Yesterday I took a walk along the trails of the Ann Arbor Matthaei Botanical Gardens. There was a time when I would visit the trails at least once every two weeks taking along my camera and exploring. I’ve always felt drawn to the outdoors and the gardens have been a favorite place of mine over the years.
My first visit was around 1995 when I first married and wanted to share experiences with the outdoors with my wife like camping, fishing and nature trails. As a kid I camped for a few days each summer and enjoyed it so as I always try to do I wanted her to enjoy it too. I always expect people to enjoy the things not as I did when I was a kid. While I don’t remember how I found out about the botanical gardens I do remember we used to drive around sometimes looking for yard sales or on my quest to find a better fishing spot/nature trail. On our first visit we stuck to the outskirts of the trails picking a spot under a thicket of Redbud trees forming a canopy and perfect spot to sit and talk for a bi ; secluded enough and peaceful . We brought along a wicker basket we got at a yard sale complete with little red and white checked napkins and containers which we filled with treats like cheese, sausage, sweets and something to drink though I don’t remember what. Placing the blanket on the ground we sat for a while enjoying nature, our goodies and chatting. That memory has always come to mind over the years when I visit the gardens and one of the stories I’ve told the kids over and over again. It always made me smile to think about it. On that first visit we didn’t venture into the trails very far but eventually we would come back explore more.
When we came back we walked along the trails following the colored arrows for a while then we took a few turns off the trail we were on, I always do that even now thinking I might find something I hadn’t seen before. There are blue, yellow and I believe orange trails to follow each marked periodically with a post and arrow indicating what trail you are on. These days they have maps in some areas to show you the layout and where you are on the map making it easier to find you way around or out. The trails cross over each other in some spots so you can take the yellow trail then turn on the blue trail depending on where you want to go. I actually used one of those yesterday to find a spot I like. We ended up at the far end of the blue trail that opens up to a large pond and trail that follows around it. The trees were in full bloom and it seemed like the woods didn’t have an end making you feel like you are miles into a forest. You could see into the woods at some areas but for the most part it was dense and impassible. By the time we reached the pond I believe we were somewhat lost not really having a good idea how to get to the exit/entrance where our car was parked. Eventually we would make it back to a wooden bridge on the yellow trail where we stopped for a while and sat. Sitting on the bridge I pulled out a cassette tape recorder to record the sounds of the running water, sounds of nature and a few words we spoke. I don’t know why I did that but it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Years later I found that tape and listened to it on the same little recorder. Our voices sounded so young like a couple of kids which I guess we were. I think I still have that tape tucked away in a box somewhere but I’m not sure if I recorded over it with something else during out “techno music” years. Walking towards the exit it was dark and we ended up going the wrong way until we came to a small fence on the side of the road leading back to the parking area. Instead of trying to find the way out we jumped the fence and walked back to the car which seemed to take forever. By this time the gate was closed and locked but luckily there was enough of a gap between the poles and entrance sign that I was able to drive between them in our little car. It felt safe to finally be in the car.
Eventually the trips would come less because of work and things that take more time and effort in life. Still at times I found myself going alone to explore the trails looking for new places and thinking back on our adventures. Then kids came and I when they were old enough I was happy to introduce them to the gardens hoping they would enjoy it as much I as have. We would walk the same trails and like I always do I’d tell them about how their mother and I walked this same trail or sat in that same bench. I’m always doing that and I know my kids think, “dad we heard that one already.” Thinking back over the years and telling them about it has always made me happy though. I guess they listen just because I’m dad and well that’s what a dad does.
An evasive species of insects invaded our area years ago and attacked trees like the Ash tree which is a common tree here. As a result the gardens started to take on a different look and I would visit then leave feeling sad at the way things were changing. I still had the memories of how it looked years ago but now so many of the large trees were dead, cut down or leaning against the few healthy threes remaining. I was also afraid to take my kids there as often because I would always picture a large limb falling on one of them. Because of this I stopped visiting for a long time.
A couple years ago I started to visit the gardens again on regular basis, though not as often as I used to, and was happy to see efforts being made at planting new trees and protecting the area. When I visited yesterday I looked like I’d remembered it years ago with healthy tree’s, thick vegetation and an abundance of wild life. I even saw a fox running in a field. Trees take years to grow large so I know it’s not like the forest just came to life in a matter of a few years so these large trees were there the whole time but I just saw the dead trees and lost focus on what was alive. My trip yesterday was really one of the best trips I’d taken there in years. I stopped along the way at the wooden bridge my wife and I sat on and remembered the way we got lost, held hands while walking out because she was a little nervous and I admit I was too. I found myself at the far and of the trail sitting on the bench looking over the pond. The far end of the blue trail is a quiet place and rarely do you see another person that deep into the walk. It’s my favorite place to sit.
As I always do I thought about my life and the years gone by. There were moments of sadness but I smiled too. I’m lucky to have had the time there with my family and I also know that while things are changing I can still spend time there with my kids. I am looking forward to another visit to the botanical gardens with them. Who knows what new memories I might build there over the coming years.