In May each year we visit the Isabella Plantation. In this floral haven in Richmond Park azaleas blossom along the edges of streams and ponds, where their spring display of a myriad different and delicate colours is simply breathtaking.
At the height of the season earlier this year, Rohan and I stood on one side of the tiny, and aptly named ‘Still Pond’, and looked across the water with its mirror-flat surface. The azaleas opposite were at their magnificent best but as I was staring there was a second image that made me ponder. On the bank ahead I could see the azaleas which were real. On the surface of the water, however, there was the upside down reflection of a tree growing several metres behind the azaleas (see illustration). Clearly the two views were generated differently but somehow it didn’t seem to matter – my mind made the necessary adjustments and very soon the real and the reflected images were seen as one continuum and a beautiful one at that.
Being faced by disparities between the real and the unreal is actually common, and never more obvious than when one uses the Internet to see and talk with others on a screen. I am not thinking here about virtual reality that relies on simulations, rather about being linked with others through the likes of Zoom, FaceTime or Skype and sensing them as real.
I became very aware of such unreality when I linked up with Thierry, my UK-based French teacher. Before the pandemic, we met for lessons twice a week in person at a local cafe. When the first UK lockdown began in 2020 we switched to lessons on Skype with Thierry at his home in South London and me in my study in Richmond. Very quickly, as I listened and learned, Thierry could not have been more real – this otherwise unreal him had become the norm. Interestingly, the new arrangement had one great advantage, we were able to work together on a text using a shared image on screen!
Last week, after we had arrived in Brittany – yes, despite the complications presented by Covid and Brexit we finally got here – the unreality of our relationship became particularly striking. I had arranged to have one last session with Thierry before re-establishing my customary face-to-face holiday lessons with Marie, my language teacher in France. Suddenly I realised that my lesson with Thierry was thanks to a link between me in Tréguennec and him in Crete – he too was on holiday. Yet, in the real world we were four thousand kilometres apart and in two different countries. Even if being with him was as unreal as it could be, it just felt normal. The office wall behind him had changed and his shirt was more summery, but that was all.
My musings over reality had actually been brought into focus just before we left for France. We had gone to say our goodbyes to our son Joshua and our grandson River. At one moment Rohan showed River, who is now aged 3½years, the photo she has of him on her mobile phone. “Who’s that?” she asked, to which a proud River replied “It’s me”. Rohan then added: “I take you with me wherever I go.” After some contemplation, River turned to us all and said “Why are we real?”
None of us adults knew how to answer his question, not only because he is so very young but because, at least from my personal experience, reality is such a hard concept to define. However, while finding a definition is difficult, knowing which things are real and which are not seems relatively easy. Moreover, for me as I get older, deciding on the difference is becoming increasingly important.
And, by the way, the Isabella Plantation, which has the air of a quintessential English garden is not as ‘real’ as it might first appear. For example, the wondrous azaleas come originally from Japan, while the natural-looking garden itself with its flowers, lakes, streams, trees is the product of years of landscaping with elements begun in a boggy area of the Park in the eighteenth century. Finally it’s name, which has been linked to a gardener’s wife or daughter is more likely to be a corruption of the word ‘isabel’ which appears on an early map of the Park to indicate that the soil at that spot is dingy or greyish yellow.
The illustration is a photo taken this May across the surface of the Still Pond in the Isabella Plantation.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Joshua, River, Thierry, Rohan and Vivien