There is so much going on in Asheville that sometimes things get lost and it takes a special event to make us see the hidden treasures right under our noses. The North Carolina Arboretum is one such treasure. With its abundance of national parks, wildlife areas and majestic mountains Asheville offers a lot to the outdoor enthusiast and the Arboretum with its overtones of scientific seriousness can be overlooked in favor of less tame sounding locations. James and I are definitely at fault in this as well but I would like to say that we are recent converts!
First, the back story: We have a great staff at the Carolina Bed & Breakfast and Sara, our Assistant Innkeeper, is an important part of it. Sara is a single mother and she has been bringing her son along as she works since she started with us four years ago. He was eight when he first began spreading his Lego bricks on the floor of the office while his mom was occupied with the inn and while he has gotten older, and shows a definite adolescent fascination with video games and computers, he still brings out those brightly colored plastic bricks from time to time. So when I recently saw in the Citizen-Times, our local newspaper, that an exhibit of Lego Sculptures by Sean Kenney was going on display in the gardens of the Arboretum, I immediately thought of Sara and her son and sent the link on to her. Included in the exhibit is a Lego sculpture contest for children and young people ages 3-15. Of course Sara’s son entered.
The exhibit opened this past Saturday so James and I went to see it (and our “staff” entry) on our half-day off. It was a beautiful crisp sunny fall day. A cold front was moving in so the wind was bringing down leaves all around us under a cerulean blue sky as we drove the long winding road to the parking area. The Arboretum consists of 434 acres of gardens and trails on the edge of Pisgah National Forest. It was established in 1986 with the first tree (a Monarch Birch) planted on Arbor Day 1987. One of its most notable features is the Bonsai Garden which began in 1992 when the Arboretum was gifted with a large number of Bonsai plants and containers (sort of forced direction for the Arboretum to take). In typical Western North Carolina fashion the Bonsai Garden has been given a regional interpretation–“Bonsai with a Southern Appalachian accent”!
James and I had been to the Arboretum once before when we first arrived in Asheville to hike some of the forest trails but we had not spent any time in the gardens themselves. As we began our walk, our first impression was one of an extremely tasteful marriage of stylized gardens, sculpture and art all with a backdrop of beautiful mountains views and spreading vistas. The Lego sculptures joined other sculptures placed in the gardens and we spent a very enjoyable hour searching them out with the use of a small map provided to us. In all there are almost 500,000 Lego bricks which have been used by the artist to create his exhibit, “Nature Connects”. The theme is nature so the bright children’s toys have been used to make giant lily pads placed in a decorative pond (with a small Lego frog perched on one), a fox creeps up on a small grey Lego rabbit and a bright orange, white and black koi leaps from a pond. Plaques have been placed near the sculptures and, aside from giving information on the size of the sculpture and the number of bricks used to create it, they mostly concern themselves with information about the animals and objects created. The description of the fish whose “striking looks can be easily seen by predators such as herons…making domesticated koi visual dinner bells” particularly struck home for us having recently lost a large number of goldfish from our pond to one such heron!
After touring the garden we entered the main center where the children’s entries were on display. Most of the displays were scenes rather than sculptures and it felt curiously reminiscent of the National Gingerbread House Competition which is exhibited at the Grove Park Inn every year! Some were quite ingenious. There were pirate coves and busy neighborhood street scenes. I especially enjoyed a basketball game taking place in a large arena made entirely of Lego. We placed our votes in the big glass bowl and exited through the greenhouse passing under a huge Lego bumblebee on our way.
On the way back to the car we went through the Bonsai exhibit being curious to see the Appalachian twist. The Arboretum readily admits that they don’t have any “ancient bonsai trees”. The ones which were donated came without provenance or information as to age and they ones they have been growing are, of course, relatively young. The trees and plants being used to create new exhibits are native to our region and they are arranged as they might be seen in the ecosphere of western North Carolina. One of my favorites is called “Mt. Mitchell” and includes a dead fir tree similar to those which have been struck by blight on the mountain.
The Arboretum has now joined our list of great things to see and do when visiting Asheville!
To see more photos of the Lego exhibit and the Arboretum, please visit our Facebook page. (And please “like” us if you haven’t already. We are just four shy of 500 “likes”!)