Stop and smell the Rose Gardens

Last summer I found myself sitting on one of my favorite benches at the Rose Gardens by Lake Harriet. Full-on rapture mode was the order of the day, and as I savored the feast of natural beauty and sounds, two young women entered the gates. One enthusiastically tried to show her unimpressed companion the breath-taking grace of the blooming buds, but the blank-faced slack-jawed girl didn’t get it, and they left the grounds as fast as they’d come in.  

I felt for the woman, who was so clearly on a mission to testify to some soul mate or another about all that useless beauty, because a similar thing happens every day in the world: you can lead a loved one to a head-spinning kaleidoscope of roses, but you can’t make them take a whiff.

Which is good news, since that will keep the numbers down at what Lyndale resident Lisa Broek characterizes as, “the most beautiful spot in the city.” That much was certainly true Tuesday evening, as a glorious sun set into the placid lake, and Broek and her sons Max and Austin traipsed with a family friend amidst the luscious pine trees, screaming white and purple lilacs, and other fawning flora.

“It’s my favorite place in the whole city,” says Broek, standing under the 10-year-old crab apple tree the family planted for Broek’s late husband Alan Uetz. “I always come when the blossoms come out like this. It’s like a treasure that happens once a year. I can’t take in enough of the color. And there are always people here, but you can have solitude and I never feel like we can’t find a place to call our own.”

In this, the Best Spring Ever, the early orgy of sunshine has provided a chance to both get away and get in touch — with yourself and nature — like few Minnesota seasons before it have. In the past two weeks, I have been accompanied to the Rose Garden (and her sister chill-out space the Peace Garden) by friends, musical instruments, a tape recorder, a radio for the ball game, books, note pads, and my own rapt attention to bird watchers moving at the speed of sloth. Squirrels playing chicken. Fellow sun-worshippers resting and freeing their worried minds.  

A group of Japanese tourists lingering over the lilacs, and cooing over the roses. Chirping teenage girls at a Somali wedding. A couple of hippie-punk kids setting up hammocks in the pines. Languid semi-games of badminton, soccer, golf, catch. Kids dancing, running, flipping. Musicians, playing quietly. Listeners, thanking musicians. Strangers, interacting. A gaggle of party girls who swear they saw gnomes tripping through the pines one day last week. A stranger who walked by, did a double-take between me and the sunset and said, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”

Which is what I’ve been thinking; so far the only comparison to the Rose Gardens (nee, officially, Lyndale Garden, off  King’s Highway between 41st and 42nd Streets) I can come up with is Northern California, which melds a similar burst of water, woods and majestic colors. Author and journalist Jay Walljasper, who visits the Rose Gardens several times a day, discovered a kindred touchstone last year.

“I had the good fortune to have to go to Rome and write a story about public spaces, urban planning, and the soul of the city,” said Walljasper, his family lolling on a food- and drink-strewn picnic blanket across the way. “Of course, Rome is nothing like Minneapolis, but when I got home I started thinking about what the Minneapolis version is of the piazza, which is the great Roman institution where everybody hangs out. And I decided that clearly the Rose Gardens is Minneapolis’ piazza. On a beautiful spring day, it’s where everybody wants to be.”  

Not everybody. Thankfully, not everybody.

“The Rose Gardens for me is an urban retreat from this fast life,” said musician, writer and student Pete Christensen, who tries to get to his favorite meditative spot at least once a day. “It’s a place where I can go to escape from the trappings of the mind, and just be present with the beauty of the surroundings and the glimmer of the lake through the trees.”

Jim Walsh grew up and lives in East Harriet.