Even on a frigid morning, when the last scarlet leaves clung to an oak tree and fallen gingko leaves blurred the pathways, a woman sat cross-legged on a stone bench in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, wrapped and rapt. I have no idea who she was or how long she’d been sitting there, but in the days since I spotted her, she has lingered in my mind as an image of serenity stolen from the screeching tumult of urban life.
Nature doesn’t grow on trees, you know. Setting the stage for her contemplative break took more than a century of planning, hundreds of millions of dollars, countless hours of labor, and the persistent support of politicians. The garden is a public artwork, as meticulously fashioned and obsessively maintained as any museum masterwork. Today, it may be lovelier (and it is certainly larger) than at any point in its history. After a decade of expensive interventions, it now has a light-filled visitor center neatly burrowed beneath a strip of rolling meadow, a new children’s garden, and a 1.5-acre patch of wetlands with a hidden system for conserving water. A gracious pathway loops gently down from a new overlook. And, in an area that was once an untamed tangle beneath old trees, the landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates has inserted a new Woodland Garden, a magical spot in the shade. (It opens to the public December 1.) The whole 52-acre park is the botanical equivalent of a dense downtown, with species from all over the world organized into adjacent communities and packed into a single ecosystem.