Blending the human and natural at the National Bonsai & Penjing Collection of Australia

In the ‘vision splendid’ of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s planned bush capital, Canberra was to embody the principles of a garden city: blend the human and the natural; bring the beauty of nature into the daily life of the community. 

When you see Marion’s watercolour illustrations of her dream, you can see just how bold their imagined city must have been to the judging panel who awarded them their prize, a city that leaves behind the industrial squalor of 19th century cities to find a balance between urban life and nature.

In the years that came, of course, we know that the Griffin dreamscape was sacrificed to the cheap imaginations of the bureaucracy and the market. But from the hills of  the National Arboretum, you can see their watercolour vision now come close to a reality.

Home to some 44,000 rare and endangered trees across 250 hectares of forest, the Arboretum is a living legacy of the Griffin’s love for the natural world. Walter was in fact the first to begin the planting of the Himalayan Cedars and the Cork Oaks, for now the only mature forests in the reserve.

Before Walter could finish his museum of trees, the project was stripped of the guiding Garden City principles and became a commercial forest of Radiata Pine. Then, in 2003, catastrophic fires burnt out much of the timber, offering Canberra a chance to fulfill the last will of Walter.

In coming decades and centuries, Walter’s cedars and oaks will be joined by Giant Redwoods, Ginkgos, Horse Chestnuts, Monkey Puzzles, Bunyas, Wollemis and 100 unique forests in all.

In 2008, the Arboretum opened the doors of the National Bonsai and Penjing Collection of Australia, now home to 120 bonsai trees of modern and traditional exhibits and varieties, from Maples and Junipers to Banksias and Eucalypts. No doubt Griffin would be happy to see his capital now home to a national exhibition of little trees; the bonsai itself is a living demonstration of those same principles that guided Griffin’s Canberra: the blending of the human and the natural, the concentration of the beauty of nature.

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