After a day at Gettysburg, we ended up spending a night at a Park Inn in Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania. You would think a huge motor inn outside Pennsylvania’s state capital would be pretty vacant on a Saturday night, but it was virtually full. Still, I couldn’t complain about the price: $67 with taxes by prepaying in advance through hotwire.com. The room was a little musty but was otherwise three stars. Most importantly, the WiFi worked consistently.
This morning found us driving past Hershey, Pennsylvania to meet two of my wife’s friends for breakfast at a tiny little place called Cornwall. Cornwall, like much of this area of Pennsylvania, is as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread, mostly due to the large number of Germans who settled here. It was strange to sit in a restaurant and see no one of color. The only real diversity was my wife’s friends, a same sex couple that live nearby. It was also surreal just how inexpensive the food was. A couple of bucks could buy you some eggs, bacon and toast hanging off the side of your plate. I smiled at the menu, which highlighted the fact that they proudly served Maxwell House coffee. No Starbucks in or near Cornwall, I guess, and likely none wanted either.
Breakfast started late and ended about the time the menus were changing for lunch. We were pushing noon before we were heading east toward Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Sitting forty five minutes by car south and west of Philadelphia, the borough is known for a couple of things, including the Revolutionary War Battle of Brandywine that was fought nearby but particularly for the amazing Longwood Gardens. There for eighteen dollars you can purchase a day in a garden paradise.
It’s hard to compare Longwood Gardens with any other garden I have seen in my fifty plus years. The closest equivalent might be Versailles, the French king’s “summer home” outside of Paris, and its miles of gardens, all for the king’s enjoyment. While I gazed out on the gardens at Versailles, I did not walk through them. I feel confident though that the gardens at Versailles cannot come close to the diversity of species of plants found at Longwood Gardens. In fact, I would be astonished if Longwood Gardens were not the largest and most diverse garden in the United States.
The garden was the brainchild of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, who simply expanded and expanded on an arboretum on the property put there by the previous owners. du Pont saw many gardens during his visits to Europe, and stole liberally from all of them. However, he never felt possessive about his garden and opened them up regularly to the public. On his death, the foundation maintaining the garden kept up the tradition. Today, the garden span 1,077 acres. For all practical purposes, Longwood Gardens is the mythical Garden of Eden, an incredible respite for a weary soul available at the bargain price of just $18 a day. Frequent visitors can join their society, come more often and pay only an annual fee.
Longwood Gardens is a visual and odorous ode to the natural world, but it is also very much a creation of man. In the natural world, nature turns out to be inconsistent and messy. A garden should be meticulously laid out, full of diverse species, attractively arranged for the eye, pungent to the nose and wholly inviting to the spirit. You will find this and much more at Longwood Gardens. This is a garden designed to suit man, in his original and sinless state. In brief, the experience is overwhelming, vast in size, and vast in variety. Surely heaven would look and feel a lot like Longwood Gardens. You could see it modeled in the eyes and behavior of visiting children who could be seen playing hide and seek behind topiaries or rolling down soft, inviting lawns. There is a vast arboretum but there is also so much more including an intoxicating flower walk, a large “managed meadow”, walks through a dense forest of old growth trees and even three story tree houses where both children and adults can hear the wind rustle through the trees and see the sun peak through the overhead canopy.
It was just the tonic my wife needed. Three months ago she lost her mother, and much of her life since then has been consumed by grief. A day in Longwood Gardens restored her, at least temporarily, to health and happiness. She could imagine her late grandmother, a constant gardener, touring Longwood Gardens with her. She was infamous for never smiling, and she was sure she would have done her best not to smile visiting this garden. But I believe that her grandmother would find it impossible not to smile at so special a natural space. It is like all of God’s flowering creations were concentrated in one amazing and special location.
Behind these gardens must be hundreds of gardeners keeping the gardens in its surreal state of optimal enjoyment. On a Sunday they were nowhere in evidence, except for one man I noticed in the arboretum watering plants.
In addition to the gardens, there are other delights to the human spirit: large water fountains that regularly provide dazzling water shows, ample chairs to view the shows under shady trees, benches near bucolic spots for contemplating the garden, a couple of Steinway pianos in the conservatory that mostly play piano rolls, frequent weekend concert events, and dazzling evening light shows, usually turned on during Saturday nights.
Longwood Gardens simply should not be missed. Muslims must go to Mecca and gardeners should pay a pilgrimage to Longwood Gardens. It is likely that one trip simply will not be enough. Anyone who feels morose or bereft of spirit should come as well. As I can document with my wife, its healing effects can be quite extraordinary. Please come!