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A Walk in the Park

The Bloedels saw nature as something too strong and rough to be experienced without the filter of a human sensibility
In the cool of a day predicted to get very hot, we walked through a gentle forest. Birds called and squirrels chittered at the small groups of visitors strolling carefully groomed paths.

The Bloedel Reserve was started in 1950 by Prentice Bloedel, son of timber baron Julius Harold Bloedel. Julius made a fortune harvesting the huge trees of the Northwest and turning them into lumber.

Prentice taught school in California until called back by his father to work in the family business. Prentice managed to retire when in his fifties in order to devote himself to the reserve, where he raised his children and lived with his wife Virginia in a French Provincial style home from 1951 until 1986.

“The Reserve is a place that offers the visitor a variety of experiences of nature,” says the brochure.

When we moved to Bainbridge in 1995, the reserve was open sporadically to visitors – one had to call ahead and make reservations, and we were turned away a couple of times with visitors who would not be able to come again.

In a style of garden that must hark back to European ideals, it is divided into several gardens, or rooms that evoke different moods and emotions – The Meadow, The Mid Pond, The Moss Garden. Oddly, the most naturalistic is the most formal of these gardens, that surrounding a faux Japanese teahouse, where the scale is still huge, but more in proportion to human beings, as opposed to the towering evergreens that mark our natural NW forests.

One can see how our idea of an “experience of nature” has changed over the years. The Bloedels saw nature as something too strong and rough to be experienced without the filter of a human sensibility. Nowadays, we buy expensive hiking boots and packs and go out looking for an “authentic” experience, one as unfiltered as possible. But the more human beings there are, the harder it gets to find nature that has remained unaltered by our presence. We are now hours away from any uncut first growth, and then only patches remain.

A garden offers a close-in experience, a place that is near in both miles and time, and that can be shared with children or even city slickers. Bloedel is now open to the public on a regular basis, and offers just such a place. Although second and third growth, there are still some impressive trees there – trees that the city would have taken down as unsafe or unnecessary. Soon, places like the Bloedel Reserve will have to substitute for an “authentic” experience. It currently hosts a wildlife shelter, but may not in the future.

One might say, “well, if it really mattered, you would stop using all natural resources” – in other words, I would terminate myself. But people lived on this land for thousands of years without using up the resources. Yes, life was hard, and unmitigated nature is even-handedly cruel even today. But I think we can strike a balance. We can still build houses, but keep enough forest cover to recharge the aquifer. We can use power, but take it from a renewable source, like solar panels. We can walk more, and remember that we only choose to be slaves of time.

Modernization doesn’t mean we have to use resources even faster; it means that we have the knowledge and tools to slow down our headlong rush to climate disaster.

Next post, a visit to the Rock Farm.
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