A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to visit my absolutely stunning aunt who is the equally stunning age of 78, last count. It has become a practice of mine, whenever I visit a city, to spend time in its botanic(al) garden(s) and arboretums. I have come to believe that you can tell a lot about a city by the state of its nature spaces. As to be expected, New York City has an absolutely amazing botanic garden. Every time I travel to New York, Brooklyn more specifically, I spend a few hours there, never really feeling like I’ve taken in enough of its gorgeous wonder. This particular nature space was a lifesaver for me and my little guy at the time (he’s now a grown man), who also loved it there. The garden was within walking distance of our tiny apartment on the top floor of a lovely house that was in terrible disrepair and which was unbearably hot in the summertime. We couldn’t afford an air conditioner. That said, in recent years, the gardens have become heavily policed so that the ease with which I used to wander around, sometimes taking my ESL classes there for whole afternoons when I lived in Brooklyn, has fallen to memory. Gentrification maybe (yep, sounds about right).
Madison, Wisconsin also has a lovely arboretum—one where the visitor can just sort of roam free. I remember on several occasions, wondering if anyone really took care of the grounds or if the paths had simply been carved out by seekers like me. There’s something huge to be said for spaces that give one the illusion of wildness, especially if one is in the midst of several years of grueling, isolating, soul-crushing graduate research and dissertation writing (teasing).
Gosh, I miss that place!
Although, admittedly, I would often pass it right by and find myself heading towards the highway because it was so tucked away. I’m sure you can see how its location would be both a pro and a con.
Madison’s Olbrich Botanical Gardens is also pretty nice, voted #1 of the five best gardens in Wisconsin, although I don’t remember it—AT ALL (I’ll have to go back, I guess).
I was in Dallas, Texas last year in April for a conference. The conference was fine—nothing to write home about, which I think has more to do with my disillusionment with academia than the actual conference (but that’s a post for another day). Although my panel of which I was the chair was not terribly well-attended (one of the issues with large conferences and multiple simultaneous panels) my presentation went well. The people who were supposed to be there were there and they picked up what I was putting down. The article on which the presentation was based can be found here (the link will only work for the first 50 visitors). It’s about “workings of the spirit” (love that turn of language) on Julia Alvarez’s memoir, A Wedding in Haiti (2012).
Anyways…after my presentation I had a few hours before my flight back to my current “home” city so I decided to leave the hotel and visit nature—just to say “hi.” My son had told me that Uber was a safe, easy, and cheap way of getting around so, standing outside the hotel where the conference was held I downloaded the app onto my little-ol’ smartphone and within 10 minutes I was in the clean car of a lovely, relatively young black man who expressed the importance of having multiple income streams and provided a running commentary on the city as we drove. Sadly, one of most memorable aspects of his narration was his assessment of the isolation of the Mexican community of Dallas—profound. It’s always interesting to consider if a group’s isolation is self-imposed or imposed on them—and where is the line? But I digress…
I could feel my whole body relax as soon as I stepped out of the car, because while I didn’t feel like Dallas was particularly congested or polluted, I have come to recognize trees as my dear friends and relatives. They soothe me and provide the balm for my physical and spiritual healing just by their presence. I, unfortunately, wore the wrong shoes to go trail-walking. Nonetheless, I toughed it out (thank you, feet!!—I love you!!) and it was worth every pinch of my poor toes. I had brought along with me my kindle with Awakening to Kali: The Goddess of Radical Transformation by Sally Kempton (2014) and, after a couple of hours of walking along some of the most wonderfully managed grounds I’ve thus far encountered, found a bench facing a forested area and read most of the book. I was, indeed, transformed, transported. I fell in love. With what, you ask? Too many entities to name on that particular afternoon.
I boarded my plane, heading “home” later that afternoon feeling rejuvenated and renewed.
