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Hanging Gardens of Babylon

by Rebekah Neuberger

“What we’re looking at here,” he pulled the map down slightly, “is the only man-made wonder of the world to exist twice. Every other thing on this old list has been destroyed.”

We both took a look at the gates guarding the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The posts were clearly composed of scrap metal forged into single, twisting rods. The gates reached high above our heads, weaving into each other like so many gleaming branches. Copper wires of varying sizes wrapped around the rods, conducting electricity from the heights of the canopy to the humming generators tucked beneath the soil. Small solar-panels shaped like leaves sprouted at every angle, pivoting to catch the sunlight. When they moved, the gates came alive, fluttering in the wind.

The Gardens were entirely self-sustaining, and the gates were its heart. They powered the water, the greenhouses, the heat-lamps, the tourist shop at the back of the place. At the trunk-like base of the gates, eye-level with us, was the entrance. I checked the light-meter of camera around my neck, tapped around my pockets for my notebook and pen and gave him a thumbs-up. He smiled, folded up his map. We walked forward, almost apprehensively.

I couldn’t ever hope to capture in words what we first saw. For the power of its technology alone, this place far surpassed the first Gardens. I can only imagine that it was as close to Eden as one could possibly replicate. The lushness was astounding, but it didn’t just appear in the thick, green foliage. Fruits bursting in every color covered the heights of the walls. Branches bowed heavy with them, nearly touching the walking paths. Huge swaths of ground were full of green shoots coming up through the black soil. In one stretch, we saw gourds of every shape. In another, peppers and tomatoes colored like fire. Delicate berries grew up the walls and were shaded by the massive, flat leaves up on the levels above. We were too dumbstruck to talk. Our very voices would have been an intrusion here, a reminder of humanity in a space that felt transcendent to our species; although we knew that hundreds of people like us were caring for and stewarding these Gardens at that very moment.

Kit glanced sidelong at me, not wanting to take his eyes away from the paradise in front of us. “Do you really believe you can eat everything growing here?”

“Sure, why wouldn’t I?”

“It seems like so much. So many things I’ve never even imagined – I just can’t picture all of it being edible.”

“But think about how many millenia these things have been cultivated for. Before we were even born, before you and I could even grasp at veggies in the produce aisle, people knew how to tend to the earth.” I said.

We watched a small parade of three workers carrying empty baskets to the low branches of the fruit trees. They carefully turned each piece of fruit to check for ripeness, and then plucked them from their stems. As their baskets filled, the branches began to rise back into the sky. Kit and I walked over to them and asked what it was that they were gathering.

“Mangoes – would you like to try one?”

We took one to split between us. The gatherer pulled a squat knife from her apron and cut the fruit in half, and then again into cubes. Our fingers were glistening with juice as we each dug out our pieces. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted.

“So delicious, right?”

Kit and I nodded our heads with tight-lipped smiles, awkwardly trying to keep the mango juice from running down our chins. I was the first of us to manage to wipe my lips off with the back of my hand, so I let them know how divine the fruit tasted and thanked them for the sample. I turned to Kit and asked him for the map. I scanned it quickly and pointed to the hydroponics ponds.

“It’s a short jog there, do you mind if we take a look at it?” I asked.

“Only if you agree to visit the livestock area on the upper level.”

“Deal.”

As we made our way to the ponds, we walked under hanging eaves of loofah plants. Kit excitedly pointed out that these were non-edible and therefore broke the premise that everything here could be eaten. I pointed out that they might just grow them to clean the machines and the people in the Gardens. He sighed at that and resigned to my answer.

We walked along the ancient stone paths from the first Hanging Gardens, uncovered half a century ago and restored to their original structure. The old walls, now covered in greenery and goods of all varieties were the same, too. Instead of relying on feats of engineering to care for the needs of the garden like in its first iteration, they used the more consistent resources of solar power and rather genius applications of physics principles. Miniature aqueducts carried water up the hillside from the long-lived river in the valley below. We watched in wonder as the water seemed to defy gravity and spill upwards and out onto the varieties of plant life scattered around the Gardens. A gardener came up beside us, and we three took several moments in silence admiring these feats of the Gardens.

“I think that’s my favorite bit of the Gardens,” the gardener began to say, “that this has entirely bloomed out of antiquity – ancient principles, ancient architecture – and has become exactly what I remember hoping the future would be like when I was a little kid.”

Kit grinned widely, hearing that.

“Did you grow up around here?” he asked.

“No, I didn’t,” she said, “I grew up on the other side of the ocean, actually. My dad was a botanist and my mom worked in environmental studies. This is a future I think they would have wanted, too. They never quite got to see the world look like this.”

I nodded. I thought to myself of the transformation the world had undergone in the last 10 years. Like dry bones becoming as flesh. My parents had also thought the world was too far gone—so much in their lifetimes had burnt up or was carried away by the waves. They had countless friends whose island homes and communities were assailed by the deteriorating weather. Now, this gorgeous legacy was growing up all around us. It felt like hope itself that was sprouting through the soil here. Kit, the gardener, and I stood once again in silent awe at the view before us.

