May 2, 2010

Emily Dickinson, Gimmick

What does it take to draw a crowd? What does it take to draw a crowd when you have a hundred thousand members and a gazillion dollar endowment? What does it take to draw a crowd when you have all those things plus it’s the first weekend in May and the most beautiful day of the year?

Apparently, Emily Dickinson.

The New York Botanical Garden is without question one of the finest facilities of its type in the world and I’ve been to no finer one in the United States. I’m pleased to be a member despite living 209 miles from its front gate.

We were there yesterday as part of “members’ weekend”, perhaps a kind of “old home” event on the part of the NYBG marketing staff. Parking was free, use of the tram was free, admission to the rock garden was free. Of course, except for the tram, these things are always free for members anyway. But we also got free admission to “Emily Dickinson’s Garden – the Poetry of Flowers”, except that is also free any other time for members (for non-members, it’s $20). Oh, and everything in the gift shop was 20% off.

It was a glorious day to be at the garden. We arrived at 9:30 and were one of the first dozen cars into the parking lot. We walked the Ladies’ Border and perennial beds in front of the Conservatory in utter seclusion. At 10 a.m. the Conservatory opened its doors and we decided to go see what the fuss was about as regards Ms. Dickinson.

We usually skip the Conservatory during the warm months because there’s so much to see outdoors. That’s a mistake. The Enid Haupt Conservatory is divided into climates representing different regions of the world and, on May 1, it seemed as though the whole world had exploded into bloom. Turquoise pods fell in chains on vines in the rain forest. A cactus in the desert room was covered in vividly yellow flowers. Bougainvillea in hues of red, orange and purple cascaded from the ceiling.

And then we were in the Special Exhibitions area of the Conservatory and in Emily Dickinson’s garden.

It was a nice garden, though why it was mounted indoors is a bit mystifying. It featured the flowers, trees and shrubs that the Belle of Amherst wrote about in her poetry. But it was a tiny, densely packed New England garden with a lot of explanatory text. The plants were of the sort found at any decent nursery. It had a ten-foot-long woodland path; not exactly conducive to the kind of contemplative walks that inspired Ms. Dickinson.

There is no question, though, that Emily Dickinson and flowers are inextricably linked, or that her family’s garden (at The Homestead, an estate in Amherst) stimulated her. Bringing it indoors and compressing it into less than two thousand square feet seems extremely short-sighted.

We spent the balance of our time walking the lilac garden (in full, fragrant bloom) and paying homage to NYBG’s spectacular rock garden, a continuing source of inspiration.

At half past noon we were ready to journey into Manhattan. That’s when we got to observe what happens when you dawdle on members’ weekend. The lines to get in stretched out of the visitor’s center and out into the parking lot. The NYBG parking lot was long since filled to capacity and closed, with a massive traffic jam stretching into the garage at Fordham University across the street.

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