By Katia M. Arco

I found Laurelwood Arboretum tucked away in the middle of a residential area—in Wayne, New Jersey—ringed by Tudor and colonial houses. I’d been living around this area for about 12 years and had never come across this woodland gem until one afternoon during the early summer of 2011. I drove through Colfax Road that afternoon, looking at houses for sale, when I saw, at a distance, a dense area of green canopies that seemed out of place. About five seconds later, a blue heron swooped down into the lonely, lush verdure catching my attention instantly as I quickly hit the brakes and swerved onto Vale Road. Soon, I was facing the entrance of the arboretum and entered the parking lot.

I follow birds, or at least, I try. When I was young, my grandmother owned a pair of yellow canaries that would later become my inspiration to write. Something about their wings showed me what it meant to be free, though their cage seemed unnatural and my urge to set them free was overwhelming, but I was only seven and unable to comprehend that the sky was to vast for their beauty and flight. Ever since that moment I looked at birds as if they were my protégées and guidance, my friends and confidantes, and especially, creatures filled with information not available to me. So, I watched their flight. And I listened to their cry, screech or song. Or I thought I did. I read myths and tales. I even studied the anatomy of birds and ended up with a degree in Molecular Biology as a result of being completely entranced by the hidden workings of the natural world. My instinct to know what a bird sighting meant in my life became second nature. I don’t purport to say that birds can show you the way, but in my own personal experience I have come to believe that these winged creatures, and the rest of nature, have something to say about where I’m going, and how to get there.

So, I ended up in Laurelwood Arboretum looking for the blue heron. I knew there had to be a pond, marsh or wetland, since herons are wading birds that are heavily dependent on water. Finding the heron wouldn’t be difficult. I just had to find the water first. The whole area didn’t seem too big. According to what the entrance map showed, the arboretum was about 30 acres of well organized gardens and trail paths; a river ran through the middle of the woodland area emptying into Laurel Pond.

I read quickly through the different brochures available at the entrance map and learned that the arboretum—after having been a nursery (Laurelwood Gardens), specializing in azaleas and rhododendrons for approximately twenty years—was established in 2003 as Friends of Laurelwood Arboretum (FOLA). Once owners of Laurelwood Gardens nursery, John and Dorothy Knippenberg had first purchased parcels of land across the street from their home and had tirelessly worked to grow and improve plants, especially to hybridize rhododendrons. Dorothy, a horticulturalist, was eventually awarded the Bronze Medal by the New York Chapter of American Rhododendron Society for her work and commitment to the genus Rhododendron.

Apparently, I had stumbled upon a “garden of Eden.” Laurelwood Arboretum was five minutes away from my house and it had taken twelve years for the heron to swoop pass by me as I drove through Colfax, a road I’d driven through at least five times a week for the last ten years. Needless to say, I was perplexed and curious.

My goal that day, then, was to find the blue heron, but what I didn’t know was that besides finding the heron, I would also find a place that would serve not only as a sanctuary for my own emotional and physical well-being, but also as an oasis for my photographic endeavors. It was a treasure cove, and the first sign I saw that day, as I started along the path of the 30-acre arboretum, was a small wooden placard that read, “Easy Way.”

I began through rows of white foxgloves standing as if welcoming me into a new sensorial dimension where nonhuman intelligence supersedes human logic. Brambles intertwined within these white bell-shaped flowers (and the occasional violet) seemed to be just the right contrast of colors and textures, perfectly arranged for a photograph. I walked passed the thick pin white oaks with the top branches ascending, the side ones projecting horizontally and the lower branches drooping downward, giving me the sense that the trees were watching, pointing every which way, directing me towards my goal.

I continued along the path, descending, passed the Knippenberg Memorial Gazebo constructed with native Osage orange and red cedar. I came upon another placard: Brook Road. I passed by a single wooden door leading to “nowhere,” I knocked thrice—just the child in me playing, I guess. I caressed the smooth bark of a river birch and smelled the blossoms of a magnolia tree. A cardinal chirped. A blue jay warned. Chipmunks gnawed at tiny debris, leaping from one spot onto another, just to suddenly stop and do nothing but stare. A white tailed deer and its fawn stood still, watching me go by, unafraid, even though I was just four feet away. A groundhog crossed my path. Rabbits leaped. I touched the furrowed bark of an old chestnut oak. I pricked my fingers on the sharp spines of the leathery leaves of the American holly. I knew not to disturb the flight of the bees, and a few tiger swallowtail clung to the lavender hues of the butterfly bush. Tiny caterpillars climbed an invisible line, toward the canopies. A single leaf within a whole tree fluttered. A wood thrush’s liquid, flute-like song rippled through the air. And there just ahead, as I rushed along the winding gravel path, about 10 feet above the ground the blue heron swooped by onto the pond just a few meters away. Suddenly, I found myself immersed within multiple intelligences, a complete subjective experience, a visceral phenomenon requiring a distinct change in perception, one where the patterns of nature seemed to communicate. In silence, all seemed to blend into a phantasmagoria of images that I couldn’t recognize within the solidity of nature. I felt like a child once again, and I was reminded of those times when I would stare at one spot for a long time until my eyes crossed and all became one.

I stood right across Laurelwood Pond staring into the lush variety of wetland flora. In between the tall pale greens and thick yellows projecting out the water, the blue heron stood on one leg, immobile, lost to the tapestry of the whole arboretum, waiting for the sun to set, hopefully, cognizant that I waited, entranced by the very nature that we both shared.