Monday, March 21, 2011

Community Resources: Waiting for spring at the Botanical Gardens

Anyone who has spent time with my son Danny knows that his mood can fluctuate wildly, between sublime and exuberant joy to extreme irritation and frustration. Even on a good day, he is often cranky. Danny cannot communicate in any specific way about what he is feeling or why he feels the way he does. My educated guess (after 34 years) is that his hypersensitivity to touch and sometimes sound, combined with discomfort related to his severe cerebral palsy including gastrointestinal problems, have a lot to do with it. Danny seems to know, however, what makes him feel better: if he could, he would spend most of his time sitting outside in his wheelchair, listening to the birds, and breathing fresh air.

Winter is a rough time of year for Danny, but we have found an almost perfect place to take him to make the wait for warm weather a little easier. The University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor are full of all the sensory experiences that Danny can appreciate. Although Danny has very little functional vision, he can hear, feel, and smell all that the greenhouses have to offer.

In the tropical greenhouse, the air is warm and humid. There is a fish pond with water dribbling from it and a relatively large water fall whose sound sends Danny into a fit of ecstasy.  We enjoy the lush displays of orchids, the banana trees producing one of Danny's favorite fruits, and we see and smell the new green growth and flowering tropical plants.  We have contributed a couple of overgrown trees to the Botanical Gardens that we visit on each trip - a Key lime tree that we started from seed and a Plumaria, both from Florida. 

The temperate greenhouse is cooler but also light and spring-like. It has a koi pond with water dripping over ferns into a pool. I always stop by the rosemary bush to give Danny a whiff of rosemary and pull gardenias or other sweet smelling flowers close enough for him to inhale. The third house is a dry desert environment that is cooler and houses exotic cacti, Spanish bayonets, Century plants, and other oddities.

Danny can hear the sounds of people milling around, especially small children who delight him with shrieks and chatter. On this particular Sunday, there is something like a scavenger hunt going on where children mark off items on a list of objects and plants that they discover on their route through the greenhouses. As an added bonus, Danny discovers that in the desert house there is black sheet metal along the walls covering up a heating apparatus. Danny finds that it is at wheelchair height and begins pounding on the sheet metal with his right arm. (He also does this when he gets near metal file cabinets or large cardboard boxes as a way to express his inner rowdy nature.) I let him bang on the metal until it gets so loud that some of the children look alarmed and begin staring. There is plenty of room in the greenhouses to move Danny past the temptation to bang on sheet metal, and so we move on. It's not nice to frighten the children.

On our way out we walk through a fine mist that periodically sprays water to humidify the tropical plants. Danny loves the hissing sound the sprayers make and also appreciates the warm dampness that surrounds him.

The botanical gardens are such a delight, that I would hate to spoil the experience by claiming that it does anything to improve Danny's status in the community or that it in any way dispels the notion that some people with disabilities have problems that can't be overcome by high expectations. Watching Danny's infectious joy is enough for us and we suspect that it has not gone unnoticed by our fellow fans of the Botanical Gardens.

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