When my friends and I snuck into Nichols Arboretum with stolen dorm cafeteria trays on winter nights to go sliding down the hills back in the mid-1980s, the Arb was a wilder place — mostly just leaves and paths.
When I visited recently after a three-year absence, I was shocked by all the jars on hilltops in Tennessee, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens’s famous poem. His words about a wilderness subdued by the introduction of a man-made object came to mind as I viewed new memorial benches, split-rail fencing, solar-powered phones, a band shell of sorts, and a half-mile zigzag line of daffodils, local artist Susan Skarsgard’s project. Though some may appreciate the transformation of a wilder Arb into a quasi park, my memories of romances in a natural idyll darkened my mood as I trekked to one end of the daffodil line.
The line begins (ends) at the chain-link fence by Forest Hill Cemetery, on a hill overlooking the open area. Here, bold daffodil blooms perked me up. I’d never explored this appealingly off-trail scrap of the Arb, and watched a black squirrel leap picturesquely over the flowers, crackle through leaves, and skitter up a tree. A stand of tall pines leaned in sighing wind, like ships’ masts.
Snaking down the hill, the line of blooms changed to buds in a shadier spot. Here, it resembled a miniature fence of Chinese calligraphy brushes, with yellow bristles wrapped in papery tan husks. The foliage, one shade bluer than the grass, led my eye down the hill and into the Arb’s open area.
Climbing the eastern hip of the Knoll and caroming around the fire hydrant, the line peters out behind a shady stand of arborvitae. It kinks again, heading over two tussocky hills and dwindling in spots to little green beaks in sandy cracks.
At the end (beginning), the line encounters another sunny area and bursts into bloom again. It runs up against a woodland margin and stops. Cushiony with lush moss, this off-path area features a magnolia tree. It resembles a knobby megacandelabrum of gray knuckles holding aloft hundreds of velvety thumb-size buds like olive-colored flames. Wow.
This installation is heavily baggaged with an academic title, a website, a political statement, a master’s thesis, and even bad poetry that it inspired. Ignore that. None of that is relevant to the experience of walking the line in the Arb. One morning, it traveled through boggy grass silvered with frost. One late afternoon, I ended up in the mossy magnolia nook that I’ll return to with a blanket and a book. All in all, the line led to new, unexplored, beautiful places, like all decent art.