Going back quite a few years, my son and I visited Ghana’s Aburi Botanical Gardens when we were there. I remember taking a very long and winding trotro (local transport) ride through mountains and valleys before finally coming to a place that screamed of wilderness—but it wasn’t. It was a truly well-cared for haven with a plethora of “exotic” plants and flowers to behold. I can’t remember much about the actual gardens, but I do remember walking under an eve made of vines and having a profound feeling of being safe and sheltered. The other thing I remember was finding lobster claws, these darlingly vibrant flowers that I had first seen when Ruby and I visited Jamaica’s botanical gardens; another place/space that I loved.
When my kid and I visited Jamaica’s Hope Botanical Gardens and Zoo (needless to say, we did not visit the zoo part) he was only about 5 or 6 years old. We had gone down there to spend two weeks—he thought—lying on the beach and swimming in the clear blue ocean. Needless to say, when his mama got bored and came upon the crazy idea to venture out to other parts of the island he balked. The bull in him came out in full force that day and for a full half hour, at least, he refused to move himself from a small boulder just within the compound in which we were staying. Fortunately for me, I am equally stubborn and when the little bus that came to take us to the gardens arrived we boarded. It was there that I came upon my first encounter with a lobster claw. I was in love.
I lived in Buffalo, New York for about five years and visited its botanical gardens only once when I first moved there. It was my birthday and I made my visit there my present to myself. I was sadly, badly disappointed. It was there that I came to understand that if gardens and arboretums are not in a major city that could and would support them then it was necessary to have the support of a local university that has the resources and assumed commitment that it takes to provide a sanctuary to its community and visitors. If the University at Buffalo was at all involved in supporting the botanical gardens there then I saw no evidence of it. That said, the volunteer that I met in the gift shop deserved props for her commitment to serving her community in such a visceral way. Those men and women who work to keep what exists of their arboreal collection alive must also be recognized. It would be nice if the money that is spent on things that do less for the community were diverted to projects such as this.
In Ann Arbor, the city I now call “home”, the botanical gardens and the arboretum are two separate entities in two very different parts of the city. I love them both so much and since I have a little cash now that I have a paying gig, I am a proud member. I love the name of the botanical gardens because it reminds me of Wangari Maathai, the beautiful Kenyan woman who stood up to the capitalist bullies who would cut down every tree in their path on their way to profit. I spend A LOT of time at both of the gardens, depending how I’m feeling on which day.
This brings me right around to my earlier comment about the importance of having a university that is invested in its community as The University of Michigan has taken it upon itself to make sure that these gorgeous gardens and nature spaces are true havens that are accessible to EVERYONE!! Visitors only pay for parking at Maathai, but I feel like, if you walked into the gift shop and told the gentle souls there that you didn’t have money they wouldn’t deny you entry. At The Arb, if you can get there you just go in and spend your day breathing in the deliciousness that is its gift to the world. When I say, “if you can get there” I do not mean to imply that The Arb is in some far off place. Its, in fact, right smack in the middle of a neighborhood that is accessible by bus. The botanical gardens are, at the moment, a little less accessible because its on a road that doesn’t have sidewalks and people drive, easily, 50 m/h. However, I learned just the other day that they are building a bridge from Gallup Park, another gem of A2, to the gardens. I think it’s a little over a mile long—very exciting!!
I have digressed—wandered as it were.
Back to Norfolk: I had gone to visit my aunt with a purpose having everything to do with my African diasporic womaness. I had been down there many years before, under vastly different circumstances, and spent most of my time on the beach then. I’ve never been a big beach fan. In fact, the one day we did go on this trip was lovely and relaxing, but I’m still trying to get sand out of my bag. I don’t like that.
Just before I traveled I looked up Norfolk’s Botanical Garden and learned that during the Great Depression when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with the brilliant idea for the WPA, 200 African American women and 20 African American men were commissioned to break ground on the land. I had to go! As soon as my plane landed and we performed the requisite kisses and hugs I asked my aunt if we could visit the gardens the next day. It turns out my aunt had never been! I cannot say enough about the place/space. Even these photos do not do it justice. You must visit yourself.
**By the by, if you’re a member of another reciprocal botanical garden, you don’t pay admission.
Enjoy the photos!!