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An invitation to outdoors

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the date that a 14,000-acre forest preserve and arboretum was established 25 miles south of Louisville by philanthropist Isaac Wolfe Bernheim.

Bernheim bought the logged and worn-out farmland in Bullitt and Nelson counties in 1928. He incorporated the Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation in May 1929 and transferred the land to the foundation. His personal secretary, Robert Paul, became the first executive director of what is now Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. The site is the largest private conservation forest in Kentucky.

But instead of calling the arboretum 80 years old, make it 80 years young.

Throughout its history, thanks to nature's power of rejuvenation and the guidance provided by directors and staff, growth and innovation have kept Bernheim a vital part of Kentucky's green scene.

Year after year, programs aimed at connecting people with nature — like the upcoming BloomFest, which will offer a plant sale, talks by garden experts Richard Weber of Springhouse Gardens and Margaret Shea of Dropseed Nursery, a Bloomin' Brunch, kite flying, a flower costume contest and nature activities for kids — have encouraged visitors to accept Bernheim's original invitation "to come from city, village, hamlet and farm, to re-create their lives in the enjoyment of nature and the many blessings she gives with open hand to those with understanding ... ."

The Visitor Center

It's well worth the visit to Bernheim to experience the innovative Visitor Center, which in 2007 became the first platinum LEED-certified building in Kentucky. It is a bellwether and model for eco-friendly and sustainable development.

Lee Bagley, whose Lexington firm Barnette Bagley Architects worked with Bernheim leaders to update the arboretum's master plan, described some of the water features that make the building ecologically friendly: a rain garden with water-holding and purifying tupelo and bald cypress trees; water for flushing toilets harvested from a rooftop gathering system and stored in an underground cistern; and a parking lot sloped to direct pollutant-containing runoff to Kentucky oyster mushroom beds, which help break down the harmful compounds.

The firm of William McDonough + Partners was selected to create the design, which Bagley says envisions "a building that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for thousands of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, builds soil, creates 20 micro climates, changes with the seasons and is beautiful. Imagine a building like a tree. The concept which came from this thinking was a structure which acted more as a portal to Bernheim's incalculable beauty than a destination in and of itself."

The distinction between outside and inside is softened by the use of timber-framed glass walls and arbor structures, a roof planted with native grasses including big bluestem, grown from seeds harvested from Bernheim's prairie, and interior paneling created from native woods including Kentucky coffee tree, sassafras and walnut. Some of the wood was recycled from dismantled Jim Beam and Brown-Forman Corp. rack houses. At Bernheim's Lake Nevin, you can see 256 cypress trees that were planted to offset the use of cypress wood, recycled from H.J. Heinz pickle vats, in beams and posts at the center. Bagley also recalls a poignant moment when the "'ground-breaking ceremony' was transmogrified into a 'ground-raising ceremony'" as Bernheim family members and friends brought pots of native grasses they'd grown to help plant the roof.

The grounds

Bernheim forest is a complex of various landscapes. The arboretum showcases tree, shrub and plant specimens, and there's a system of walks and roads, framed against ponds, mature evergreen plantings and sculpture. Thirty-five miles of hiking trails also afford scenic vistas — and some exercise.

A hilly forested section provides a natural, woodland setting, and open prairies hold a sweep of native grasses and vistas of the nearby Knobs Region. Spring is especially colorful, with blooming trees and nesting birds. A Canada goose looked right at home atop the Visitor Center's grass roof.

Recently, director Mark Wourms, who was passing by a stand of vibrant violet Japanese redbud, introduced himself with, "Isn't that a great color?" He took a moment from patrolling the grounds to discuss the deep well of local support he has received since becoming director about a year ago.

"We're finding that despite the economic downturn, many people are still looking for ways to get involved in Bernheim and its programs," he says.

Bernheim has had an artist-in residence program since 1980 and a writer-in-residence program since 2001. They give creative spirits an opportunity to live close to nature in a cabin for a few months. The resulting photographs, sculpture, poetry and other works of art and literature appeal to the public on yet a different plane.

After BloomFest, activities in the coming months include programs on wildflowers, owls, corn planting, and full moon and summer solstice hikes. An 80th-anniversary bash is planned July 11.

Whether you call it a green oasis, an outdoor sanctuary or forest research station, Bernheim will open your eyes to Kentucky's natural wonders.