Have you ever tried to count all of the benches in Nichols Arboretum? I tried once and have only an estimate to show for it: 72. Though I know that an estimate is better than nothing, better than not trying at all and better than letting that curiosity fade into the recesses of a cluttered mind, I still wish to know the exact number, not just an insecure estimate. Peculiarity aside, indulging in that kind of curiosity, and in nature, is more necessary than most college students realize. 

The Arb does not feel like the rest of Ann Arbor; it is out of place, but necessarily so. Because of the discordance between the hallowed columns of campus and the gentle green of the Arb, the latter becomes a kind of sanctuary. 

Spend too much time there, though, and you’ll begin to fixate on odd particularities: every different way to describe how the wind moves through the leaves, which exact hue of green it is that the slanting shadows create on the grass or wondering if those who have engraved “in memory” instead of “in loving memory” on the bench plaques love their dead less than those who chose to engrave the latter. It is important, then, to become acutely aware of what is indulgence and what is obsession — a differentiation that can seem outwardly obvious but is inwardly murky. 

Like many students, I’ll run in the Arb, but only if my schedule requires quickness, or if I figure that my complexion could use some circulatory rouge. I’ll sail down the gravel paths toward the Huron River, the downhill working for me, my legs just carrying out the task. Each step that connects with the gravel is immediately satisfying, that crunch, rapid breath and a pulsating chest.

But if time allows, I walk through the Arb with languor. I also bring a bag because the bag can hold paper and pens to record notes like:

“Are those chickadees? Tiny birds either way.” 

“Overhead on path, ‘We weren’t planning on coming here and then we did.’”

“Construction materials but no crew = lunch break?”

Entering the Arb off Geddes Road — the entrance with the stout iron gates — I begin to wind through a short path with crowding shrubbery and sporadic yellow flowers that look like banana peppers when you cross your eyes just right. Past the flower-peppers, I reach the first overlook, two benches which abut each other on a soggy plot of land. As I sit, they provide a faraway view of the North Campus clock tower, the one that looks like a futuristic hairbrush. I told a friend once that you could see North Campus from these overlook benches, and she scrunched her face in disgust — we both lived in Bursley Hall last year, and the memory of our residence is still terrifyingly fresh.

Benches and overlooks like this are scattered generously all over the Arb. Runners trot past them, their masks set low like chin straps. The chattering birds, their chorus, swirl around. Some will screech instead of sing — but their song, however unpleasant, you must remember is not for you.

There are plaques accompanying almost every bench in the Arboretum, adorning teak wood with memory and with fondness. I tally their beginnings:

In Loving Memory     I I I I I I I I 

In Memory                 I I I I I I

In Recognition           I I I I

In Honor                    I I I

In Tribute                   I I

These plaques lie on the backrest of the bench, some with quotes, some without. I write down the most interesting ones, one of which is regrettably Shakespeare: “Love comforteth like sunshine after rain.” Then I think: Who is to say the rain isn’t the comforting part? 

Another bench, oddly so, displays a plaque written in Swedish, and this is what Google Translate gives me: “Always so happy, so honest, so happy. An example. A sun stick in the dark.” I immediately realize that a lot of its true linguistic meaning has been lost, but the sentiment of remembrance remains, even if partial. 

Farther along the path, another reads, “He lived and laughed, and loved and left, and the world will never be the same,” and I think I like this one the best. Perhaps it is because of the alliteration, but it is more likely that I just appreciate a succinctly presented truth — the brevity of life. 

Past these benches, spiraling stairs lead me down to the grassy basin, the “main valley,” everything sloping and everything lush. Down there, the fences sit stacked with a conception so basic that they appear to me like Lincoln Logs — low and rudimentary — notched at the ends for a smart fit.

Some benches — yes, there are more here — aren’t wooden at all, some are just rectangular slabs of concrete wedged firmly into dark dirt, a shaded spot that doesn’t seem to necessitate a seat. Though these slabs don’t have a backrest, I like how firm they are, and I like that none of them can have plaques, which means no worrying over quotes. 

Squirrels wriggle their bodies through the cut grass, moving along in a fluid gait, which I find amusing. Squirrels aren’t typically characterized as elegant, but elegant is exactly the word I’d use to describe them if I was asked now. As soft ground gives way to my formerly clean sneakers, I head onward toward the Huron River. The highest leaves rustle in the wind like tossing trinkets; I prefer this gentle animation to stillness. 

The benches proliferate along the river, and a pedagogical sign fronts the moving water: Huron River Watershed.

wa • ter • shed

1. a ridge or stretch of high land dividing the areas drained by different rivers or river systems

2. the area drained by a river or a river system

3. a crucial turning point, affecting action, opinion, etc. 

A map explains the exact geographic setting I’ve wandered into: The Huron River is 130 miles long, the Nichols Arboretum 123 acres. Seeing Lake Erie on the map is disorienting because I constantly forget I’m on the east side of the state, not the west — where I grew up — and that it’s Lake Erie here, not Lake Michigan. Large ants crawl all over this sign, heading southeast and northwest, all over the board without concern for where they head, aimless but free. 

I choose a firm root at the edge of the river to sit on, instead of the slabs of pavement that jut rudely into the water’s edge. The soft ground and its firm roots, however dirtying, is the curb from which to properly observe. 

There’s a poem by W.H. Auden titled “It Was Easter as I Walked the Public Gardens” and in it he writes, “Watching traffic of magnificent cloud/moving without anxiety on open sky.” Although it is not Easter, not even close, and today’s sky is cloudless, I still believe that a similar 

magnificence is taking place today in Nichols Arboretum. A heron wades through the river, folding its neck and plodding along, maneuvering through the traffic of the current. 

As I shift on my earthy seat, Auden’s words reverberating in my mind, I begin to think about all the different ways to describe how a river babbles, how it ripples, how it bubbles in some places, spouting, and I find myself wishing for calm that I know won’t come for some months, when the semester is finally over and the snow comes to bring its total blanket. Until then, I’ll keep drumming up ways to describe what I find in the Arboretum, seated at the riverside or in the grassy basin or even at my desk in my apartment, the wind carrying through the screen, maybe a trinket or two falling on the sill.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.

For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *