June 14, 2012

artist date: morton arboretum

This week, my artist date took me to the Morton Arboretum. It was a lovely day, sunny and warm but with a soft breeze, and I was eager to spend some time enjoying such a gift of a day. I have been to the Arboretum several times over past years, and have taken a couple of artist dates there before. But it has really been a mostly untapped place for me overall. I was excited to see what new experiences I might have there!

I began by choosing which side of the Arboretum property I would explore. Glancing quickly at the map, what caught my eye were the "Fragrance Garden" and the "Willow" trees. I chose the West Side of the Arboretum. For my artist date practice, I really have to keep myself from planning too much. The most I usually let myself plan in advance is the destination and perhaps functional information like what hours they are open or where to park. As much as possible, I embrace the adventure of the date, and let my creativity guide me as I go. 

I chose to walk to my destinations instead of driving to the other parking lot, and here are some of the things I enjoyed along the way...
I walked through this tunnel, and the vines creeping over all the edges were so romantic and charming - I felt transported! While I was in the tunnel, a mom and two kids rode by on their bikes. When they entered the tunnel, they began to hoot and holler. Their fun was contagious!

Then I came upon these two spots: this trellis with climbing vines felt like something straight from an old European garden. It was just sitting off the main road, in an unfettered area, minding its own business. The little red berries reminded me of my uncle's strawberry plants when I was young. The berries and their vines crawled and climbed everywhere, covering the ground like weeds: uncelebrated, unremarkable. But their color cheered me instantly.
As I continued to walk, two practices came into clear focus for this date. First, I was taken by the transportive element of the gardens and meadows. Within a few steps' walk, I felt like I was in an entirely new world. Just a few steps after that, my setting would change again. What a wonderful way to soak up inspiration for my writing! To let myself simply absorb the changing worlds around me and let my imagination run free... it was absolutely blissful. The second quality of my date that I embraced was to practice using all of my senses. As I walked, the scents grew clearer and more intoxicating. All throughout my date, there were new scents wafting gently through the air. The scent that struck me the most was a mix of clover, grass and earth - a fresh, green, earthy smell that was sweet but not sugary. The scents caught me so off-guard that I couldn't help but pay attention to the sensory aspects of my experience. I reminded myself often to listen more specifically to the sounds that filled the air, or to look closer at the lovely flora I was passing as I walked, or to reach out to touch the bits that caught my eye: a leaf, a tree stump, a wooden bridge, a stone wall. 
This doorway is on a back side of one of the exhibit buildings at the Arboretum, but the sight of it immediately transported me to worlds beyond my daily life. At first, I thought the moth had been caught in the cement as it dried, but it had simply chosen to rest there and blend as well as it could into the pillar to the right of the grand entrance.

Finally, I reached my first destination: the Fragrance Garden. My senses were challenged the most in this garden, as it was a more enclosed, contained space, where it was easier to really absorb my surroundings. I listened to the birds calling around me, and tried to differentiate how many separate sounds I could hear. I spent at least an hour walking around the small space, taking in as many plants and scents as I could. The longer I spent in the garden, the more I could smell, the more I could distinguish between smells. I am reminded that you really have to sit with your environment, as well as your story, sometimes, sit for a long while, to see what it will share with you as it begins to open up more. I am obsessed with the colors of these poppies, and have always loved the structure of these flowers: the strength and geometric quality of the blooms juxtaposed with their scrawny, haphazard stems.
My least-expected gift on this adventure was the companionship of chipmunks! As I walked, I heard them scurrying along the sides of the path, in bushes and underneath the beds of plants. You could see follow their journey by watching the leaves above them shifting around. Occasionally, I startled them, and they chattered at me with a sound like chirping. I always loved the classic Chip and Dale Disney cartoons, but I have gained a whole new appreciation for the little critters. They are absolutely the cutest!! Here is one little guy who was busy 'gathering' throughout my whole hour in the Fragrance Garden. He would scurry out of his underground home through an entrance he had made in front of a little tree planted in a garden bed. Over the stone wall that edged the bed, and across the garden path to some nearby bushes, where he filled his little cheeks with 'Japanese spice' and clambered back with his findings, down into his tiny hole. I could have sat and watched him forever!
Next, I followed the "Joy Path" toward the Willow Trees. I was charmed by the lovely path, and delighted by its simple name. I should choose this path more often... 
Here are some of the sights that inspired me as I walked...
Only after I had taken all these pictures did I realize that this must have been my "color of the day" - it caught my eye every time I came across it. This is one of the gifts of observation and exploration: I always come across patterns I could never have anticipated!
This flower may have been the single loveliest one I saw. Traditional beauty, perhaps, but I think that if I had to pick a flower from the day that most represents how I was feeling, it was definitely this one!

The final leg of my journey was my wandering through the field that boasted the willow trees. I might explore this more later, but one of my impulses in seeking out the willows was to sit beneath a weeping willow and look out from behind its drapery of branches. It was just what I had hoped it would be, and I do think I will return there someday soon! Here is the tree from afar, and then from underneath:

What an incredible way to spend a day... The Arboretum might just become one of my favorite "artist date" destinations! I know that in the few hours I spent there, I had only scratched the surface of the gardens and paths and sights offered. Hopefully, it will be the first of many I can document here!

Have you been to the Morton Arboretum? Do you have a place you like to go that is similar? What kinds of artist inspiration have you collected on your 'dates'?

(Learn more about the practice of 'artist dates' here!)


  1. I used to hoot and holler under those bridges with my Grandpa on our walks at the Arboretum. I still do, in his memory. Next time you're there, you must visit the reading garden, only accessible through the library. It was our favorite place to eat PB&J while watching the gurgling fountain. It's too bad the reindeer statues that flanked the entry are no longer there.

    P.S. I am absolutely loving your blog. Thank you for sharing your writing! <3


  2. Tanya- LOVED hearing your own memories of the Arboretum!! I will definitely aim for the reading garden next time I am there. (I hadn't even realized there was such a place!) Looking forward to it already! Thank you for reading and for sharing! xoxo

  3. Hi Cayt,

    I have been reading your blog, and have been meaning to comment sooner. I do not know how to explain it, but knowing you are pursuing what seems to give you a deep sense of purpose and meaning (or what I like to refer to as following your pilot light) is encouraging and makes me feel lighter and happier. I am happy for you, but this has also helped me to be more mindful of the ways I am following my own pilot light and what I have accomplished and this makes me smile in the midst of my long commutes and long jam packed work days. I am looking forward to having more time to write in the fall after I finish my post-doctoral residency (my challenge will be crafting a life for myself where there is more of a balance with pursuing writing and my work as a psychologist), but for now I look forward to reading your blog. Your writing is beautiful and I have been enjoying reading your blog immensely!

    This post makes me think of mindfulness or being fully present in the moment, taking in your surroundings with all your senses. Mindfulness is supportive of well-being and I often spend my weekends in nature participating in mindfulness. I know what you mean when you wrote your experience was blissful. I have found myself blissed out walking through the forest or on the beach by the ocean on many occasions this past year, and nature is a major source of inspiration for my writing.

    Love you and your writing!

  4. Jan- Thank you for your kind words and lovely thoughts!!! I hope you are able to continue to find ways to balance work and inspiration to protect your "pilot light" (I like that!)... and Happy Birthday, belatedly, hope your weekend was great! Happy you are reading, hope you guys are well. :)