Where my sister and I grew up in rural Maryland, an unbroken band of forest stretched across the southern horizon and formed a barrier between the farmhouses and single-family homes on one side and the bruising intensity of interstate traffic on the other. The woods provided a getaway—a zone of freedom where homework, house chores and the pointless cruelty of school-age peers could not impinge.
Hacking through the tangle of vine was like stepping into Alice’s rabbit hole. Beyond lay the realms of fantasy, where animals talked, trees remembered and logs arranged into woodland tea parties. Reality and imagination blurred. We were at once angst-ridden adolescents and rulers of a forest kingdom.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Secret Gardens Exhibition, running through September 10, uses nature as a starting point to explore the intersection of art and life. In a series of 20 landscape installations, inspired by Frances Hodson Burnett’s 1911 classic The Secret Garden, visitors are conveyed through artificial settings that both immerse you in total artistic experience and maintain the distance of critical observation. You are audience member and actor in narratives conceived by Arboretum staff and landscape architects and designers from around Minnesota and as far away as Knoxville, Tennessee.
Many people have read The Secret Garden, and many more have seen the film adaptations. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Burnett’s story has retained its appeal despite an explosion in media content in recent years because it taps into something elemental. It investigates the myth of childhood and the ability of children to invest their surroundings with meaning detached from physical realities.
In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox is an orphan sent to live with her uncle Mr. Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor. While exploring the grounds, Mary uncovers a secret garden, abandoned 10 years before after the death of her uncle’s wife. Ivy climbs the walls; weeds choke the paths; and bare branches pierce the sky. Mary and her friends nurse the garden back to life. In so doing, they redeem the uncle and discover a lost paradise of magic and wonder.
Conceptually, the Secret Gardens Exhibition is about running away to that paradise. The names themselves are evocative: Voice of the Willows, Chapel of the Butterflies, Summerhouse Library, Eden Reflected. What Color Is Your Garden?, designed by biota LLC and Steve Modrow, prods you to envision the Arboretum’s manicured flowerbeds through transparent acrylic panes. Each color evokes a different biome: yellow for desert, red for Mars, blue for underwater settings.
Designer Laura A. Lyndgaard turned on the whimsy for her landscape installation Whispering to Trees. A sign begs: “What are your secrets?” and copper funnels like giant ear trumpets corkscrew from lilac hedges. It’s straight out of wonderland, as are the sphagnum and grass furnishings in Jeanne Kosfeld, William Kosfeld and Leah Horvath’s Lawn Furniture installation, and the enormous camera obscura Cermak Rhoades Architects created forEye Pod.
Secret Gardens is above all interactive, a key feature of art installations that take into account a participant’s sensory experience and entire life history. So as I scrambled through the ends of hollowed logs, bound willow and dogwood branches into a fort and, finally, propped my feet on bags of leaves, I was reminded of the woods I used to know. I remembered diverting streams, climbing trees, rubbing sticks for fire (and never succeeding), gathering acorns for imaginary dinner guests, and really believing that the bow and arrows I made with twigs and vine would fell a deer. That’s the magic of the Arboretum’s new exhibit. Like the book, Secret Gardens opens the door to imagination and creates a space where child and adult alike can playfully engage with nature.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is located off Highway 5 in Chaska. Admission is $7, with free admission Thursdays after 4:30 pm. For more information about the Secret Gardens Exhibition or for directions, contact the Arboretum at (952) 443-1400 or check out their website.