A Long Row to Hoe: How Gardening Offers a Primer for Life

The January issue of National Geographic features articles on two topics dear to me: American’s national parks (I just planned a Grand Canyon/Arches trip for June!), and the power of nature to improve mental health. The latter article cites scientific evidence that nature makes us happier, more productive, nicer to each other, and—critically—more forgiving of ourselves. Additional evidence of this has been published in recent issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Nature.

PHOTO: Potato harvest.
Gardening is therapy for the whole being.

Gardeners recognize this power: We find therapy digging in the earth, getting our hands dirty, and participating intimately in the miracles of life, as well as the floods, freezes, insects, diseases, and other gardening disasters that allow us to witness low-stakes death firsthand.

Gardeners know that even when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with our harvest, she doesn’t let us down. Nature is generally consistent, and when it isn’t, it is surprisingly consistent in its inconsistency. We can trust in it to adapt and evolve, to persevere endlessly and, when we let it, to heal and support us. We have no choice but to respect and defer to nature’s ways, even when they don’t always act in our favor. I find this incredibly reassuring.

Last winter, I was paying particular attention to my own mental health and finding essential comfort in the Chicago Botanic Garden—its paths and purpose, my colleagues, and my friends.

PHOTO: Winter in Kane County.
All seasons provide moments for us to photograph and enjoy.

In early January, I listened closely to a National Public Radio interview with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, who spoke openly and confidently about his own personal mental health challenges. Inspired, I thought that I too could share some of my story, and had the opportunity to do so in the pages of Sibbaldia, the journal of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The essay can be read here, but I think it is important to share a bit with you:

“It’s a long row to hoe” were the first words that came into my mind one morning. The day before me felt too busy, too much. How was I going to get everything done while being a good mother and daughter, an attentive partner and friend, and an effective leader? How would I balance the pressure of meetings, phone calls, and ever-increasing e-mail traffic while ensuring that dinner was on the table and my sons’ homework was completed on time? Where would I find time to be kind to myself somewhere along the way? I know this challenge is familiar to many women, and it certainly was not the first time I had felt this way. Furthermore, I have wrestled with feelings of anxiety my whole life, and moments like this one have been with me since I was young.

But that morning, when the idiom “It’s a long row to hoe” started repeating in my mind with the persistence of a pop song, I smiled, exhaled, and experienced an epiphany of sorts. My problems suddenly felt reframed. Never before had I really thought about that phrase. I said out loud, “Wow, the noun is ‘row,’ not ‘road’! This phrase is about gardening and farming…Growing things!”

PHOTO: Summer woods.
Making time and finding a space to reflect in nature is essential.

While I may not yet hold the gift of perpetual tranquility, I do know how to garden. Yes, I have learned that hoeing some rows is harder than others, when rocks and weeds or puddles are in the way, but I am always certain I can get the job done. And the labor I expend while gardening even makes me feel rejuvenated—both mentally and physically. At that moment, I wondered if I thought of each day that lay ahead as a metaphorical row to hoe—and plant, water, weed, harvest, and then allow to rest—would life feel easier? And it does. Some seasons give me the most delicious tomatoes and delphiniums that stand up straight, even in Chicago. Other days I wake to a late freeze or spend hours picking off slugs. Knowing that I can handle the ups and downs of gardening, I felt better prepared to face my more typical day with renewed mental strength, tranquility, and courage.

I know I am not alone in believing that people live better, healthier lives when they create, care for, and enjoy gardens. Millions of people tend backyard or container gardens, or keep plants in their home or office window to enrich their life. Even in winter, there are many ways to enjoy gardens and nature. One thing I do is put on my boots and take a nature walk, simply enjoying the experience of being outside. Browse seed catalogues or gardening books, and plan your summer garden. If you take a vacation, visit the local botanic garden. Dream of the tropics at the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Take nature photos. You can even view lovely garden scenes or videos while you work out. Gardening, visiting gardens, and taking advantage of the science, education, and therapy programs offered by more than 1,000 botanic gardens, arboreta, and conservatories around the world are helping many individuals and communities to cope, mourn, and rejoice.

PHOTO: The renewal of spring in the Garden: peonies in bloom in the West Flower Walk.
The renewal of spring in the Garden: peonies in bloom in the West Flower Walk.

Gardens give us a bounty of gifts: beautiful flowers to share and enjoy, fresh vegetables for our tables. Their greatest gift of all may be intangible, but we are so grateful for their unique power to help us lead happier, healthier lives.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Chicago Botanic Garden Named One of Best Charities in Chicago – #GivingTuesday

The Chicago Botanic Garden is so honored to have been selected one of the Top 20 best charities in Chicago by Chicago Magazine.*

PHOTO: A young boy learns some urban agriculture skills with Windy City Harvest.
Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram,
and Facebook on #GivingTuesday.

