Kentucky voices

Save golden glory of 660; biophilia thrives in wild of UK's Mathews Garden

May 4, 2014 

Virginia bluebells are blooming beneath the redbuds while wood poppies wind around the base of the pawpaw trees. Downy woodpeckers flit through the canopy and an eastern cottontail just shot past my feet. I'm not in the Red River Gorge or Blanton Forest; I'm sitting in the University of Kentucky's Mathews Garden.

It's a beautiful woodland garden on the corner of Limestone and Washington Streets, and like many other Kentucky woodlands, it is imperiled. There is a very real chance that the Mathews Garden, which has existed in many manifestations for over a century, could be leveled in the name of a new law school.

At the turn of the last century, former UK dean of agriculture Clarence Mathews planted this garden behind his family's home at 660 Limestone. His daughter, Ruth Mathews, who donated the house and garden to UK in 1968, published a memoir called Six-Sixty, the Story of A House in A Garden and the Family that Loves It. The book's frontispiece shows a photograph from 1918, on the day Ruth graduated from UK. She is standing with her father in the garden, beneath a linden tree whose highest branches hang just above their heads. Ninety-four years later, that tree has been struck by lightning several times, and its existence, like the garden itself, appears tenuous.

The Mathews Garden current caretaker, biology professor James Krupa, gave me Ruth Mathews' book some years ago. It was Krupa who dug out 20 pickup-truck loads of honeysuckle and other invasive plants and, after thousands of hours of work, restored the garden to its original grandeur. All spring students, faculty, staff and anyone else can come here and enjoy the wildflowers' changing palette of colors, an event Ruth Mathews called "the golden glory at 660."

Still, many UK students and employees do not know this garden exists. Many do not know that it is a garden. This rich ecological tapestry doesn't conform to our conventional expectations of well-manicured, heavily mulched beds, filled with exotic plants. The Mathews Garden is wild. Native Kentucky plants jostle for space and sunlight here in what is probably the most biologically diverse half-acre of land in the state.

Some have argued that this is reason enough to level the garden: it doesn't look like it belongs on the campus. On the contrary, the absolute uniqueness of this "urban wild," with 350 species of flora, is one of the strongest reasons for its preservation. One obvious reason is that the garden is a teaching laboratory for classes from the sciences, like dendrology and ecology, to classes from the humanities, like my own environmental writing course. At a time when UK is striving to become a "living-learning community," I can't think of any place on campus that better embodies the idea of experiential education.

But beyond that, the Mathews Garden is a reminder of who we once were, as Kentuckians and as human beings. John James Audubon would have recognized almost every species inside these white fences (he probably would have shot the cottontail for dinner). However the noise from Limestone Street, the constant horns and sirens, would have convinced him quite quickly that he was right to flee the United States and have his magisterial book, Birds of America, printed in Europe. The Mathews Garden is a small bulwark against our indoor-automobile culture; it is an elegant argument for a little more wildness in our lives, for what the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has called biophilia: an intrinsic, genetically driven love of the natural world.

Consider this: a University of Michigan study found that students who walked through the campus arboretum before a test performed better than those who walked the streets of Ann Arbor. Hundreds of other studies show similar results: we evolved close to nature and are healthiest, both mentally and physically, when we maintain that closeness.

Just down the road from the city's most polluting power plant, the trees and flowers of the Mathews Garden stand here quietly sequestering carbon that comes from the burning of coal. There's a lesson in that, a lesson about how we must proceed into the 21st century, how we must now look to natural laws, not fossil fuel-driven human industry, as our measure for health and wealth.

The Mathews Garden stands as a reminder of why Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." We need places like this to remind us of who we were and who we must become if we are to create a sustainable world over the next hundred years.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton recently said that the administration wants to continue a dialogue about the Mathews Garden. I am encouraged by that sentiment, and would like to make a simple suggestion for how that dialogue might proceed. I suggest that President Eli Capilouto and law school Dean David Brennen take a walk through the garden one afternoon this week. I suggest that they admire the wildflowers, take a seat on one of the garden benches, and discuss a way for this extraordinary place to remain a part of the UK campus.

As I sit on one such bench, two final thoughts occur to me. One is that the ugliest building on UK's campus, the Mining Industries building, stands in a parking lot directly behind the law school. Why not build in that direction instead of toward the Mathews House and its garden? My second thought is that any architect worth commissioning to build the new law school would welcome the opportunity to incorporate this rare landscape into his or her design. It would be an opportunity for UK to make a bold architectural statement about sustainable design and the importance of preservation.

And the students who study jurisprudence in such a biophilic environment would be more productive, less stressed-out attorneys-in-waiting. Let the laws created by the social animals draw closer to the laws of nature. We would all be better off.

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