Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Your Visit to the Jensen Botanical Garden

The parking lot is shady, accessible, tidy, and empty. Once out of the car, the noise from Fair Oaks Blvd. dominates all other observations. It's loud. And, at 8:30 in the morning, incessant. Walking around alone, the street noise emphasizes the quiet of the garden. But if a person wanted to be heard, it wouldn't be easy.

The garden isn't entirely quiet. Fwap. Pause.....fwap....pause....fwap again. Things are falling out of the trees. Acorns, one would imagine. For a few minutes it seems as if an acorn falls on the spot you just stepped out of again and again. (One just hit the car I'm sitting in to type. Oh, and another.) So you stop and look up into the treetops. A tell-tale ruffling of the leaves several stories up gives away a squirrel's presence. Leaves flutter down from the spot. Thunk. An acorn hits the roof of the covered bridge behind you.

Before you'd gotten distracted with all this fwapping and thunking, you'd crossed that little bridge to enter the garden from the parking lot. The parking lot is bordered on three sides by a creek, or two creeks. Fair Oaks Blvd. and a drainage ditch line the fourth side. Only one bridge joins the park to the parking lot: a simple, old wooden footbridge with a little roof over it.

(A black phoebe settled on a post beside my car to watch me typing. The post is on the high bank of the little creek. Maybe he is also watching for bugs on the water. Maybe it's not all about me.)

Before you'd crossed the little bridge, you'd read the sign revealing the park's name, hours, and rules. "Photographers must get permit" is the most curious of them. None of them require you to enjoy yourself. Don't play; Don't bring a dog. You may volunteer and you may donate to help the park.

Bearing all this in mind, you leave the parking lot, cross the little bridge, and enter the garden. Over the sound of the cars, a bird chirps brightly. Now you recognize it as the chirp of the black phoebe, but until you saw him, you didn't. You only wondered when the sound of traffic would fade into the background. Maybe when you're wondering that, it stays in the foreground. It dominates your experience of the garden.

The paths are not distinct. This way and that a line of rocks and worn portions of earth indicate that here is probably where one is intended to walk. By contrast, directly across the creek from the parked car, outside the garden boundaries, a clearly worn path leads over a little ridge. Paper napkins, a coffee cup, and other litter in the leaves mark the sides of this path. You can't see over the ridge to know where it leads.

Choosing a path that seems to lead to the back of the garden, in an effort to get farther away from the road, isn't rewarding. It arcs around and leads quickly to a split rail fence, beyond which is a dense maze of tall weeds. Beyond which seem to be some lush backyards. The path curves up and leads to a house. On the house are five or six signs advising you "this is a private residence; do not disturb occupants." A black kitten hides when it sees you. The house is also adorned with a well-developed layer of cobwebs, decorated with dried leaves and dead bugs.

Now you've circumnavigated the garden. It's small. Even with long pauses to look at the treetops and ascertain if you are being intentionally targeted with acorns, it hasn't taken more than 15 minutes. The path you're on turns into a driveway that runs from the kitten's house back to Fair Oaks Blvd. So you retrace your steps and then turn off on a side trail. Here a drinking fountain stands at the top of a pipe. You test the foot-pedal to see what will happen. Gurgling, groaning, then silver water streams forth. You're not thirsty. But you're glad to see it actually works.

Planting beds are set off from areas of lawn by borders of river rocks. The lawns are green and mowed. The garden is very shady. The dappled pattern of shade on the grass and beds is very pretty. The plants in the beds are not labeled. Except the rhodedendrons. And one stately, undated plaque memorializes a Doris Bish. Among the plants, you recognize columbine, hydrangea, a California rose, young redwood trees, several varieties of oak. A number of redwood trees seem to have been planted recently, perhaps anticipating the demise of some of the other trees. Many of the trees in the garden are leaning, or even curved. Although they are mature and have surely been here for many years, you are not inspired with confidence in their likelihood to remain standing indefinitely. It is eerie to see so many trees seeming to be so attracted to the ground that they can't straighten up.

Looping back to where you began your tour of the garden, you notice now the dominant tree in the garden. It's a very large -- tall with many thick, reaching branches -- valley oak. Having always felt a particular fondness for the solid, trustworthy valley oak, you are surprised to feel a sense of menace as you gaze at this one. Its trunk is large, but certainly not the largest you've seen. What makes its branches seem so threatening? Its branches are enormous, as big as trees themselves, and they curve and bend in the usual way of valley oaks. But usually valley oaks seem unassuming. Like protective, generous, gracious hosts to the families of birds, rodents, and insects that thrive in them. This tree, however, seems to have an intention, a purpose that you'd be best off not to pry into.

Benches are placed throughout the park in spots that afford peaceful views of the trees and planting beds. You elect not to sit today.

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