The magazine used criteria such as a four-star ranking from the independent organization Charity Navigator to select finalists. The Top 20 “stand out for their mission, impact, and value to the community,” the magazine said in its November issue.

Our more than 1 million visitors enjoy the Garden for its beauty and find joy through our collection of more than 2.6 million plants.

As the article noted, “The Chicago Botanic Garden is about more than pretty plants,” citing the jobs training and access to fresh foods through Windy City Harvest and the education from preschool to Ph.D. that will be offered at the new Regenstein Learning Campus. Our lives truly depend on how well we understand, value, and protect the plants that sustain our world.

PHOTO: The rooftop garden at McCormick Place, Managed by Windy City Harvest.
Get involved by supporting the Chicago Botanic Garden. Donate to our Annual Fund.

The article also pointed out something special about our neighbors and friends: Chicagoans are generous—and like to give locally. You will be able to see for yourself on Giving Tuesday, December 1, as Chicagoans join the global social media campaign to give back to their communities.


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

There’s a tree 20 feet above the Chicago Botanic Garden

Why is there a tree on the exposed beams of the under-construction Education Center at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus?

PHOTO: A construction worker "tops off" the site, as the team reaches the halfway point in the construction of the new campus.
A construction worker “tops off” the site, as the team reaches the halfway point in the construction of the new campus.

That tree is part of a more than 1,000-year-old tradition to recognize a very special moment in the construction of a building. The tree is hoisted up and placed on the beams by the project’s construction workers, in our case by those from Waukegan Steel, LLC, during a “topping out” or “topping off” ceremony.

The practice of placing a tree atop a building signals the end of the framing phase of construction, and it is a tradition that originated in eighth century Scandinavia. The tree used is often a pine, but it can be of any type; originally, sheathes of wheat were used. As the tree is raised, usually adorned by a flag, to the building’s final beam, the team celebrates with a toast or a meal. It’s a moment to acknowledge the workers’ skill and successful accomplishment, the safety of the worksite, and the transition to the next phase of the project. The tree also provides a blessing of sorts to those who will dwell, work, and play in the building in the future, and pays homage to the materials (originally wood) that make shelter possible.

PHOTO: Despite the blustery day, the construction team was excited to celebrate the success of the project so far.
Despite the blustery day, the construction team was excited to celebrate the success of the project so far.

We know that plants are critical to sustain life on Earth. Much of our food, clean air and water, clothing, medicine, and shelter derive from plants. And, in addition to needing plants to sustain life, we rely on plants to help us enrich our life and to celebrate its important milestones. We give plants and flowers as gifts—to court those we desire, to lift the spirits of friends or acquaintances who are sick—or to memorialize and honor those who have passed away. Guests coming to a friend’s house for dinner bring a fragrant hostess gift. In some places, a homecoming corsage is still part of coming of age.

Our Science and Education curriculum is made possible by you, our generous donors and sponsors.

So when I look up at the tree atop the beams of the Education Center on our soon-to-be Regenstein Foundation Learning Campus, not only do I celebrate this milestone of construction and the accomplishments of the steelworkers who are making this important project possible, I also think about how many wonderful ways plants enrich our lives.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

What’s so powerful about a powerfully bad smell?

Having recently experienced the magical bloom of our titan arum Alice the Amorphophallus at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we were reminded of the pure joy that plants can bring.

Alice provided special moments for many people—including me.

On September 28, at 12:51 a.m., I received a text from the Chicago Botanic Garden’s senior director of marketing, Jennifer Napier. All night, she had been watching the feed from a camera trained on the plant we hoped would yield the result that our first titan arum, Spike, did not. She texted because she had noticed something incredible: Alice was blooming.

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden President and CEO Sophia Shaw pollinates a titan arum from the collection.
That’s me! Pollinating Alice the Amorphophallus took steady hands and quite a bit of concentration.

What a wonderful surprise. I took a breath and thought: This is it. This is what so many dedicated horticulturists at the Garden have been waiting for, and watching for, with our collection of eight titan arums over these last 12 years.

I arrived at the Garden just after 3 a.m.—my headlights reflecting in eyes of the raccoons who call our 385 acres home—and was let in by the third-shift security officers who keep the Garden safe at night.

At the Semitropical Greenhouse, I met outdoor floriculturist Tim Pollak, “Titan Tim,” and we breathed in the plant’s horrible, wonderful smell. Tom Zombolo, senior director, facilities and maintenance, joined us soon after. I don’t have scientific evidence to support this, but it was my impression that Alice “knew” we were there; maybe our warmth and carbon-monoxide exhales made the plant believe we were pollinators? I don’t know, but in the several minutes following our greenhouse entry, we perceived that Alice’s rotten scent became even more intense. There would be a lot of activity very soon, but we shared a quiet moment to reflect on this rare phenomenon and the extraordinary dedication of so many to reach this point.

