For Duke Garden lovers, its reopening was grand

The gates to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens had once more swung open, and assistant professor of pathology Will Jeck was among the first ones through. He visited the first morning he was allowed and sat on a bench overlooking the Terraces, soaking in the beauty and serenity and reflecting on a year that had him performing not just his normal work as a pathologist, but also autopsies on COVID patients.

“Visiting was really rejuvenating for me,” he says. “It was a turning of the corner, and I’m looking forward to being able to bring my family.”

The magnolia trees he climbed as a child are still there. The Terrace Gardens still rise from a fishpond swirling with koi. Waterlilies spread their plate-like leaves, some as small as saucers, some seemingly big enough to support a human. Dragonflies flit among their blooms. En masse, the terraces provide a cacophony of color, but it is all carefully curated, from the spikiness of deep pink bromeliads to the light-green softness of sweet-potato vines, to the deep-red coleuses, their petals edged in green. One level up, the dark-purple leaves of fountain grass rustle. Each view is a curiosity of color, texture, and size, wondrous in the particular, spectacular in the collective.

As the state carefully reopened from its pandemic slumber, the gardens welcomed visitors in phases. Phase One gave access for Duke students, faculty, and staff. June would bring in the public, with a limited capacity.

Charlotte Beever came to the gardens in the first wave, after a “strange, stressful year” spent managing ever-shifting schedules in child and family psychiatry for Duke Behavioral Medicine.

“It’s an oasis, this peaceful spot, and a lovely thing to share with the people around you,” she says. “It was so special to see things grow and blossom. There is something about a garden that is inherently hopeful.”

Lois Pradka, a registered nurse who came out of retirement after forty-three years at Duke to give COVID vaccinations, comes to the gardens for inspiration and ideas for her own yard. There were so few people on her visit that she spent two and a half hours just strolling, settling onto benches, not feeling like she should move along to accommodate other visitors.

“It was meditative,” she says, “a wonderful opportunity to be in the gardens at my own pace and be able to linger as long as I wanted.”

Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies, surprised his students with a gathering at the gardens after fourteen weeks of only seeing each other on screen. Safi and his wife got married in the White Garden, and the whole space is special to him, so he incorporated the visit into a seminar on the prophet Mohammed.

“We talked about meaning and symbolism of a garden in the Islamic tradition,” he says. “Even our word ‘paradise’ actually comes from a Persian word meaning ‘an enclosed garden,’ which is the way it has been imagined in Muslim traditions.”

This version of paradise is a place of bounty and beauty, and butterflies that lift like blooms in flight.

One of the themes in Safi’s Islamic studies course is to find space or people or practices that replenish your soul, regardless of your religious tradition. For Safi, the gardens have always provided that, so much so that he’d often take the “long cut” through the gardens between his office and West Campus.

“One of the teachings from the legacy of the prophet is that when you go to a place like the gardens, you’re not going into nature, you yourself are nature, and going into a garden reminds you of that,” he says. “It’s not just that we’re separated from the gardens, it’s that we’re cut off or have forgotten that garden-like state of the soul, that knowledge that what is beyond you and inside you echo each other.

“Going to the gardens is recalibrating your heart and reminding yourself who and what you are.”

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