Last month, I finally made it to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the first time since the pandemic started. The Gardens are one of Chicago’s finest cultural institutions and, being almost entirely outdoors, are one of the only local destinations that is accessible right now. The garden paths have been beckoning me for months. I’ve been desperate to lay eyes on trees other than the ones I see waving outside my windows, the ones I pass on my loops around the neighborhood two, four, six times a day. What I really want is the wild, and the manicured lawns of the Gardens are not that, but they are sprawling, and I could certainly use a little space.
To cut down on the crowds, the Gardens are requiring visitors to pre-register for timed entry and are capping the number of visitors allowed in a day. The indoor greenhouses and displays are closed. Physical distancing is required, as well as masks when physical distancing is impossible. I brought our masks and told my daughter we would have to wear them when we entered the Gardens through a building and checked in at the membership desk. After weeks of wearing her mask all day every day at camp, she didn’t even complain, just pulled it up over her nose. We made our way through the entryway and check-in, grabbed a garden bingo sheet, and stepped out into the fresh air.
Under ordinary circumstances, we would would emerge onto the bridge that would carry us over a lily-pad spattered lake and onto the walking paths that wind for miles through acres of land, past millions of plants. We would admire the bulb gardens and native plant gardens and fruit and vegetable gardens and aquatic gardens and the sensory garden and the waterful garden and the dwarf conifer garden and the english oak meadow. We would stop walking and literally smell the flowers and then walk some more. My daughter would start dragging and we would sit in the grass and eat snacks. We would get lost behind the bell tower and suck honey sticks. We would look for fishes, frogs, and beavers in the ponds. We would head home sweaty and tired and feeling just a little bit more wild and free.
This time, the automated doors swung open and dumped us into a sea of people. Nobody was doing anything wrong. Family groups were clustered together. Everybody had a mask, even the kids. There were just so many people. It was impossible to walk more than a few yards without passing by another group with less than six feet of distance. I looked down at my daughter. “I’m sorry kid. We’re going to have to wear these outside, too.” She didn’t react except to heave a world weary sigh. Over the next few hours, every time I issued the order, “Mask up!” she stopped doing even that.
It was over ninety degrees and humid and we sweated our cheap cotton masks out too soon. I think D was licking hers, too. The day wasn’t a total bust, though. It had its moments. D took her shoes off and ran in the grass in the rose garden. She splashed in the fountain with a few other kids, got her dress soaked through. I wondered briefly if the water was safe, then dipped my own bandana in to wrap around my neck. We found a shade tree away from the crowds and sat down, ate snacks. We were delighted to stumble onto a bonsai collection set up in a hot brick courtyard. I hadn’t realized they would be there, and it seemed that nobody else did either. Inspired, D pulled out the old digital camera I handed down to her and took a picture of every single tree. I couldn’t believe she was saving me the effort. I can’t believe how obvious it is that she’s mine. D got tired before I did and I bribed her to keep going with honey sticks. “When the coast is clear,” I promised. Of course, there was a steady stream of foot traffic on the chain of islands that makes up the Japanese gardens, so we ducked off the path and snuck down to the water. We crouched under a willow tree and watched the minnows flit between the shadow and the sun. We heard the gallump-splash of frogs but didn’t spot any. We watched the cyclists on the other side of the lake and wondered if D’s dad had ridden here earlier today. We got sticky with honey. We wanted to never leave that spot.
Eventually we dragged ourselves back to the path. Against my better judgment, we walked through the indoor gift shop on the way out. We had to wait our turn outside a locked door. When the proprietor let us in we were grateful to be greeted by a rush of cold air and an empty store. We wandered longer than we needed to, gazing wistfully at the field guides and gauzy scarves and delicate jewelry and weird metal garden art. D fell in love with a stuffed eastern bluebird. We wanted to buy everything so I didn’t let us buy anything. It felt good enough to just look. I hadn’t realized how much I miss mindless shopping.
We headed up home sweaty and tired and feeling something decidedly less than wild and free. I glanced at D in the rearview mirror. “What do you think? Do you want to go camping next weekend? Spend some time in nature for real?”