Nichols Arboretum, “the Arb,” is the tree-filled, riverside park where the University of Michigan’s hopeless romantics and romanticizers reside in every season.
University alum and “The Crucible” playwright Arthur Miller fondly recalled his days at the Arb as “good for anatomical studies, especially in spring under a moon,” (though now the Arb technically closes at sunset). In the fall, foliage blankets secret hiding spots. In the winter, it is a wonderland for late-night sledding, and in the spring, wildflowers blossom as lovers picnic in the sunshine. In the summer, the Arb houses rain-soaked romantic strolls along the Huron and the Residential College’s Shakespeare in the Arb performances (fittingly, the forest hosted “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this year). And for most of the year, dozens of sweaty, exhausted, hill-broken runners pound their feet against dirt trails.
In a Zoom interview with The Michigan Daily, Jeff Plakke, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Arb field director, remembered romantic moments in the Arb: others’ weddings and proposals, as well as his first dates with his current wife.
“I thought it was such a magical kind of spot,” Plakke said. When asked why he sought to work at the Arb, Anthony Kolenic, the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Arb director, simply said “running.”
Kolenic called the Arb (which he said hosts over 525,000 visitors a year), a “front door” into life at the University and in Ann Arbor. He works to increase accessibility on every unique trail.
“Whatever it means to connect to nature for you, you can find it at the Arb,” Kolenic said. “If it’s a big, open, native species prairie, deep dark woods where you can’t hear anything … hiking trails, running, you’ll find you can find a way … It will meet you where you are.” Just steps away from campus, the Arb lies between the stately iron gates of Geddes Avenue, the riverside Nichols Drive, the flowering Washington Heights entrance and the Huron River.
In 1906, the Nichols family donated 80 acres of undeveloped farmland to the city of Ann Arbor and the University to create a public park. University botanists Frederick Newcomb and George Burns, commissioning University alum Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds, sought to preserve the rare 80-acre ecological trove of untarnished beauty. Simonds saw little to change. As a landscape architect, Simonds found beauty in the naturalistic: in undulating and flowing rows of native flowers and trees, in natural freshwater streams. He sought to reveal nature’s surprises and draw us closer to picturesque panoramic landscape views. By 1907, Simonds, the city and the University had created a park that was romantic and mysterious, open and free.
The now 123-acre Arb lives in Simonds’s and the botanists’ vision: a celebration of natural, native biodiversity. “It feels very secluded … but you’re really like right next to town … I think that’s what makes it feel so special,” Plakke said. This almost otherworldly seclusion keeps us returning to the Arb every season, searching for romance or adventure.
Runners begin at the Arb’s entrance and wind through the seemingly endless Forest Path, encountering hideaways of blooming, evolving fauna in preserved, rare oak habitats and the colorful magnolia glade. Original shrubs bloom throughout the park, accompanied by hundreds of newly-planted native plants that require nothing but sunshine and water. The River Landing Project, a 2006 community-effort restoration involving the University, nonprofits and local agencies, ensured the waterfront’s longevity for generations of artists and poets who frequent the waterfront benches for inspiration and runners racing to the soft roar of the river.
In May and June, the W.E. Upjohn Peony Garden, the largest heirloom garden in North America, blooms with 800 peonies and 10,000 technicolor blossoms. The peony garden is bordered by the Children’s Hospital on one side and the historic Forest Hill Cemetery on the other, creating a symbol of the liveliness of the park “with all the complexity of life going on,” Kolenic said.
In the natural, unspoiled setting of the Arb, we are our truest selves, finding adventure and pieces of our inner child at every turn. The Arb has four main trails and a dozen (plus) side trails, all of which are pictured on the visitor map. Yet everywhere you turn, another path seems to arise and reveal something new: 15-plus sets of steps to sprint and climb, arduous inclines and rolling ridges, rabbits and squirrels, wildflowers of every color, deep green leaves, dark hideaways and bright plains. Dates in the Arb feel like trysts, and runs feel like solo adventures.
The diverse landscape carries a feeling of openness. The prairie, today called Alex Dow Field, has remained since Indigenous settlers first settled the land and continues to thrive under native management methods and controlled wildfire. Even in the mid-summer heat, tall native grasses stand tall and never hover over us as we run freely with the elements.
Looking down into the Main Valley from the highest point in the Arb, one can see the interconnectedness of all life— human, plant and animal. A remnant of a 10,000-year-old glacial melt, the valley is the “heart of the Arb,” where park-goers celebrate life. Visitors of all ages commune for picnics, football games, parties and races. The Arb remains a trove of biodiversity because it remains a beloved gathering space for the community. Plakke described his nearly 20 years at the Arb as “making great friendships and seeing things change and grow as you … nurture them.” Every day we go to the Arb, whether for a volunteer restoration project, a party, a run or a date, we too can grow.
The Arb provides a treatment for stress: an escape from the constraints of a busy life. A School for Environment and Sustainability study found that, in eight weeks, 36 Ann Arbor residents who spent a minimum of 10 minutes a day, three days a week connecting to nature experienced a reduction in primary stress hormones. The researchers concluded that a “nature pill,” a moment in a chosen natural space, may be an efficient prescription for battling daily stressors. Of course, there is also the runner’s high: the release of endocannabinoids, biochemical substances (with a similar makeup to another popular Arb substance) that put the mind at ease.
Kolenic noted how the Arb can “decenter” us, reminding us of the insignificance of our daily college problems and providing us space to think freely. The sheer vastness of the living ecosystem grounds us. In the Arb, rather than clicking pens and the ticking time bomb of looming deadlines, we hear running water and the crunching of our feet on the leaves. No one rushes; people focus on connecting, sometimes with new loves and other times with nature.
At the top of the infamous Arb incline, with my mouth crying for water and my eyes welling up, I peer down at the sun falling deep into the blooming valley. I feel wonderfully insignificant in the vast natural world that I may never fully understand. I feel nothing but love for the world around me.
On another side of the park, under the shade of an oak tree, a potential future Arthur Miller (or Jeff Plakke) falls in love with a girl. “There’s a certain sanctity to the natural world that feels epic and inherently beautiful,” Kolenic said. “There’s something about the Arboretum particularly, but really the natural world … that gives a weight to the way we feel about each other as human beings.”
The Arb, much like the love potions of Shakespeare’s plays, transforms us, leaving us in a trance-like state until we come down from whatever high we felt: love, drug or runner’s. It is no wonder the Arb is an infamously romantic spot.
Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.