Two years ago today, the world stopped. It was a moment so hurtful and so unimaginable that I could only wish it wasn’t true. But it was true… A nightmare had struck the very heart of humanity. It happened at home in the land of the free. It happened in Connecticut – the southernmost state of New England. It happened in Newtown – the neighboring town to where my family has had roots for over 45 years.
Of course, unexpected tragedy is not new in our great country. I sometimes get the impression that some of our fellow country people have become numb to news of unjust actions against people via the hands of other people. What was different about this day two years ago? Why has it changed me? Why have I continued to feel a connection to this day and sorrow for the loss of those 26 souls? I had not met the people we lost that day. Yet they had been geographically so close to me. More importantly, there presence at school is something I could deeply understand from my own experiences as a student years ago; as a son of a teacher; as a brother of a teacher; and… as a father of two beautiful boys.
I thought about it. I cried about it. I hugged my family a bit tighter that night two years ago.
The next morning, I reflected on a series of questions that seemed so basic – yet so important. The questions:
In light of such a tragedy, 1) what is my role as a father?
In light of such a tragedy, 2) what is my role as a member of the community?
In light of such a tragedy, 3) what is my role as a professional?
For me, answering the first two was easy and instinctual. My role as a father is to love and nurture my family. Always work to stay in integrity, as this is truly the foundation of long term strength and stability. As for my role as a community person, I must remain aware of my surroundings; contribute to positive actions improving the wellbeing of my community; and speak up if and when I see things or actions that threaten that wellbeing.
The third question…. Well – answering that was a different story. From the context of my role in the field of public horticulture what should I do? Should the collective field of public horticulture respond after such a tragedy? Could we do something? The answer was not clear.
My thinking quickly led to the idea of creating 26 gardens in honor of those we lost in Newtown. I understood that there was a tremendous outpouring of support and sympathy from across the country and world immediately following the tragedy. After the initial flood of reporters, responsible news coverage was sharing a message from the Newtown community that they begged for space and some quiet time as they looked within for healing. As a result, I felt it would be unlikely that Newtown would be home to any of these gardens – at least, not initially. Instead, I saw these gardens as healing spaces for other communities that were feeling their own pain and needed places for rest, reflection, and recovery. As my wife said – the gardens would be like pearls on a necklace, connecting different people across our great nation around a simple and common idea of love, hope, and the value of life.
Initially, I only shared my vision for a series of gardens with my wife, my closest mentor, and the owner of a local daycare. We all agreed that this was something special and deserved careful consideration. We felt a sense of responsibility to contribute to the healing process while also respecting the incredibly sensitive issue of giving Newtown the space it needed and deserved. A meeting was set up to explore the idea further and set up next steps where we would start looking for supporters and potential installation sites.
One day before our meeting, the New York Times came out with a story about a thoughtful and well organized group of New Jersey firemen who had silently raised over $200,000 toward a goal of over $1Million in order to build 26 playgrounds spread between Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. At the time they called themselves the Sandy Hook Ground Project (now known as “The Sandy Ground: Where Angels Play” – supported by the “Where Angels Play Foundation”). We knew the playgrounds were going to be built – and the dream of 26 gardens was essentially gone. The general public would simply not understand the distinct difference between the playground park and the garden space. The risk of donor fatigue and message dilution was simply too high.
So what do I think about gardens? Why are they so important?
Gardens are as unique and diverse as the people and land that create them. They tell a story about a place *and* the people associated with that space. While gardens are not the only type of space that can support people as they reflect, learn, rest, and recover from painful events; gardens are particularly good at nurturing human emotions. We need gardens in our communities. All kinds of gardens! Not just the “official” public gardens that have a gate and an admissions fee, but accessible and intensely personal garden spaces like the quiet, yet powerfully emotional garden found on the former property of the Petit family in Cheshire, CT.
My original vision for 26 physical gardens has evolved over the past two years. I see a need to foster public understanding of gardens; and through that understanding, increase the social value we place on these important green spaces. Be it the High Line in Manhattan, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden within the Golden Gate Park/San Francisco, the courtyard at a nearby University, or your neighbor’s front yard.
So how do I address that third question two years later? Like this:
The field of public horticulture desperately needs to promote the wide variety of American public gardens and proactively support communities as they struggle through difficult moments. This support should be available through accessible programs offering expertise around the areas of organizational structure, engaging community design, environmental (spatial) stewardship, maintenance expectations, awareness campaigns, follow-up support, and partnership opportunities with other gardens and garden related organizations.
In the garden, you may be surprised to find a plant that reminds you of your childhood or a dear family member you are unable to meet for tea. In the garden, you may find a moment to let your mind rest and your heart heal as you step away from our busy and sometimes unjust world. In the garden, you may find footprints from our children… Their footprints gently marked these grounds. They were not digital devices or artificially intelligent beings. They were real biological living feet – running after new discoveries. Delighting in the flight of a butterfly or the sweet smell of a flower or the music from the leaves.
Yes… In the garden we can find calm, peace, hope, and joy. We can celebrate with those who are with us and honor those whom we have lost.
God bless those who we lost two years ago, and God bless American gardens.