grapes for the all-essential wine. But early accounts also suggest the brothers had gardens for the pleasure of having gardens. The traveling Dominican Filippo Diversi took note of the successful vegetable patches, but also “beautiful gardens,” the same phrase used by another observer, Serafina Razzi, a century and a half later. Diversi mentions that visitors from the mainland often came across the half-mile channel to Lokrum in good weather, “in pursuit of devotion, and repose of body and soul.”
So perhaps the medieval abbey’s pathways bloomed with non-native roses and lilies, as the gardens were filled with foreign crops and trees. This is one way to garden, to bring your beauty and sustenance from elsewhere. But on the northern part of the island and inland, away from the abbey and the harbors, native vegetation persisted. The Mediterranean basin is a spectacularly biodiverse part of the world, supporting 10 percent of all known higher plants at the crossroads of three continents. The islands of the Adriatic host many of their own unique species. No known species are unique to Lokrum itself, but the island was chosen as a nature reserve in 1963 because it represents, according to its website, “all natural development stages of plant communities in the Mediterranean region of Europe,” from a forest of oak and flowering ash to garrigue to rocky grassland. Island as microcosm.
On a sunny summer afternoon, Lokrum was undeniably beautiful. But it also felt downright bizarre, with the sorrowful wreckage of medieval churches accompanied by cheesy signage, and the free-range peacocks who have been multiplying merrily ever since Maximilian introduced them. Lokrum is much less quiet than in the days of the monks and pilgrims.
I sped westward on a path away from the old monastic buildings until I could hear the ocean. But I jumped at the sounds of violent scuffling in the oak leaves, which turned out to be two longhorn beetles locked in furious combat. I watched them until one, gripping its opponent’s leg in its jaws, finally released its hold and marched up a tree as though pretending nothing had happened.
One purpose of tourism is to attempt escape from an inescapable world, and Lokrum is built on this paradox. Come to the garden. Read informative signs in your own foreign language about events located securely in the past. Tread the fallen leaves of Australian eucalypts and swim naked in the impossibly blue water. But Lokrum’s appeal has always been the combination of human landscaping and its absence. Clear management, building and rebuilding, planting and replanting, as well as a sense of the uncontrolled elements. The calls of the nonnative peacocks. The sound of the sea. It’s no wonder the island bears some indecision about what its best self might look like.
The Yugoslav Academy of Arts and Sciences established a two-hectare botanical garden in 1959 for the express purpose of bringing in plants from far away to see if they would grow in Croatia. The Academy exchanged plants with other botanic gardens in similar Mediterranean climates all over the world: Chile, Australia, the U.S., and South Africa. The garden of Lokrum was once estimated to support the richest diversity of eucalyptus outside Australia and New Zealand. The Academy managed Lokrum’s garden with special attention to economic species—those “of importance to forestry, horticultural, and pharmaceutical uses,” as their signage declares. Including, for example, the citrus that had once inspired the name Lokrum, the “bitter fruit,” Latin acrumen. Though citrus, so tightly associated with the Mediterranean, also came there from somewhere else.
Lokrum’s botanic garden was the “life work” of Lav Rajevski. Many sources say this, matter-of-factly, with very little variation from the University of Dubrovnik’s version: “It should be mentioned that this garden represents his life’s achievement (the result of his long-term enthusiastic work).” A garden can be a life work, a source of labor ever-renewing, because a garden is inherently a built space that keeps on needing to be built. In order to maintain its garden separateness from the whims of larger forces, there must be a gardener. The purpose of this garden was to test species of plants that would not be there of their own accord. Other parts of the preserve, such as the olive groves, relied explicitly on human care. “In order to protect diverse plant communities which are not of natural origin, human influence is indispensable for the proper management of the Reserve,” states the English-language tourist website for Lokrum. There must be constant attention to a garden. “The meaning of life is maintenance,” an old gardener told me once.
But a gardener might also scoff at my calling a garden inherently managed. Gardens enforce humility and the knowledge that you are working in a world outside your control. You balance your little aspirations against the unknown: small-scale pests, unpredictable weather, your own ignorance of the conditions, and sometimes against larger-scale disaster. Undoubtedly life work. And this garden, after so many years of being created and maintained by human hands, was thrown into disorder by bombs. In 1993, during an attack on Dubrovnik, the uninhabited island endured more than 50 direct mortar hits. The library that maintained the garden’s records was obliterated, and the papers burned.
It would not be quite accurate to say the island was leveled. It was dis-organized, un-gardened. Without the plans and documentation, there was very little opportunity to restore or recreate the place as it had been before. And who, following the war years, had the ambition or resources to continue experimenting with foreign plants? Who would write to the botanic gardens in Sydney, Cape Town, Viña del Mar and ask them to send new living things to replace the damaged ones? It meant trying again, beginning the experiment from scratch. Rajevski, who had tirelessly continued his work on the island well after his official retirement, does not seem to have been actively involved in its regeneration after the war. He was aging, after all, and passed away in 2003. He lived to see his life work destroyed.
