A Visit to Duke Gardens

Like a lot of aphorisms, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” has such perfect pitch and rhythm that we rarely question whether it is altogether true. It is no doubt partially true, given that cultural constructs of the beautiful vary as dramatically as they do in this world. Not to mention the individual sensibilities that can see two people focus on the exact same thing and leave one swooning and the other cringing and backing away.

But whatever one’s unique tastes, some things seem to strike a universal chord of sensory appreciation, causing us to dreamily exclaim, “Oh, that’s beautiful!

Sunrises and sunsets, swans afloat and geese in flight, a perfect plump strawberry.

Ecclesiastes 3, and when it was set to music.

All these seem to elicit universal agreement that they are good and beautiful things.

And, of course, gardens.

“God Almighty first planted a Garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures. It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man, without which buildings and palaces are but gross handiworks.”

So said Francis Bacon, noted philosopher, statesman and garden lover. Given what went on in the first garden—treacherous snakes, disobedience, the fall of humankind—it’s a wonder gardens didn’t suffer a collapse of their entire brand identity.

Nevertheless, garden lovers persisted, and millions of gardens have sprung up since, in homes both modest and not, reflecting the fine motives of those who not only create them, but decide to share them with others.

Does anyone create a garden only for their private enjoyment?

If so, there should be a special place in hell, etc…

No, gardens are meant to bring joy to others—our friends, loved ones, family—even when those “friends” number in the thousands upon thousands as they do at Duke Gardens in Durham. That’s  where I was fortunate to be strolling last weekend on an overcast morning, eyes and nose and ears open, iPhone camera in hand and a song, sung lustily by the birds of late spring, in my heart.

And inspired by the good folks who first bequeathed Duke Gardens to posterity—a mother and daughter by the name of Duke, how about that?—I will now see fit to share just a few of its pleasures with you. I hope it helps gladden your heart and feed your soul with the beauty that is always just a garden away, whether a tiny, slightly unkempt one of your own, your neighbor’s acre of irises, or an elaborate public garden across town, set there by city mothers and fathers or philanthropists wise enough to know how rewarding a garden can be to the spirits that move us, beautiful as can be.



Stately Gothic entrance


Lilies, lillying…


God writes straight on crooked lines…


Variation on the above theme


Foxglove, well-loved


Opened my eyes, thought I ‘d been flown to Japan


Fecundity is us


Garden spot of Repose


Exotic, distant relative of the onion, maybe?


Magnolia—bloomed, spent, regal as ever


Onwards, to joys awaiting…


Yes, you can add this to the list of universal beauties…

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Garden photos by Andrew Hidas,  some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

10 comments to A Visit to Duke Gardens

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    There’s a certain beauty, ripe with a myriad of shapes, colors and smells, that is unique to our Southern gardens and landscapes. Your magnolia and foxglove bloom photos are great. Interestingly, I’m now writing a poem on D-Day and one of my images, though short, is of Monet’s garden and pond at Giverny, the source of his waterlily with Japanese bridge paintings. In case you’re wondering why Monet’s garden at Giverny is in my poem about D-Day, let me explain. First, it’s a Normandy town. Second, Omaha Beach is a two hour drive east to Giverny, the path that the Allied troops took on their way to liberate Paris. Finally, Giverny rhymes with so many words like sea and chablis.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Robert, the heat & humidity of Southern gardens—and all Southern life, for that matter—is a far cry from say, the Rose Garden in Berkeley, where I traipsed a time or two in a glorious couple of years I lived there close to the Bay. Different climates and their impact on consciousness, identity, history, is a generally under-appreciated topic, I think.

      I’ll look forward to seeing that poem!

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    So gorgeous – I need to go there! The steps and railings speak to me – no wonder your blog is called “Traversing,” eh.
    By the way, your comment that “Given what went on in the first garden—treacherous snakes, disobedience, the fall of humankind—it’s a wonder gardens didn’t suffer a collapse of their entire brand identity” – promotes the bad rap that the original “step forward” (vs. “sin”) gets… I could go on and on, but will just say: The eating from the tree of knowledge metaphor means, to me, losing our innocence and becoming aware; mindful; conscious; alert to ourselves and others; stepping away from the patriarchy; the power involved in curiosity. Maybe a blog-posting’s worth!!
    So, from my perspective, even that first garden was full of treasure and meaning.

