In the Presence of Trees
Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:
IN THE PRESENCE OF TREES
An abundance of shade, a concert stage, the state’s largest southern magnolia, and an independent young cat named Twiggy.
Those are just a few of the things that you’ll find at the Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine. This Sumner County town is located 25 miles south of Wichita and has about 1,800 residents.
Over recent years, I’ve heard a few people mention the arboretum, saying that it was an incredible place, but also that it didn’t have regular hours for visitors. A few months ago when I learned that Kelley Hunt would be performing there on September 30, the concert seemed like a perfect opportunity to not only hear Hunt perform again, but to check out this place of trees.
Walter Bartlett, a physician, naturalist and community leader, started Bartlett Arboretum in 1910. He purchased 15 acres and used some of the land for high school sporting events, many of which his son participated in. Bartlett created a lake and gardens and began planting trees.
After the passing of Dr. Bartlett in 1937, his son, Glenn, took over the arboretum. Glenn Bartlett and his wife Margaret moved back to Belle Plaine from New York. Glenn was a professional landscape artist and horticulturist. Margaret had designed the arboretum’s formal garden when she was a school girl. They returned to Kansas with their two young daughters.
Those Bartlett daughters eventually took over the arboretum, but when they were no longer able to keep up the gardens, they hung a For Sale sign on the entrance gate.
In 1997, that sign caught the eye of Robin Macy. Macy was a founding member of the Dixie Chicks, but had left the group. She was a musician, a math teacher, and a Texan. After departing the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield that year, Macy took a wrong turn – and she stumbled onto the arboretum with its For Sale sign. She purchased the land immediately.
The story of the arboretum is told in “Uncommon Ground,” a documentary by Jaime Green, underwritten by the Kansas Humanities Council. In the film, Macy said, “It was easy. I never thought twice. And I had never owned anything. I’d lived in a rented space, and drove a rented car, and I was 38 years old. And within, within literally less than an hour, I threw off my gypsy hat and I put on the garden gloves even though I didn’t know squat. I didn’t know anything about Latin, or trees, or viburnums or, you know, I didn’t know anything about botany. I was a willing student and Mother Nature is the greatest teacher of all.”
Bartlett Arboretum is an unbeatable setting for an outdoor concert. Kelley Hunt and her band performed on a wooden stage with a backdrop of loblolly pines. People sat on folding chairs and blankets on the grassy meadow. Nearby, kids and adults took turns on a wooden swing hanging from a tree branch.
Dave and I hadn’t thought ahead of time to bring chairs or a blanket, and even though there was some seating available, we chose to wander around the grounds during the performance.
Hunt’s pure voice carried well on the still air. As I sat on a garden bench across the way, I got goosebumps, as I always do, listening to Hunt sing her new Flint Hills anthem, “Heartland.”
The arboretum has many tiny paths and a few longer trails. Flowers and shrubs and rocks and big old trees surrounded me. I inhaled the energizing fragrance of a Colorado spruce.
A number of trees had blue ribbons attached to their trunks, designating them as champion trees, the state’s largest tree of that particular species. Some of those champion trees are the Arizona cypress, Virginia pine, and river birch.
Kelley Hunt’s performance was part of the arboretum’s Tree House concert series. The last concert of the season will feature Slaid Cleaves from Texas on Sunday, October 21, at 4 p.m. (gate opens at 3 p.m.) At these concerts, you’ll also find vendors with good food, the Lyon’s Den BBQ and Luciano’s Italian Cuisine.
The trees here have an incredible presence. They tell of a deep history and suggest a long future. The arboretum is now one of my favorite places in the state. It’s a Kansas treasure.
For more information, or to make an appointment, visit www.bartlettarboretum.com or call 620-488-3451.
Copyright 2012 ~ Cheryl Unruh