“Disaster,” writes Henry Mitchell, “is the normal state of any garden.” A gardener is simply a person who works in defiance of certain, eventual failure. “Wherever humans garden magnificently, there are magnificent heartbreaks.” But Mitchell also seems to believe that part of a garden’s beauty is the knowledge that someone worked very hard for this. “You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell,” he grumbles. Unnaturalness, the product of tireless human labor to keep plants alive that refuse to stay alive on their own, sometimes defying even our best efforts, is what makes a garden beautiful.
Mitchell writes, “Now the gardener is one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends—truly knows—that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there can yet be a garden so that all who see it say, ‘Well, you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you.’ Everything grows for everybody. Everything dies for everybody, too.”
Today the gardens at Lokrum are a project of the University of Dubrovnik’s Institute for Marine and Coastal Research. The institution employs one botanist and one gardener. So they began again, but priorities have shifted away from experimenting with worldwide species. “Today, the concept of botanical gardens with the aim of research of the introduction and adaptation of the nonnative plant species is mainly abandoned,” explains Katija Dolina, one of the Institute’s researchers. “Our aim is to cultivate indigenous Mediterranean species, particularly protected, rare, and endemic species of the southern Croatian coastline.”
Botanic gardens around the world show a renewed interest in local ecosystems, which is particularly poignant in a place like the Dalmatian coast, pitted by strife. Maybe this is part of larger nationalistic trends, a folding inward in response to global industry, finance, communication, and their associated threats. A fear of losing something—again. But gardening to preserve and showcase local plants might simply be a tender recognition that you have something fragile and worth keeping. In the case of the Dalmatian coast: an incredible source of endemism, plant species found nowhere else in the world. A profusion of bluebells. A flourishing of oaks.
The changing nature of the botanic garden might be a sign that Croatia is interested in marketing localness and authenticity rather than depending on haphazard spectacle and mythic monks’ curses. It might be a sign of renewed interest in the species that grew on island soil because they spread there from the near continent rather than being brought from far ones. But Lokrum is still a place that depends, charmingly, on the appeal of kitsch as well as the appeal of authenticity. They are simply different marketing strategies, and they appear on Lokrum side by side, as though Disneyland procreated with Sequoia National Park.
There are plenty of articles lamenting the way distant parts of the world become ecologically blurred with the spread of new species—blurred on purpose with the introduction of crop plants, or accidentally by bringing stowaway invasives. The Balkans look different than they did 50 years ago when the gardens were established, and different than they did when botanist Roberto di Visiani recorded a species list with over 90 nonnatives on Lokrum in 1863. But there is no particular effort, currently, to remove the international bits of Lokrum’s landscape. Nikola V. Gučetić, Dubrovnik’s Renaissance philosopher, wrote from his country villa, “In trees and plants there is Love; it is that great and universal lust for good.”
Tourism, at best, is an opportunity to think about how the wider world interacts with the more local one. It’s cliché to observe that the light of unfamiliar places illuminates your own home and self in new ways. But trying to understand how your small place should interact with a big world is the looming task of both the hour and the age. Answering that question is more pressing, more visceral and violent in some places than others. But never a waste of time.
And this is also the perpetual question in gardens, as the symbolic space where people and their environment alternately struggle in conflict and work in harmony to produce something humans find acceptable. Above Lokrum’s cloister entrance was a 17th century inscription in Latin, what the informative sign calls a “timeless piece of wisdom”: In harmony little things grow, in disharmony even the biggest fall apart. Good advice for monks living on an island in close quarters and remote circumstances. Disharmony in the church in Rome and on the mainland eventually forced them to leave. But harmony is never a stable element, and what allows for beautiful, flourishing growth in gardens is perpetual readjustment. Some dramatic failures, some wild successes, and in between, the growth of small things.
The nature of the monks’ curse, the poster seemed to imply, was that no subsequent owner would be able to hang onto the island for long. Not the independent city of Dubrovnik, nor Maximilian, nor the parade of various Habsburg royalty who owned it after that, nor the Dominicans who briefly thought it was theirs, nor even the ill-fated state of Yugoslavia. That part of the coast is now Croatia, though Dubrovnik still feels like its own phenomenon. But Lokrum is an island, and though it seems possessable, a package of given size and shape, activity on Lokrum is still a function of nearness and distance, independence and reliance. At night, everyone leaves the shores of Lokrum and ferries back to the mainland. Only the gardens remain.
Read Abby Dockter’s essays “The Bridge” and “The Pyramid,” also appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of the Locrum coast by Abby Dockter.