This past Sunday my wife and I took a trip to meet up with friends at the Morton Arboretum, one of the Chicago area’s most popular places to commune with nature and frolic among the trees.
We were attending one of the Walking Plays the Arboretum hosts. This one was focused on the writings of the Brother’s Grimm, and consisted of stops to hear shortened versions of the often gruesome stories concocted by the famous literary siblings.
For example, one of the stories featured a despotic king with a blue beard who tempted all his wives with a Golden Key to a door they should not open. But sure enough, much like the tale of Eve with the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, the women succumbed to temptation and in this case, wound up hung on meat hooks where their blood apparently flowed eternally, because every new queen who opened the door got washed with the blood of the previous victims. Only this time, the queen had given notice to her brothers that if she ever called to them from the tower they should come running to her rescue. So when the king warned her that she was about to become a member of the Meat Hook Clan inside the door protected by the Golden Key, she asked if she could go say her prayers in the tower. First.
And then she called her brothers who slayed the king and the entire family got to keep the treasures behind all the other doors to which the queen also now had all the keys.
That’s kind of a Member’s Only tale about the respecting the rules of the premises. Lord knows the dynamic is alive and well even at the public recreation facility where we belong. There is a regular old locker room downstairs for the common folk. Then there’s an upstairs locker room to which admission is granted only if you pay a premium.
That’s how the human race has to function, I guess. There’s always some sort of “premium” or first class offer going on. Many times that’s the generate profits for the seller. After all, if people are willing to pay more, why not give them the right to spend their money and make themselves feel better and more privileged than others. That’s capitalism in a nutshell.
But it’s also a kind of caste system in which people with more money are always getting access to the nicer things in life. But here’s the irony in that. Sometimes people who pay for memberships, or people who work hard all day for their money actually wind up getting the shaft.
For edification on this fact, we’ll share the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which goes like this from the Book of Matthew:
Laborers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius1 a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’
5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And hwhen evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his iforeman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’
9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and jthe scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, k‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take lwhat belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 mAm I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or ndo you begrudge my generosity?’2 16 So othe last will be first, and the first last.”
Members can wait
See, that kind of happened to us recently at the Morton Arboretum. Sue and I have been members the last five years, and I’ve personally been a member forever, on and off. We go over to the Arb to run sometimes. Typically we park our vehicles in the main lot and run the 7.5 miles of roads on the east and west side of the park that is split by state highway 53, a busy suburban thoroughfare that runs from the far southwest side of Chicago all the way to Lake County about 35 miles to the north.
And this Sunday we pulled onto 53 to enter the Arb and traffic was backed up a full mile. That’s because the Arboretum has an enormously popular exhibit of large scale wooden trolls. Thousands of people are coming on weekends to seek out the trolls hidden in the woodlands or parked in the open sun, where one giant troll lolls in an orchard-like environment.
Popular beyond imagination
The trolls are so popular and so profitable that the system to admit visitors has been overwhelmed by the amount of traffic entering the facility. As we experienced last Sunday, the lines to get in extend for a mile.
At the gate, the Arboretum charges $15 per person for general admission if one is not a member. That means a carload of four people generates income of $60. Multiply that times 1,000 cars on a given Saturday and Sunday, and the revenue is $120,000 a day. Add up the weekends from May through October and we’re talking $720,000 just in admission fees to non-members. That’s serious money.
Members don’t pay any additional fees to enter during special events such as the Troll Hunt. Our family membership for two is probably $90 or so. Certainly membership fees are vital to the mission of the Arb. But those raw dollars coming in from the big exhibits such as Troll Hunt and the annual Illumination event are attractions that really help bankroll the place. The Arb treats them as equals. Which is frankly as it should be. Their money is as good as ours.
Go Slow and Know
So as members, we’re kind of like the “laborers” who signed up early to “work”, then along come all these frantic visitors piling into the joint with one goal in mind: “We gotta see all the trolls.” There’s just one problem: the drivers of these vehicles don’t seem to get the concept of the Go Slow and Know ethic that typically governs movement through the Arboretum. It’s supposed to be a place of contemplation and respect for trees. But parents with carloads of kids and backseats with grumpy grandmothers don’t have time for all that. The kids want to get the heck out of the car and grandma’s feet already hurt from walking, so it pays to race from one place to another. If a few runners or cyclists get in your way, blow right past them. Life has speed bumps, don’t you know?
Churn and berm
I commiserate with the plight of the Morton Arboretum. It’s not cheap to own land these days, especially land that sits smack dab in the center of the region’s busiest corporate corridor.It takes real money to maintain thousands of acres in the face of all that development. There’s even a campus across I-88 that calls itself Corporetum, which somewhat cynically borrows the land ethic of the arb to pitch commercial property.
It’s also not the Arboretum’s fault that the preserve is surrounded by really big roads, especially to the south with Interstate 88 and on its east side with I-355. When those roads were expanded some thirty years ago, the project provided for massive earthen berms to be built to protect the Morton Arboretum from road noise and, quite ironically it seems, from the hazards of road salt flying off the highway.
The Morton family that started the Arboretum made its fortune in the salt industry. The classic logo for Morton Salt products features the phrase “When it rains, it pours.” That could also symbolize the problems the Morton Arboretum is now having with its large crowds and visitors pouring in through the entrances to see the trolls. When it rains visitors, it seems, it really pours.
The problems faced by the crowds crushing it at Morton Arboretum are in many ways an American phenomenon. Yet true to form, there’s an iconic image right at the entrance to the Morton Arboretum. One of the first trolls one encounters is holding aloft what looks like a giant stone. Below him on the turf grass is a smashed car. The troll is obviously taking out its natural frustrations on the car.
The entire troll theme at the Arboretum is a commentary of sorts about the onslaught against nature by the intrusions of the human race. A tall solitary troll stands atop the massive berm overlooking I-88. The troll’s hair is formed of twisted stands of bunch up branches. It’s rotund body and stolid face suggest a creature that walks a fine line between organic indulgence and eternal vigilance. It holds a lance as if to fend off all those who would invade its precious premises.
Salt of the earth
Perhaps it is symbolic of a “salt of the earth” ethic that somehow we are all called to protect this thing called creation. The earth is both a popular and a populous place, but it’s also the only one we have. That turns the well-worn paths to and from the troll statues into something of a warning. It’s fine to treasure an attraction and celebrate its unique qualities, but it is also important not to wear out our welcome and adversely impact our resources as a whole in the process.
If it’s true that the meek shall inherit the earth, then it’s not likely the ones who consume and abuse it willfully and wantonly that will be the ones to gain that inheritance. In the short term, they may indeed reign over the world. They may choose to ignore scientific warnings of climate change based on political and economic ideology. They may leverage the power and authority granted by a legalistic (and literalistic) view of religion to claim dominion over the earth and claim the merits of the pseudo-science they call creationism. They may trumpet the benefits of capitalism when it privatizes the profits and hide from view when it socializes the costs. All these zealots imagine themselves to be the strong and noble amongst us, but the fact remains: the meek shall one day inherit the earth.
And who are the meek? They are the good stewards who accept (like laborers in the vineyard) that the compensations afforded by the Go Slow and Know approach to existence may come late to some. Hopefully the people who now tear through the Arboretum in the heat of summer or who indulge in fevered expectation at the attraction of trolls will go slow when they return. Then the snow will sit quietly on the land and the only noise is the humble chip of a woodpecker working the bark of an old oak for its daily meal. But that is the point.
And that’s what the trolls truly represent. Despite being so popular that it hurts, in the end, they truly appreciate their alone time.