So, if zoos were not exciting for a 6-year-old, how about formal gardens? You guessed it. They were about as boring as funerals, maybe more so. Walking around and looking at plants, no matter how pretty, was just not high on my list of favored activities. Here were places where we couldn't collect leaves and seeds, climb the trees, chase butterflies, or run through the plantings. I found animals to be fascinating, while plants were only of passing interest, such as when we grew them in our own gardens, or played with the fruits of osage oranges, marveled at the long spines of locust trees, and emptied the contents of milkweed pods to float away in the wind. Luckily, I did not visit many botanical gardens as a kid. I spent much more time in places where we were free of the restraints of civilization.
Fast forward a few years and suddenly a lot more things became interesting, including the diversity of life on this planet, with plants and insects rising in importance to the level of birds and mammals. It's funny that as a child I could see all the tiny creatures and plants close to the ground more easily, but had less appreciation for them. Now that I am an adult, it requires more effort to approach this realm, but I do it with much more enthusiasm. I have come to value the vast range in the details, from spectacular cultivated flowers down to the tiny weeds under our feet, and just observing them is an engaging pastime.
Now I not only love to go to zoos, but I would put botanical gardens on an equal echelon. Wherever I travel, I try to see the local attractions in this venue and have never been disappointed. Some gardens are well known while others are not, but each one has its distinct flora and design. Some have huge budgets and a great deal of manpower, while others are much more modest. It doesn't matter, as each one is worth exploring. They can be full of exotic wonders, such as the orchids of Selby Gardens in Florida, or display the local plants to best advantage, as here in Austin at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
The more I learn about plants, the more interesting they become. I can spend hours at a garden, and delight in discovering every new surprise as I walk along the paths. I no longer find the fact that I cannot wade in the ponds or climb the trellises to be a frustration (although I am not beyond fantasizing about sitting in a fountain on a hot day). Whether the species are familiar or exotic, they provide hours of entertainment just by their very existence.
During my visits to conservatories and gardens, it is almost always evident that there are adults who do not remember just how dull these places are to little kids. I would bet that 99% of children under the age of 13 would prefer a playground to a greenhouse. A love of nature probably cannot be instilled by visiting gardens or even zoos at an early age, and it certainly cannot be accomplished by watching documentaries on television. There is no substitute for frolicking outdoors, in a place where it is okay to catch the animals, pick the flowers, and play in the water. For some reason, doing these things as a child evolved into my love of gardens as an adult. As corny as it sounds, gardens really have grown on me.