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December, 2008

Gardens Have To Grow On You

by Valerie

Maybe I was not a typical child, but I cannot remember really enjoying my early visits to zoos. I must have been taken to the Brookfield Zoo or the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and I must have had a pleasant enough time to at least behave myself, but I have no recollection of having an especially good time at these places. Did I find animals boring? No way! From the time I was aware enough to form memories, I loved animals. I liked our dogs, the fish and turtles that we kept in aquariums, and certainly all the creepy little critters that I found outside. I drew animals in all my artwork, played with stuffed animals, and saved pictures of animals from magazines. So why would zoos, which are the most obvious place to see animals, not be high on my list of fond memories? I suspect it has to do with the barriers, structure, and rules. Any place where a child is only allowed to walk around and look at the fauna does not hold a candle to a place where they can get up close and personal with those same beasts. Of course, it would be impractical to pet a tiger or bear, but then that makes those species less impressive than, say, a squirrel that one can actually feed or a snake one can hold. As a kid, my sphere of awareness was probably about 5 feet in diameter, and rarely included more "distant" phenomena.

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.

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