Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Get thee to the Peonies

Just a few days ago, my friend Stephanie Preston sent me the link to this recent and beautifully rendered piece of reporting about a secret corner of the Nichols Arboretum.

As I read it, I was sitting in a lounge chair under a Douglas Fir tree on the shores of  Hood Canal in Washington state. I was a guest in a very simple but stately resort called Alderbrook, built in the first decade of the twentieth century. It still has a sense of old world charm, despite being in the midst of a region that knew all too well the ravages of large scale logging operations. Today, the area radiates only peaceful repose. The loudest sounds are seaplanes occasionally arriving or departing; or the noise of an entire group of conservation experts, assembled by NOAA for a meeting on indicators of community well being in marine conservation areas, giving a collective "whoop" and throwing themselves simultaneously into the cold salty water after too long sitting in conference rooms.

Reading in that idyllic Pacific Northwestern setting about the harm to the Arb made me reflect on how different spots on this planet, at various scales, have their times for damage and their time to heal. I perused the comments that accompany the slideshow of Schoolgirl's Glen in Ann Arbor, smiling to myself. I love when my colleague, Bob Grese (pictured here) shares his outdoor literacy. One cold morning when another colleague and I found a small bird outside the Dana building that seemed injured, we brought it inside. Of course it escaped from us, fluttering through the corridors just outside the main administrative offices. We attempted ineffectually to trap it, squawking about like birds ourselves. Bob arrived and with quiet confidence secured the poor, confused creature. He gently placed it back where it belonged. You might say he mediates the surrounding environment for a lot of us, in small and large ways, suffusing that work with his own scholarly understandings of the art and science of landscape.

As Director of the Arboretum, Bob has been working for years toward healing the land in this corner where woods once opened in gentle slope down to a riverbank.  Studying the images online, arranged like a naturalist's notebook, I learned to recognize scars that would otherwise simply have struck me as "rocks" and "mud," (no, that is "pre-glaciation sediment" which, while of interest to geologists, should NOT be exposed under our feet!)

This morning, on a run in the arb with my collie Stella, the two of us briefly explored the mouth of School Girl's Glen. Sure enough, right at the base near a lush bend in the river (a heron lifted off as we were exploring) the former glen was traversed by drainpipes, and the breeze carried whiffs of human sewage. Above our heads we could hear the beeping sounds of trucks backing up and moving around in construction sites around the ever expanding (and excellent) hospital complex atop the hill.

Troubling, to think of the hospital infrastructure, which never seems able to grow quite fast enough to keep ahead of all of our cancers and cardiovascular disease, all of our diabetes and strokes. Ironically, many such illnesses might have been mitigated before reaching crisis proportions in our bodies and societies,  just by time spent moving through a place like the Arb. Certainly i never ran there, until cardiologists sternly admonished me to do so.

The healing benefits of such exercise seem to pertain, whether in the arb as it used to be (oh, to stroll with schoolmates of a morning, gathering wildlflowers to press in the afternoon) or as it is now (quick Stella, we're late for my next meeting, let's go!). But they are all the more urgently needed in the hurried, stressed out lives we lead these days.

Stella, usually so sure footed and nimble, stumbled repeatedly on the loose, round boulders so raw and exposed, as if they were angrily deterring us from clambering over a gaping, open wound.  We turned around to re-establish our running pace on the less damaged paths of the arboretum.

No, Schoolgirl's Glen is not the place it once was.  Still it offers surprisingly timeless scenes: two young men were out fishing together in the Huron River (oh, dear...effluent?), wading into the cool water that wet their shorts, bare-chested but for their vests. Two others sat on stumps under a blossoming tree, locks of sunlit hair falling over their foreheads as they gazed down at the ground, lost in emotional discussion. Yet another sat alone on a picnic table, stroking his strawberry blond beard and gazing out at the river's continued rush in this long, wet spring.  Several pairs of forty something women triathletes-in-training also ran by, their pace so much faster than mine as to be a bit embarrassing. And then, at last, Stella and I arrived at the peony beds, clustered like a glorious shawl around the shoulders of that ravaged part of the Arb's body.

From the entrance to the peony beds one can peer down into a ravine at what is left of School Girl's Glen, seeing the erosion in sharp relief. Then, upon pivoting, one's eyes fill with the ephemeral beauty of the spring peony peak: a rich spectacle for all those of us who don't have the time to collect and press wildflowers.

The field of peonies was strangely empty this morning, wildly fragrant with the notes of earth, citrus, and rose being exhaled respectively by the thousands of different varieties of peony blossoms. When we had come yesterday evening around 8:30 pm, hundreds of Ann Arborites were strolling through these beds. Some were dressed in medieval garb and gadding about as four star crossed couples for the final dress rehearsal of As You Like It, this year's Shakespear in the Arb offering.  Others were in contemporary dress and seemed to actually BE couples (but, then, all the world's a stage?), swooning amidst the blooms  for photos that would announce their imminent weddings. Larger groups sat on blankets and lawn chairs, breathing in the aromas and drinking in the visual abundance of so many blossoms, along with their actual picnic suppers.

Whatever else is happening, and despite disregard for the buffer zones it desperately needs, the Arb continues to heal both itself, and its community. Those of us who benefit from that should listen closely to the words, spoken in frustration by Le Beau to Orlando in the second scene of As You Like it.  Truer ones cannot be found for our ongoing dance withe the soil and stone, blooms, and roots that embrace us, and all the creatures around us:
Hereafter, in a better world than this,
I shall desire more love and knowledge of you.