Pausing at the UC Davis Arboretum

Last week, I finished one last work project in a thirty-some odd project run, sent it off, and jumped in my car to drive to Davis, CA for a conference.  Having spent the last month checking off tasks (yes, this level of busyness also accounts for my noticeable lack of recent blogposts…), I was operating from an efficiency mindset.

When I got to the UC Davis campus and discovered its sprawling layout, I got angry.  It took me twenty minutes to walk from my dorm room to the dining hall and another twenty-five to get from the dining hall to the first conference panel on my schedule.  Seriously?  How was I supposed to attend all the events I had planned and get some work done and exercise and eat my meals with all of that walking?

On my second transit of this 5300-acre, tree-filled campus, I was surprised to find myself in the middle of the UC Davis Arboretum. My surprise stemmed from the fact that I had made no attempt to find the arboretum; in fact, all I was doing was walking the path of least resistance from a panel in the music building to one in the conference center. This is exactly what makes this horticultural preserve unique.

The UC Davis Arboretum isn’t a gated, cordoned-off plot of land with a welcome sign and a list of rules and regulations posted out front. It’s a swath of greenspace that runs along either side of a waterway.

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This waterway was once a branch of Putah Creek, but the multiple upstream dams and diversions built to minimize flooding have created a lake in its place. Access is free, and it’s open all day, every day—because, in essence, the arboretum is a thoroughfare.

This is a beautiful thing.  In order for students, professors, support staff, and visitors to get from one place to another on this expansive campus, there’s a good chance they have to walk though or along a portion of land considered to be part of the arboretum. This channeling of traffic has the amazing effect of forcing everyone to slow down, to notice plants and wildlife and water and wind, and to enter a different mindset.

As soon as I realized the diversity of trees around me and began to notice their identification tags, the length of my stride decreased.  I stopped and read signs, paused to watch ducks, pulled out my phone to take a picture of a particular leaf, and decided that wherever I was going, it would be okay to be late.

Clearly a lot of other people agreed, since there were couples lying in the grass, students reading books on benches, and visitors standing stock still gazing up in the canopy of foliage.

I had so many moments of pausing while walking from panel to panel that I decided to skip out on a couple of my scheduled activities. I spent a couple of hours walking the length of the arboretum to get a better sense of it, and in doing so, I changed the pace of my entire day.

The 22,00 species in the UC Davis Arboretum make up a 100-acre “living museum,” and they are organized into about twenty different themed gardens.  These include a redwood grove, a California native plant section, a desert collection, a South American plant area, an acacia garden, and an area dedicated to Australian species.

In the course of 3.5 miles of walkway, my surroundings changed at almost every river bend.

My favorite section was the oak grove. I grew up surrounded by eastern oaks, and ever since I first came to California, I have been fascinated by the twisted and gnarled western versions of this tree.  I had no idea that there were so many of them before visiting this part of the preserve, however. There are over eighty different oaks represented in the Davis grove, many of them signed not just by lucite markers but also by decorative mosaic panels.

Somehow, I’d never put it together that cork trees are oaks.  I’d seen cork trees in southern Spain; in fact, I’d even ridden my bike through groves of them. But either I never quite registered their leaf shape or I completely ignored their resemblance to the trees in my current state of residence.  Seeing Quercus suber (which is not native to California but grows well here due to our Mediterranean climate) all over the arboretum has made me determined to find one somewhere near my home.

I can’t call the stagnant river/lake that forms the spine of the arboretum “pretty,” and I’d also have to say that a lot of the plantings weren’t all that aesthetically appealing either; a lot of native Californian habitat isn’t.  When left untouched by human intervention, much of it is scraggly and scrubby.  And that’s okay.  My experience of the arboretum was not the kind that invited me to “ooh” and “aah” at beauty.

Instead, it was the kind of experience that made me slow down and notice.  The kind that forced to look a little harder to find pictures to take.  The kind that reminded me that, when it comes to ecosystems, “healthy” and “pretty” don’t necessarily coexist.  I guess I needed that insight more than I needed to go to another conference event.




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