But I had made my way up a one-way path to a hilltop garden, the highest natural point on Evening Island and as quiet a spot as you might find in the north suburban nature preserve.
"I wish that all these people would go away," one visitor had said earlier, perhaps not recognizing that she was, in fact, one of the people crowding things up.
I was about to sit on one of the hilltop garden's big rock chunks and reflect on my day at the 385-acre garden, situated 24 miles north of downtown
The day had included bicycling and craft beer (so, by definition, a good day); what has to be earth's most surreal model railroad; and so much meticulously landscaped acreage that it is both inspiring and daunting to the average backyard spade wielder.
I needed to rest my legs and lower back for a spell -- you can literally walk all day here -- and think about the place and my own gardening sins, which mostly involve omission and its eager sidekick, weeds.
But in one of those coincidences that would seem contrived if you saw it in a movie, in between the time my knees bent to sit and my backside hit the rock, a clatter of deeply resonant bells seemed to peal out from the very trees all around me. Ink on paper cannot do the noise justice. "Clang?" "CLANG?" "CLANG-CLANG-CLANG!" Like that, but more loud, more capital.
Though partly hidden by leaves and branches, the island's carillon tower is right next door to the hilltop, and the time, wouldn't you know, was exactly 4 o'clock. The carillon wanted to let everyone in the garden know this chronological fact, but it seemed to want to let me in particular know. (A carillon, for the unfamiliar, is essentially a tower full of bells selected for qualities, including volume.)
I jumped a little. I laughed a little, because the timing really was absurd. And, of course, as I gathered my breath afterward, the only phone call I received all day came in.
But interrupted peacefulness is atypical at the
My scribbles also included the phrase "preternaturally pretty," and I think it's a fair one. Beyond mere nature, this is botany as an upper-class matron, done up with all of the perfection, all of the styling and makeup and grooming that time, money and taste can create. Here, even the parking lots are lovely.
To be sure, at the
The Model Railroad Garden runs 16 working vintage model trains through a tableau of extreme plant-tending surrounding occasionally kitschy replicas of American landmarks (especially
A Heritage Garden pays homage to Renaissance-era gardens in
There's a Waterfall Garden featuring what you'd expect, plus ducks that visitors have trained, unintentionally, to hang around begging for food. The Enabling Garden shows garden designs that can work for people with disabilities, while, just behind it, the Sensory Garden displays plants that speak especially loudly to the senses.
None of these gardens -- there are 26 -- is a postage stamp, by the way. They've all got breadth and ambition and moments of absolute charm.
But my first favorite was the Landscape Garden, intended to show us what can be achieved at home (with, the signage doesn't bother to add, the services of a top-tier landscape architect and a team of weed-pulling minions who stop by three or four times a week). It is a pipe-dream kind of place for a person of my budget priorities, but what a beautiful pipe and what a beautiful dream.
But then my favorite became Evening Island, less cultivated looking despite being a showcase for "the New American Garden Style of landscape design." It's 5 acres, and it's south of the main area, so there is room to roam and think (and to have carillon bells thunder in your ear).
That, of course, was soon supplanted by the Japanese Garden, two islands to the east that at once feel the most formal and the most artistic on the property. There are peaceful, quiet corners to sit and talk intimately, as well as pebble-covered gardens that are only for looking. The sign there explained that the Japanese gardening style presents an "abstract and idealized" version of nature, but, of course, that's true of the
The garden is a monument to pathways. Whether of brick, gravel, stone or grass, they snake everywhere on the grounds. In a day spent amid them, you are reminded of how alluring to humans any path can be. Seeing one, it's hard to just walk the other way.
But despite existing primarily on a series of islands in a sort of lake or lagoon system, the garden could take better advantage of its waterways. A pricey annual
The garden says it wants to keep things quiet, rather than having voices travel across water. But this seems a questionable concern in a place where voices on land often surround you. And wouldn't it be nice to see the
But it has grown up and out quickly, in the manner of a well-tended garden. The garden surpassed 1 million visitors last year for the first time, a culmination of five straight years of attendance growth.
More than just a place to display what green thumbs can do, it is a working research center, employing some 200 scientists, graduate students and interns in botanical science; a few dozen of them are from a joint graduate program in plant biology and conservation with
Much of the research happens in the
This is not a campus at rest. Construction starts in the fall on an ambitious new project, the north end Learning Campus, which will include kids gardens and classroom space. A more current bit of construction news involves biking, a key part of the garden's DNA.
Whenever I visit, I try to ride, time depending, for at least 10 of the 17 miles leading to it on the
The food in the visitor center cafeteria is pretty good, although the seating, built out on a deck over water, gets crowded and, on the busy day I was most recently there, staff needed to do a better job picking up abandoned trays and emptying recycling and garbage bins before they filled up.
If you let yourself think about it, you can hear the whine of traffic from an adjacent highway (
But these are quibbles with a place that is entrancing in the big picture and in most of the small ones. It defies you to take a bad picture or, really, to leave your camera in your pocket.
It shares its bounty with you. You can often buy plants to take home, or vegetables at the farmers markets (first and third Sundays, through Oct. 19).
And for all of its size and scope, small, human touches abound. One of the best is the series of little chalkboard signs mounted in gardens throughout the facility.
Other institutions these days try to make their signs dynamic and easily changeable by using iPads. These mini chalkboards were far more effective and far more personable (although perhaps less appealing to small children, but the world already caters plenty to them).
As I walked through, I began to feel like I was in conversation with the signs' author, who was serving as the best kind of tour guide: there when I wanted her, but entirely willing to be ignored when I didn't.
Those signs, I learned, are the work of one person,
If a surprise carillon bell is one kind of stimulus, Zaworski's modest but informative messages were exactly the other.
Don't bother: There's a lot going on in the central Regenstein Center, including a busy library, a sort of conservatory and a new orchid show in the late winter and spring. But it's indoors, and parts of the building are drab. If you are on a time budget, spend it elsewhere.
Pro tips: By all means arrive on foot or by bike, if you can pull it off. The garden, in one of my favorite policies by any
Take advantage of the bevy of summer evening programming (details at chicagobotanic.org). And the Garden Guide app, for iOS and Android, is pretty nifty, but you could be forgiven for wanting to ignore your mobile phone here.
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