By Rosie Cattrell
“They had done what everyone said was impossible, they had created earth…” – Tim Smit
© Benjamin Elliott
I trace my fingers over the lines and impressions left in black biro on the inside page of a book that has held pride of place on the bookshelf in my parents’ house for most of my life. “Fiona, thank you for everything you have done over the years; your support, friendship and good humour. We’ve all travelled a long way to reach our ‘Eden’, and I hope the journey is only just beginning. Lots of love, Tim.” As I turn the pages of the surprisingly pristine copy of eden that was gifted to my mother by Sir Tim Smit over 20 years ago, after the completion of a colossal task that at times must have seemed impossible, I try to imagine what it would have been like to be there at the very beginning of it all, how it would have felt to be a part of something so completely extraordinary and unique before it had even come to fruition. What an incredible feeling it must have been to be one of the first to share in this collective vision of Eden, to be part of a team of ‘ordinary’ people determined to see it come to light by their own hand, and to be able to say wholeheartedly, as Tim’s grandmother would have advised, ‘I’m glad I did,’ rather than, ‘I wish I had’.
© Benjamin Elliott
In the beginning, the idea was a simple one; to take a place of utter dereliction, a piece of earth forgotten and unused, and create an abundance of life in it. A difficult task in a world of people trained to say no, to ignore the impossible and the ridiculous, who in turn must be convinced to say yes and partake in the ultimate risk. “Everyone laughed when I said that was what I wanted,” explains Tim in his personal account of this great shared adventure, eden. “It was not that they disagreed, it was simply that it was impossible. I knew that I wouldn’t rest until we had something that lived up to the dream.” That piece of forgotten earth would be Bodelva Pit, stripped of its china clay to form an accidental mould for the masterpiece of abundant life that would be the Eden Project in all its resplendent glory, later to be recognised by the Times as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
In the words of C. S. Lewis, “While science may lead you to truth, only the imagination can lead you to meaning”, a quote occasionally employed by Tim Smit himself. Eden was about much more than the exotic and yet familiar species of plants thriving inside the biomes, and stood as a signpost for the future, an emblem of hope for all the other impossible tasks we might accomplish, as Tim explains: “… it seemed to create an almost palpable feeling of destiny in many people, a sense that if ever there was a time to take a risk, this was it … More to the point, they had come to see the project as a symbol, something to show the rest of the world that we weren’t hicks from the sticks with straw between our teeth waiting for crumbs to fall from the high table.” Described by a local Cornish bard at a press conference as “the first glimmer of a prospective new dawn for her children and grandchildren”, Eden came to be with the support of a community that reached far outside the walls of the project offices. The Eden Project would have the power to shape Cornwall’s future for the better.
© Benjamin Elliott
Tim Smit once explained: “For risk to work there has to be a strange beauty in what you do.” The Eden team took the biggest risk of all in pursuing this collective dream, and I can only imagine the atmosphere in the biomes when everyone who had taken part in this colossal task, including my mother, came together under the exotic canopies to celebrate the completion of the impossible, as Tim so fondly recalls: “Those endless hours, days, weeks, months and years of meetings that lasted long into the night, persuading the boys in suits to take courage in the face of doubt, now seemed to melt away … for day after scorching day, night after endless night, they’d been out there in the heat, stretching every sinew to prepare for this moment. They had done what everyone had said was impossible, they had created earth, they had propagated and planted countless thousands of living things. Now they were so tired they were running on empty … All of us, in our own way, had turned our Eden into a collective act of redemption. We really had done the best we could; for the moment, we had nothing left to give.”
© Tamsyn Williams/Eden Project
After opening on 17th March in 2001, the Eden Project welcomed 1.2 million visitors through its doors in the first year alone, and to date has seen over 22 million people marvel at the impossible structure that Tim and the Eden team were determined was possible: “Story telling is everything. If you can create a narrative that people want to be part of you can do almost anything, and that’s what Eden was … Eden wasn’t a product, it was a place in the heart … People know that things are wrong but they don’t know what they can do to change it. Eden needs to be a shop window of hope.” It was down to the hard work, long hours and determined belief of ‘ordinary’ people that something beautifully extraordinary was able to happen, and individuals like my mother who, as Tim kindly credited as, “the high priestess of paperwork, keeping the Board and Trust papers rolling out, taking the minutes that took hours, bearing as much of the load as she could, working ridiculously long days while running a family and commuting from Helston, nearly forty miles away”, saw a future in Eden.
Sir Tim Smit | © Ben Foster/Eden Project
“We had built the largest conservatories the world had ever seen. The greatest challenge now was to prove that it was all worthwhile. As I watched the first visitor walk in open-mouthed into our great green cathedral, and as small groups became hundreds and then thousands followed on behind, I thought to myself, the truly special thing about Eden is not what you see, although that is awesome enough; it is the spirit that brought so many ‘ordinary’ people together, to add up to so much more than the sum of their parts. That was the real reason for hope. If we could do this, what could happen if even more were harnessed together? We’d built a magnificent Living Theatre, but the world is really the stage.” – Tim Smit.