  • Robby Miller  says:

    I’ve been gardening since I was a teenager. I love what gardens teach me- things will grow where they want to grow and when they damn well feel like it. I go for the wild look in a garden (much to the consternation of my Mid-Western raised wife where flowing lawns and neatly trimmed hedges were the order of the day.) It’s as if the garden is growing me, not the other way around. And weeds – don’t get me started. How dare they intrude! But wait; they’re just plants doin’ their own thing in the never-ending battle to stay alive and spread their seed! (Sound like anyone you know?)

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Well, Robby, you have raised a bushel’s worth of bloggable content topics here, beginning with the deeply philosophical question: “What is a weed?” Oy vey! Let me get started on the 400-page tome that will require; I’m sure publishing houses will be clamoring for it!

      And yo, the clever, even diabolical implication that the male gender of us humanoids may represent nothing more than…a weed? Say it ain’t so!

      As for the creative tension between chaos and order, I wrote about this once before in connection to my ardor, let me admit it, for lawns, unecological beasts that they are.

      In that post, I come down pretty much with your midwestern wife, without completely dismissing the Case for Chaos, which would be a fun topic to explore someday as well. Maybe we can arrange my visiting the chaotic portion of your backyard that is under your (loose) purview so I can be properly inspired?

  • mark davis  says:

    Duke Gardens.
    Where it all began.

    Funded by the Duke fortune,
    Just a quarter a pack in 1920.

    Two packs a day.
    A year of life lost.

    For every two years smoking.
    Beauty and death.


    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Poetic & insightful, Mark, thank you. Gives us all plenty more to think about.

  • Mary  says:

    Duke Gardens has been the extension of my own back yard here in Durham for many years. Countless picnics, scavenger hunts, frisbee matches and bocce ball games, children’s birthday parties, concerts, ADF performances and weddings have all been enjoyed in those lovely, well-loved and well-tended acres. I have been lucky enough to witness gorgeous bounty of color, contrast and genius of landscape architecture in all sorts of weather, on both solitary and companionable visits. I appreciate the creative and financial commitment required to create and maintain such beautiful and treasured places that nurture us so well.

    I try to cultivate my own garden too, and agree completely with Robbie about the lessons gardening has in store for us. Sometimes going to a place like Duke Gardens is flat out inspiring: “Oh!! I want to plant more roses/irises/foxglove/anemones/delphiniums!!” with of course the expectation that it will look immediately beautiful (and my back won’t hurt, either). On other days I go straight past realistic to discouragement: “This will forever and ever be a weed-choked yard, I can’t even call it a garden, its too hot/shady/sunny/I-planted-that-in-the-wrong-spot-dammit-how-much-money-have-I-wasted-here and how many full-time gardeners does Duke have on staff anyway?” and, my back hurts. Those are not great days, but they don’t come too often.

    For gardens and gardening are such a powerful metaphor for living and life, and I tend to be positive, and to take the long view. This particular day, when plants are blooming and some of the structure I am aiming for seems to be emerging and taking hold, when a tree has been transplanted and seems to be surviving, when the gardenias and magnolias are sweetening the little spot where I have my morning coffee, things seem to be in balance. I am happy in the moment and hopeful for the future (the famous “next year” of all gardeners, and humans…) And my back doesn’t feel too bad. :-)

    No writing or reflection about Duke Gardens would ever be complete, however, without including the inspiring tribute engraved in one of its many spots that offer visitors a chances to sit and gaze, rest and ponder. There are memorials and dedications to loved ones all over the gardens; this tribute lies in the Terrace Pergola, dedicated by Mary Duke Biddle in 1938 with these words written in memory of her mother, Sarah Duke, for whom the gardens are named:


    We could all work and hope for such a metaphor, for such a tribute.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Mary, I find myself moved to pray, deeply religious non-theist that I am, for the continued strength of your back and the health of that transplanted tree, which can always use tender thoughts & lovingkindness as it confronts the stresses all transplants, voluntary or not, face in their migration to new soil…

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