“Can you tell us a little bit about when the Gardens started? I remember hearing in the news years ago that they were doing a project here, but I would love to hear about what it was like.” I ask.

“I only started working a couple of years back, so everything was in full swing—or really full bloom—when I got here. But the true birth of this place was around eight years ago. After fossil fuels were globally banned, the oil magnates here in the Middle East had to find another source to invest their money. I think it might have been half to assuage their climate guilt, but a handful of them came up with the idea of a restored Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where all of the energy used to run the place would be renewable, and all of the plants would be grown with purpose.

Their funding gave it grandeur. It allowed the best minds to come on the job. We had botanists, biologists, physicists, environmentalists, naturalists—scientists of every kind working together to get this place running. There was leftover money, too, to fund designers and artists to make this place beautiful in its functionality. It’s really palatial, this place. It’s really something special.”

“Can we walk up to the top of the Gardens to see it all?” Kit asked.

“Oh,” said the gardener, “you should; I wouldn’t leave here without seeing that view.”

“Ah! Let’s go then!”

And with that, Kit began to run up the paved switchback path leading ever upward. We climbed past massive, bulging succulents and cactus fruits casting their shadows across the path. At every turn, there was a tree to provide shade and to stabilize the hillside. Near its base, small shade-dwelling flowers carpeted the ground. A thin, buzzy cloud of pollinators bounced from flower to flower. Our excitement far outpaced our lung capacity and we had to stop to take a quick breath. I elbowed Kit.

“Look.”

From the summit of the Gardens, it looked like you could see to the ends of the earth. The valley stretched through countless miles of hills and the towns that speckled their sides. Beneath our feet were the Gardens themselves. We were on top of a mound covered in every inch by thick greens, vines, fruits and vegetables of every color, flowers stretching their petals into the sun. From here, you couldn’t see the paths—or people. It was just us, the view, the valley, and the Gardens below us. For the first time on our trip, I remembered my camera and snapped a picture. I knew it wouldn’t be anything close, but it would be something. At that moment, a bird with brilliant plumage flew right by us.

“Oh, that reminds me, Kit, we should go to the livestock area after this!”

“Right, right. Did you want to stay here longer?” He asked.

We took in one more look at the view like a deep breath, and then headed down towards the path toward the back of the Gardens where they kept the animals.

We stopped at a small gate with an elderly attendant waiting there.

“Hello! Here to see the animals?” He asked, kindly.

“Yessir, if that’s alright!” Kit said.

“Of course. We do let them roam around within their own boundaries, so I’m going to have to ask that you respect their space and try to keep to the footpath. And miss, when you use that camera, please make sure your flash stays off.”

We nodded obediently and excitedly, like we were small kids again. Up ahead, the footpath, no more than some treaded-down grass, meandered through the small hills of the animal enclosure. This part of the Gardens spread far back, covering the plateau and further downhill behind the high front walls of plants.

As far as we could tell, we could only wander around the front. At the front, curiously eyeing us were dozens of hip-height goats. They were long- and short-haired, speckled and spotted in every color a goat could be. Behind the goats were rabbits dotting the lush ground. A small herding dog came up and sniffed at our ankles before turning around and sprinting off, bursting through the line of goats. I could hear the bubbling chirps of chickens to my left. On my right, I saw a shaded brook with a branch of the footpath leading to its bank. Walking up toward the bank, I saw a little city of white box towers.

“Bees, Kit!” I cheered.

He beamed. “Of course they’d have a little metropolis for them. That’s fantastic.”

We had reached the bank of the brook and peered over. What I had thought was a meager little waterway turned out to be fairly wide—and it was clear as crystal. Fish of all varieties swam by, flicking their tails at us. I thought I caught a glimpse of a massive catfish lurking in a cave in the bank. Snails, water bugs, all sizes of flying critters made their home along the river. Like the plants below, everything in this ecosystem was chosen thoughtfully. Every animal species was either native to the Middle East or well-suited to make a home here. The animals helped to sustain the plants and vice versa. When it came time for certain animals to become food, it was a process that was equally thoughtful. The animal’s body was used entirely, not a single part of it gone to waste. The food they became fed only the local peoples and the workers here who needed the food most. As much as it could be, it was a process lovingly done. It paid respect to the animals for their contribution, which is the best way I can think to describe what the animals did.

The sun was starting to look like it might begin to slide its way down the sky, so Kit and I went back down into the Gardens to look at the hydroponics. We entered a white tent where they kept up this art of agriculture. Inside, it looked like a cathedral. There was row upon row of leafy greens, some a rich purple color, lined every angle travailing the walls and supports of the tent structure. It was like a living stained-glass. A low hum was the only real reminder of the system these plants relied on to grow.

Here we were, standing in the kind of future our parents’ generation had fought for. Some people hadn’t been so lucky to live past that fight. No one born in these coming years would quite know the anxiety we had all felt back then—and it was better that way. No one else in the world would have to fear the waters, the sun, the fire. Like everything around us, a better earth was putting its roots down and sending its bright green shoot skyward.