Future home: Exploring the land that will become the McIntire Botanical Garden

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Two years ago, I visited the northeast corner of McIntire Park for the first time, when reporting a story for this paper about the future McIntire Botanical Garden. The reporting was all about potential: the vision of this 8.5-acre piece of land as a place transformed. As the garden’s board and boosters see it, it’s to be designed, planted, tended, and visited.

For some reason, the site has stayed on my mind ever since. I keep thinking and talking about it—how the place intrigues me not just for its potential but for what it already is. I sometimes stop by and walk around there. I stopped by again on a recent sunny day.

Even before I turned onto Melbourne Road to park my car, I realized I was feeling possessive about the place, hoping I’d have it to myself. This thought wouldn’t make much sense in a botanical garden, where the paths are meant to be full of families, strollers, tourists—human eyes to gaze at the human creation. But the FUTURE HOME (as the sign at the corner of Melbourne has it) doesn’t really call to visitors.

I walked around the black gate that keeps out cars and immediately faced a choice: hang right and follow the powerlines, or go downhill on crumbling pavement. On this spot two years ago I attended a ceremony announcing the selection of two landscape architecture firms, who have since collaborated on a schematic plan for the garden. But this time, no one was around.

I walked straight ahead, with the parkway on my left. The site is bounded on north and east by roads, a railroad on the west (with Charlottesville High School just beyond the tracks), and the rest of McIntire Park to the south. A creek cuts through its center. Its other “features” are woods of varying density, apocalyptic drifts of invasive vines, and a network of rough paths.

Right away, I noticed a thick layer of leaves, needles, and shredded branches covering most of the paved road. Was all that material windswept? Carried by water? It seemed to have come mostly from a row of red cedars and pines along the road—the trees seeming intentionally planted, but their droppings making an accidental carpet.

Nearby, two long black metal objects (discarded sections of a bridge or overpass, I guessed) lay side-by-side on the ground, tall weeds arcing over them. I stepped up onto one section and walked its length. Then I kicked a section of green garden hose out from under the duff.

There were little orange flags along a mowed lane. There was continual noise from the parkway. There was the occasional sparrow or titmouse call, and the shiver of the breeze in stiff birch leaves.

Looking for a way to cross the creek, finding no human trails, I found myself following deer paths instead—in their own way, quite well maintained. When I got to the water, I stood opposite a deeply eroded bluff, with two big enticing holes in its surface: a groundhog home. In the sandy mud by the creek, there were deer prints, some other tracks I couldn’t identify, and then—further along—two light, but clear, heron tracks.

I found a place to scale the bank and wandered for a while among poplar and locust trees. Some were marked with white tape—to save, or to cut? Their pattern was unreadable, but I took the white tape as a sign of the garden design, a mark of what’s to come.

In a sunny spot, I found something eerie: a collapsed tent, sleeping bag, and bags of plastic bottles, all moldering into the ground, half-covered with leaves.

Like every other time I’ve been here, I was slightly on edge. It’s no transgression to walk here, it’s a public park, yet it doesn’t ask to be occupied. I know that botanical garden supporters and volunteers come here in groups to remove invasive species, which are rampant, and to attend bird walks and workshops. Still, my own presence felt illicit.

A Norfolk Southern freight train lumbered past. On the top of the hill, I turned my back on the train and its noise, and looked down over this place, the FUTURE HOME: the fall and rise of the land, bone-colored sycamore trunks, ruins of pokeweed. Someday, this will be a center for beauty, order, intention.

For now, it reflects no design sensibility. Nonetheless, it’s a human creation, the accidental result of our actions, our mistakes and neglect. And mixed with all that, there’s the persistence of living things: mosses, woodpeckers, and even sometimes people, who make this place a home.

But no one else was here. I was alone with a stand of very tall, brittle grasses, straw-colored for the winter season, clicking and ticking as they swayed in the wind. Actually, the noise was surprisingly loud. Was I hearing an insect? Seed pods bursting open in the sun? Or just hollow stems resonating as they collided with each other?

I stood there with that humble mystery for a while. It was something no one had planned.

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Robert Butler
Robert Butler

Tedious prose. I have an interest in what is going on with the MBG, but I couldn’t get through to the end of this piece because of the ‘writing’.