Later, thanks to Tim and scientists Shannon Still and Pat Herendeen, I had the chance to hand-pollinate Alice with pollen supplied by “Spike” and our friends at the Denver Botanic Gardens. That moment was one of the most exciting and moving experiences of my life.

Alice was on view until 2 a.m. that night, and visitors of all ages patiently stood in line up to three hours to see, and smell, the corpse flower. I was grateful for the Garden operations staff, led by Harriet Resnick, who—in ways large and small—made the experience so satisfying for our visitors. More than 20,000 people visited Alice, and it was such a happy occasion for all.

PHOTO: Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice was the see-and-be-seen event on September 29-30. It's true—she was more popular than Beyoncé for a while.
Twitter tells the story: #CBGAlice inspired and amazed visitors September 29-30.

Help us harness the power of plants to engage our senses and our communities—sponsor a program through our Annual Fund today.

Alice has now returned to the production greenhouse, joining the seven other titan arums in the Garden’s collection. Will serendipity happen again with another corpse flower bloom? Nature will determine that. But I do know these kinds of special moments truly reflect the power of plants to educate, inspire, and bring joy.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Following Nature’s Path to Living Museums

We often refer to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a “living museum.” As an art historian and a natural history museum aficionado, this term makes sense to me.

PHOTO: The Japanese bridge in Giverny by Claude Monet.
The Japanese bridge in Giverny by Claude Monet

When I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, I helped curate the 1995 encyclopedic Claude Monet: 1840–1926 retrospective. So, when I first joined the Garden in 2006 and began thinking about the “living museum” term, I recalled that experience. Indeed, what canvas is more similar to Monet’s than our garden’s 385 acres of exquisitely arranged plants that change with the light and weather hour-to-hour—exactly like Monet’s Impressionist subjects? And then I considered the hundreds of millions of specimens in the collections of natural history museums; the only difference between these institutions’ curated collections and the Garden’s is their current state of life.

When we slow down enough to look carefully, museum collections provide us with tremendous opportunities to learn about ourselves—and the world. At botanic gardens, plants provide us with inspiration and metaphors for life; trees, flowers, grasses, shrubs, and their cycles of life reflect our own. Similarly, at an art museum, by examining closely and quietly paintings and sculptures, we open our minds to the complexity, creativity, and diversity of people who have lived and now occupy our planet. Studying the skeletons, insects and birds, ceremonial clothing, and objects from daily life in natural history museums allows us to celebrate both the magical and mundane aspects of the human spirit and to marvel at the exquisite miracle of evolution. The same can be said for the experience at a zoo or an aquarium—two other “living museum” examples. These institutions provide us a unique opportunity to admire, and also to protect through breeding and conservation programs, animals whose natural habitats are worlds away from our own.

PHOTO: Wyrex Edmontonia fossils.
Wyrex Edmontonia fossils
PHOTO: Japanese macaque, Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Japanese macaque

Common to all of these museum experiences is that the original “object”—whether a plant, painting, fossil, mask, fish, or monkey—is the focal point. The experience of activating all of our senses when encountering something that has been crafted by a person, by nature, or as a result of some human-nature collaboration (which is usually the case) cannot be replicated online, in print, or on the screen. Those experiences matter, too. And even though I love and admire National Geographic across all its media, I am never so moved as when I take in the paintings in a brilliantly curated art exhibition, examine the fossils or stones in a perfectly explained science exhibition, contemplate the earth and its people while examining a compelling collection of artifacts, or stop to admire the play of colors, composition, form, and chiaroscuro (the contrasts of lights and darks) of an expertly crafted garden bed.

As you can tell, I love all types of museums. However, I owe my passion for living museums, especially botanic gardens, to Lewis and Clark. Why? A couple of years before the bicentennial of the explorers’ journey, I set out on a tour of the Pacific Northwest. I was working for the Field Museum at the time. My mission was to figure out how to create an exhibition that would rival the Missouri Historical Society’s planned anniversary show, a show chock-full of all the original artifacts such as diaries and navigation devices that had been touched by Lewis and Clark’s own hands.

While I never did figure out an exhibition for the Field (since no original artifacts would be available to come to Chicago, we finally gave up since an exhibition of replicas wouldn’t do), I did stumble upon the passion that would guide the next chapter of my career.

PHOTO: Fern.After driving three hours through verdant, wooded, beautiful Washington State, I parked my car and started to climb the wooden staircase up a steep hill to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at the mouth of the Columbia River. Along both sides of the steep path, nature was thriving. In the still-cool late-morning air, I saw and smelled—could almost taste!—moss and lichen in dozens of shades of green, gray, and yellow; ferns, mosses, and trees; and small and large butterflies. I knew at that moment that I wanted to give people, especially those from Chicago’s urban center, the opportunity to experience nature first-hand.

And that is when my journey to the Chicago Botanic Garden began, my definition of a museum expanded, and my commitment to sharing with all people the wide variety of fascinating and inspiring curated collections became life-long.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org