A patch of Tolkien’s world in the city
In a municipal setting of concrete sidewalks and asphalt roads, fused together into a mosaic of tightly packed residences and businesses, the premise of this bustling hive of humanity also containing a breathtaking departure into nature’s more exquisite delights is probably best left to one’s fantasies.
That is, unless you happen to be in New London, where the Connecticut College Arboretum lies nestled at the tail end of Williams Street, beckoning visitors to enter freely and rendezvous with the splendor and beauty only a tryst with nature can offer.
Established in 1931, two years before Franklin D. Roosevelt would become president and declare “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” this outdoor botanical beauty harbored all the elements of peace and tranquility any living being could hope to experience, in times of strife or comfort. Designed with the intent of offering Connecticut College botany majors a complement to their education, it has expanded both in size and appeal since those formative years, over three-quarters of a century ago.
Indeed, if there are refuges from those dread kinds of fears Roosevelt once assured Americans they could dismiss, this “outdoor terrarium” on the city’s outskirts is among them. Fear, worry, angst and other aggravations manufactured by social strife find the open gates to the Arboretum a formidable barrier.
The comforting embrace felt at the crest of the grassy knoll overlooking this refuge is enough for people to imagine a soft voice uttering, “Enter and know Peace.”
It is no exaggeration to say a walk through Connecticut College’s hundred-acre expanse of maples, conifers, oaks, hickories, magnolias — so many of New England’s native finest — bordered by colorful wildflowers, can dispel the darkest of clouds that might bring gloom into one’s day. A trek round a gorgeous seepage-fed pond, and through an intricate network of twisting side trails that now include a manmade little bridge through a bog, heightens a hiker’s sense of adventure.
It all lends visitors an undeniable sense of having wandered inside the pages of a Tolkien novel, causing the imagination to conjure mythical hobbits, elves and other fairy creatures.
For the assistant director of the Arboretum, Maggie Redfern, it was a chance ferry trip that drew her to the city of New London, and a tour that landed her literally in so idyllic a nature refuge.
“I hadn’t even heard of Connecticut College or the Arboretum at the time,” she explained, smiling ironically. “I was originally from California and my degree was actually in architecture. I came east and took classes at the Landscape Institute at Harvard while working part-time at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.”
Redfern, whose melodious voice and affinity for the natural world raises images of fabled folk singers like Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, had been hoping for an opportunity to expand both professionally and educationally in the botanical and ecological sciences.
Her ferry trip to the region wound up posing as a fortuitous bonus she had not anticipated.
Destiny had apparently accompanied her en route to New London. Her inaugural experience of the Connecticut College Arboretum had been an enchanting one, life changing, to be more precise.
“When the position for an assistant director opened, I came down for an official interview and landed the job,” she added.
In accordance with the spiritual allure the Arboretum commands for visitors, Redfern welcomed it all as a home in itself.
“I have the most wonderful job in the world! With the focus here on native plants, I am in a position to continue learning while immersing myself in such a comforting environment,” she said. “My hope is that more people will make use of the Arboretum. Given that New London is composed of so much hardscape — buildings, walls, pavement and roads — here is a mass of green space available to the city and its residents. And there’s no charge for anyone to come here.”
Redfern points out how many Conn College alumni return to visit the Arboretum, recalling with great fondness the cherished nature refuge from their days there as students. Indeed, a number of current students can be seen at various locales along the way, studying or simply gathering together and taking in the sheer sense of comfort and peace that always pervades there.
“We would love to see more people from the town and the surrounding communities coming here either for tours, or educational studies, or simply to experience nature more fully,” Redfern said. “From the tiniest insect or rock, to the largest of trees looming everywhere, an exploration of the landscape here gives you a feeling you are a part of it all yourself.”
The Arboretum does feature special events, such as the regional theatre company, Flock Theatre’s Summer Shakespeare series, concerts, and weddings, but there is much to be gained simply from a solitary stroll or hike, or in pairs and groups, with no other purpose but to do as Redfern states, “Take it all in.”
The sense of being transported away from a concrete, residential-industrial setting and into a veritable haven of beautiful trees, shrubs, wildflowers, wetland wonders, and gentle wildlife is one where the soul can breathe freely and without angst. Why not explore and experience that?
Maggie Redfern puts it all concisely and comprehensively: “The Connecticut College Arboretum is much more than the area marked out in the brochures available at our main gate. So much more.”
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