The warm, humid air I felt on my face reminded me of the time I entered a Turkish steam bath in Istanbul. I was sporting a thick beard and I hadn’t had a shave or haircut since I landed in London some four months prior. I also had very few baths in that time. My travelling partner, Father Gary Ternes, remarked that with my turban-looking towel and bathrobe I easily could have disappeared into the swarming crowd of Turks and Kurds that peopled the nearby market.
“You look just like them!” he said.
Today I found myself surrounded by dozens of different types of palm trees that could be found all over the world. I found myself staring at a sloth that did absolutely nothing for 10 minutes, including not even move. A pair of yellow finches buzzed overhead as though they were playing a game of cat and mouse.
“What a wonderful escape from winter,” I said to my wife. “Why didn’t we think of this sooner?”
We sat on a cement bench that looked down a row of brilliant red azaleas scattered amongst rosebushes, orchids of all colors and hundreds of daylilies. I was not in Istanbul, Turkey, or even on some island in the tropics. I was in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, where today the temperature had yet to reach above zero. A cold north wind hurried my wife and I to the entrance of the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. This was my second trip to the year-round jungle of flowers, vines and trees that is the perfect setting for a winter getaway.
The Sunken Gardens offer a fragrant, ever-changing art display including a waterway directly down the middle. On each side are identical rows of flowers that create a mirror image of each other. We observed many couples having their photo taken in this warm, colorful, romantic setting.
There was no need to pack luggage and head to the airport, no need to purchase an expensive airline ticket. A mere $2 donation (free if you can’t afford it) bought a ticket to the Bird of Paradise, one of Mother Nature’s most beautiful flowers. One entire area is dedicated to a natural apothecary. Herbs, spices, teas and medicinal plants litter the indoor landscape. Exotic mind-altering plants like the Peruvian Ayauasca and the body-numbing betel nut can be found alongside cinnamon and nutmeg trees or a black pepper plant. Almost every spice I had in my kitchen cabinet was represented here by a tree, leaf, vine, flower or shrubbery.
The deeper I got into the jungle, the more I returned to my time in the Army when I was stationed in Panama. I spent a couple of months guarding the Panama Canal, but for the better part of the year, I worked at the Jungle Operations Training Center. For a while I taught rappelling classes where we had the pleasure of pushing lieutenants fresh out of West Point backwards off of an intimidating waterfall. My favorite class, however, was called Jungle Survival Foods. Just as it is named, it taught recruits edible foods available that would allow one to survive in the jungles of Vietnam where they would soon find themselves.
While admiring some small ancient trees in the Bonsai section located in the Ordway Gardens, I spotted an old friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in several years.
“Jonathon, is that you?” I queried.
“Wick, I haven’t seen you in a long time. How are you doing?”
I should have replied, “Just fine.”
Instead, I gave him the 15 minute version of my car accident, my broken back and sternum and my more recent heart issues. He gave me a look that said, “Sorry I asked.”
Jonathon spent his youth on the island nation of Madagascar. The Como Conservatory was the ideal place to spend the afternoon teaching his daughter all about the flora and fauna of his childhood home. It was also the ideal place for my wife and I to spend one of a great many frigid days in Minnesota this winter reminding us how nice nature can be in the summer. It also left us thinking along the lines of many Minnesotans this year; why do we live here?