In the Hanging Gardens

'The plants observe without judgement, swaying in a state of placid curiosity while these strange creatures – people – live and die in front of them'. Ben Gibbons tells a tale of strange destinies among the pomegranate and olive trees in the famous gardens of Babylon, from 'Dark Mountain: Issue 23 - Dark Kitchen'. Second dish in our winter kitchen feast. With ARK artwork by Meridel Rubinstein.
is a Pittsburgh-based writer; his blog, Bored In Pittsburgh, covers the local music community and his work has also been published in The Pittsburgher, Melted Magazine . He has recently branched into fiction that focuses on the surreal and the absurd.

In the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, plants take on meanings.

From a barren plain strewn with many huts, several mansions and one palace, within sight of the abandoned Tower of Babel – the indignant phrase, ‘Why is it that nobody understands me anymore?’ graffitied on its walls in hundreds of languages – a terraced oasis rises, swarming with people, all there for the plants that nourish and sustain them.

Midwives drizzle fragrant oils pressed from the fruits of the olive grove onto the heads of each baby as it exits the birth canal; a small jar of oil from the same press is preserved within the gardens’ sprawling archives, to be poured atop the casket of the corresponding person upon their death. The archivist stores each jar in a cavity drilled into the archives’ high, honeycombed stone walls; she knows by heart the location of each person’s oil, and thus knows when and how everyone will die. It is a mystery whether the fatal circumstance determines the placement of the jar, or vice versa.

The olive trees’ inert green spray mimics the fluid effulgence of the central fountain that crowns the gardens’ top terrace; there, water erupts from the stone mouth of Sumu-la-El – king of Babylon’s first dynasty – and drips through layers of rock into the subterranean pool where defeated souls go to drown. The archivist will retreat there one day, overwhelmed by the burden of her knowledge, and plunge her wrinkled head under the surface; her bubbling death throes will be refracted through the water’s distilled depths and issue forth transformed into a haunting melody. Her own jar of olive oil has told her this.

The raving storyteller who wanders outside the gardens maintains that the world itself is an olive, with heaven and hell both swirling around in its pit. He may be right.

At the edge of the gardens’ middle terrace, concentric circles of quince, pear, almond, walnut and pomegranate trees grow in a ring outward from a flagstone forum dotted with sundials and statues. Here, the Babylonian upper class and its hangers-on gather for banquets; servants pick fruits from the surrounding trees and mix them into jams and sweet salads to complement the rich umami of roasted steak, pork and chicken. A tiered waterfall separates the forum from an adjacent copse containing cedar, ebony, oak and terebinth; a royal carpenter and his apprentice harvest wood from these trees and use it to craft banquet furniture sturdy enough to support hefty nobles as they drink, leer at young female servants, and mock the severed heads of defeated generals hung from stone torches. Some bold banquet attendees will pick a pomegranate – its deep red representative of drunken passion – carve their initials into its flesh, and surreptitiously slip the fruit to whomever the wine has chosen as an object of desire. A carved pomegranate signifies a sleepless night ahead.

Wander too far from the Gardens’ bountiful areas, with their sun-drenched plazas and bejewelled pillars, and you may find yourself draped in muggy shadows, surrounded by the shrill reproaches of crows and the ghoulish hisses of vermin-fed vultures. Thin water channels cut through marshy soil, diverging and curling in the manner of paths dug by worms. Tall mirrors, affixed to dried and inflated buffalo stomachs, float along these channels, forming a maze whose configuration changes constantly and randomly. Venus flytraps, grown to enormous size on a diet of buffalo meat, lurk along the banks, joined by toxic nettles and pitcher plants. The worst outcome from an encounter with these flora is a mere chomp or sting; the real danger lies with the fig trees that spring up nearby.

Once, the son of a wealthy Babylonian banker left a pomegranate outside the quarters of a servant, a shunned distant cousin who spent her days operating one of the Archimedes screws that draws water up the terraces from the irrigation channels dug inland off the Euphrates. He told her that he loved her, but he loved his social status more, and after several dalliances he abandoned her, marrying instead another distant cousin, this one as wealthy as he. The servant ventured to the maze of mirrors and picked a fig. At the next banquet, she snuck the fig into her betrayer’s bowl while refilling his wine; he ate the fruit and died later that night. For while most figs contain the corpses of the wasps that pollinate them, the figs found in this shadowy corner of the gardens house the living, stinging insects themselves. A fig signifies revenge.

The Babylonians regard their gardens as a wonder of the world, a display of their city’s might and ingenuity, a feat to be revered. A fresco painted on the wall of the lowest terrace reads, ‘The majesty of the Hanging Gardens mirrors the glory of Babylon and its people. May the faces of the world’s kings turn red with envy.’ The Babylonians would do well to humble themselves, even though the gardens are the most beautiful collection of plants known to exist. Because in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it is not the people that arrange the plants, but the plants that arrange the people. Their roots connect under the soil and their pheromones whisper through the air to form a network into which feed all sights and sounds, fights and reconciliations, birth cries and death rattles. The plants use these data to coordinate their influence.

In the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, it is not the people that arrange the plants, but the plants that arrange the people.

The olive trees understand that it is impossible to know whether or not their oil determines the event of a person’s death. The jars are stored where they are stored and people die how they die, but the Babylonians’ reverence, misplaced or not, allows the olive plants to flourish. The trees of the fruit orchards and the trees used to make furniture breathe in the gales of carbon dioxide exhaled by crowds of singing and shouting mouths. A carved pomegranate clutched lazily at the end of a bare arm presents an opportunity to drop seeds into any patch of soil passed on the way home to bed. Carnivorous plants, hated and feared, prefer to be left alone, so they congregate within a maze of their own reflections. Just as the quince or cedar regulates the level of certain elements in the air, the fig considers it her duty to uphold the moral balance of the universe.

The plants observe without judgement, swaying in a state of placid curiosity while these strange creatures – people – live and die in front of them. The gardens, scattered without form, chose the warrior queen Semiramis as their first conduit, nudging her to plant a stand of trees in the middle of her city during a time of political upheaval; the plants and the city both needed stability in order to coalesce and grow. Years later, those early, modest gardens sought out Nebuchadnezzar’s lonely Queen Amytis in her dreams – lush visions of her homeland beckoned while her sleeping body languished in a dust-choked palace – and used her desire as a beacon, calling all manner of blooms into their magnificent collective, erecting statues and fountains, frescos, golden-walled grottos. Nebuchadnezzar’s grand gesture was mere symbiosis. And in the far future, after the earthquake-stricken terraces have crumbled and the irrigation canals have dried, the gardens’ plants will release their seeds into the desert wind to be blown across oceans.

IMAGE: ‘The Boat is a Garden’ by Meridel Rubenstein
Archival pigment inks on Hahnemühle Daguerre canvas with wooden mount
One of the 3 Coracle Scrolls from the artist book The Boat is a Circle by Joanne Grüne-Yanoff and Meridel Rubenstein which anchors a large-scale multimedia travelling exhibition (from Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK)


Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen

The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling

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