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The Beautiful Arboretum

Monday, June 5, 2006

What a pleasure, to be invited to Kirtland, Ohio's gorgeous, 3,500-acre Holden Arboretum to give a talk on warblers! I spent the weekend in the company of friends, birds, and innumerable plants, each and every one of which I lusted after. The plants. I mean I lusted after the plants.
I learned what constitutes a "good" rhododendron from my new friend Marian, who is director of public programs. It's a completely round ball of flowers, served up in a "cup and saucer" arrangement on a saucer of leaves. Oh. I've been looking at "bad" rhododendrons all my life, I guess, and enjoying them anyway. I was struck by the arbitrary nature of the adjustments we make to plants to make them more pleasing to our aesthetic. And yet I'm as immersed in that arbitrary aesthetic as anyone...I see a lobelia with flowers twice as big as mine back home, and I snap it up. It's a "good" lobelia. And don't even get me started on orchids, those wacky children of crazy breeders' fevered imagination.
Speaking of wacky manipulations and strange aesthetics, this woman appeared in the Rhododendron Collection sporting a very "good" head of hair--glimmering lavender, served up in a "dotted i" arrangement, her head nicely balanced atop her neck. I so wanted to ask her to pose, crouched in a pale lavender rhododendron, but held myself back. It rained, of course, as it has for every field trip I've led this spring, but it was a gentle, English rain, and it gave the landscape a special serenity. Mountain laurel about to burst. This cultivar is a lot redder than wild types.
One of my favorite moments of the breeding bird symposium was when we all gathered for lunch under a shelter in the woods, and disturbed a big brown bat who had been sleeping in the rafters. It swooped and flittered in low loops over the assembled birders and plant mavens, and instead of shrieking and ducking for cover, everyone held their ground and simply admired the little creature. That's when you know you're in good company. Note the bat's creamy throat, fairly pale fur, and lovely grin, hallmarks of a big brown.


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