Hanging in my apartment are two framed flower prints. They are sweet painted reminders that somewhere, past endless beige pavement laid beneath my feet, and walls of glass and iron towering above my head, nature exists. That not everything is made or modified by human hands for the sake of utility.
I have loved visiting these places – where nature is – since I was a little girl. Both in books, like The Secret Garden, and also in practice, like gardens that felt like a secret of my own, I found love. I found love first in places like Reynolda.
Before I go any further, I should mention that I’ve seen a fair share of “capital G” Gardens in my life. Mostly as a result of really privileged travels to amazingly beautiful places. Yes, this includes the usual European line up. Yes, they are all fantastic. But none are quite as lovely as the one that might as well be my backyard, and which, through others’ generosity, welcomes visitors at no cost. Can I get an amen?
Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University, or as natives call it, simply, Reynolda, is much better known to me as The Hiding Place. That family name – and yes, this place feels like family – comes from a story about parents and a daughter and hide and seek. While that little girl grew up, the namesake lasted, so “our” garden’s acres, tucked carefully between the sprawl of a college campus and equally boisterous downtown, will forever be known to my family of Southern transplants as The Hiding Place. Which reminds me, this was supposed to be about the gardens, apologies.
Sitting here in my apartment, with my set of painted flowers, I am reminded why I love Reynolda so much. Something special happens there – it is a place where I go to make peace with myself, and it never lets me down.
Peace usually starts with silence – the kind that creates enough space for me to think, or better, to feel – as I wander Reynolda’s quadrants of plants and flowers. And then, inevitably, there are sounds. A fountain. Children’s giggles. Leafy vines rustling in breezes best made by these small passersby, who, chasing friends or siblings, have escaped their adult counterparts and aren’t looking back. They are here to run, and their little shoes make the garden’s gravel pathways sing of their joy. With any, all, and still others of these cues, I am able to let my guard down. This is pure, genuine, beautiful life.
Walking along, labeled cards invite me to fall in love with one planted beauty at a time. I stop and read the Latin names I cannot understand. Usually I read them to myself, in my head.
On rare occasions where someone is with me
(going to the gardens is my truest form of self care – so few guests share my trips),
and if that person has a right sense of humor,
then I’m all about reading aloud, very badly butchering what should be beautiful names, and laughing in an entirely unladylike fashion – which is to say, much too vigorously and possibly with a snort. Because that is half the fun.
Please understand, if I know nothing of Latin, I know even less about gardening. But I do sincerely love gardens – and this garden in particular. Showing reverence for them, proper or not, is more than half of the ritual.
Sometimes, that means I am calm and ordered, like more intentionally tended sections. Reynolda’s roses, for instance, are famous for their beauty, but, as far as I’m concerned, also have prize-winning labels. They’re honestly impeccable – we’re talking not just types but also colors and years on these papers, which of course are all exactly the same size with exactly the same plastic stem planted firmly next to the prize-winning bushes.
Have I mentioned they have names like show dogs and race horses!?
The whole charade makes no sense to me.
Damn if it isn’t beautiful though.
Meanwhile, all this pomp and circumstance lends a certain air of importance, so when I walk by the roses, I feel compelled to stand up straighter, be very quiet and float along the path without disturbing the scene…too much.
Did your parents ever tell you to “look with your eyes only” while walking through an expensive store? [Mine did]. Did you ever get in trouble for doing the opposite? [You don’t even have to ask … but I did]. And then, when they were just out of sight, did you wonder if you might try not looking again? [I was a kid. Kids have no fear. Also, I was a handful of an older sister with two siblings to blame. So yes, absolutely. Sometimes I even got away with it.]
You get it.
That feeling, right there, is exactly what it’s like being among Reynolda’s roses. They’re lovely and perfect. I can appreciate their beauty. But ultimately, I just don’t belong with them because I’m not ordered or stately in the way they are.
It will come as no surprise to you then, that the roses are not what attracts me to Reynolda time and time again. Rather, the more wild and sprawling beauty of the English garden calls me back without fail. It never takes long. There, whole beds of soil host more varieties of flowers than you can count, side-by-side, a beautiful tapestry of reds, yellows, blues, purples and greens – the list goes on. Sometimes there are labels, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes the flowers bloom evenly, sometimes they don’t. But I look forward to seeing what calls that corner of Reynolda home every time.
By this point in my walk, my heart is full of love for the gardens. And that love, despite the roses’ occasional, silent scolding, reminds me of the love I have for everything and everyone else in my life.
Because love is, at its core, pure and true.
Which makes it completely freeing.
And walking in that freedom, I no longer hide behind the ideal of perfectly manicured lawns, shiny greenhouse walls, or prize-winning roses. Those things are beautiful. But I am not those things.
This realization is the eternal gift of the gardens. A gift that gives me strength to care for myself in a world that needs careful order and tending. In that world, even wild, unruly love cannot survive on its own. Even wild, unruly love needs care. And for care, there is Reynolda.
Maybe it’s the recent nice weather (hello, spring!). Maybe it’s that I’ve been cooped up with a head cold/flu for the past two days, frustrated at the thought of what glorious sunshine I’m missing, both here and in North Carolina. But sitting here sick in my apartment, hundreds of miles away from my own “secret garden,” I am so thankful for the two painted flowers that remind me nature exists. And that where there is nature, there will be someone to nurture it.
Until I get back to The Hiding Place, these unassuming prints remind me to love and be loved. And not only that, but to find love of the best sort – love that is wild and unruly.
Ryan Vale McGonigle
P.S. This 2013 article from Winston-Salem Monthly is the truest description I have found for what makes Reynolda so special. If you’re intrigued or confused or ready to fall in love with this corner of the world, I invite you to read it! Interestingly enough, it comes from a former New Yorker. So there you have it, a North Carolinian in New York endorses a New Yorker in North Carolina. Stranger things have happened.