Ever since I was little I have loved the story of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Whether in cartoon, film, musical or book, something about the story has always captivated me and made the story seem as magical as Burnett intended.
For those who do not know The Secret Garden, it is the story of an ornery, young girl named Mary Lennox who arrives as a recent orphan in the moors of England to live with her hunchbacked, uncle. Uncle Archibald is both physically and emotionally crippled by the death of his wife, Lilly, and has therefore locked up her walled garden on their property, as well as their son who is assumed to be sick. As Mary grows and discovers the magic of the garden, she also cures and inspires her new family to overcome their sadness and live again.
I definitely did not quite catch the gardening bug that many of my family members seem to possess, however I have always appreciated gardens as places for introspective tranquility and the awareness of nature. There is something inherently beautiful about the feeling of escaping into a world of green and flowers. The first secret garden I fell in love with was on Hudson Street in New York City. It was in the summer of 2009 during my first-ever big city internship. On my first day, I was too early and walked around the neighborhood to kill a few minutes. I stumbled upon a church garden and fell in love with this little walled-off safe haven. Needless to say, that summer I spent many lunch breaks in the garden, taking a short break from the pressure of growing up too fast.
My second secret garden I found was the Governor’s Palace Garden in Williamsburg, VA, just outside my university campus. Once a semester I would dedicate a moment to flash my student ID at a colonial impersonator and disappear into the garden for a little while. Of course this garden was also the site of several late night attempts at the William and Mary “triathlon” challenge, but it will always stand out to me as the place I could go by myself for a quick escape from college friends, classes and extracurricular activities everyday.
In New York City it’s not easy to find this sense of solitude and often I forget to find a garden, either literally or figuratively. The past month though, I have been so excited to stumble on a number of NYC’s “secret” gardens. Around the East Village on a sunny (finally) spring Saturday there was so much life between birthday parties and eclectic folk concerts tucked into the neighborhood’s green spaces. My favorite on 6th Street featured a tree house bathed in light and surrounded by the scent of lilacs. With the start of spring, it was amazing to see all the life out and about and how communities form in different ways when in the open air of the city.
Part of my motivation to move out of Manhattan to Queens this past year was the need to escape to a greener and calmer environment. Finally, now that spring is arriving, it’s amazing to see just how different the neighborhoods of the outer boroughs are from the “big city” and how innovative New York can be with finding green space—whether with more official community gardens or even little sidewalk gardens. On a wandering walk over to Sunnyside, I unearthed a new neighborhood that felt like I was in a forest (of course with lots of parked cars and brick apartments). On Mother’s Day, our family spent a lovely afternoon walking around the tucked away Vale of Cashmere in Prospect Park. Even just for a little bit, it’s possible to breathe the fresh air and escape.
While I will always love a beautiful garden, I think my love of The Secret Garden has also now evolved. As a traveler, I have developed a new appreciation of the story in its emphasis on place and how a bit of Earth—garden or not—can make all the difference in a person’s life. Just like escaping into a garden, when I travel to a foreign place and break from my routine, life develops new contextual meaning and a larger sense of purpose as I contribute to new environments. A change of place can have the power to transform your world and highlight emotions that may have previously gone unnoticed. We are forced to awaken, learn and appreciate when we take the time to silence the outside world and tune into the stillness within our own secret gardens. New York City may be known as the concrete jungle and the city that never sleeps, yet if you search, you can find a place to discover who you mean to be.