Sunday, November 19, 2023

Goodbye to the Rookery

The Rookery in summer

     Hiding in plain sight amongst the profusion of the bountiful life and colorful beauty of nature is a message about death. Flowers bloom in soil made from last year's blossoms. They fade as the seasons cycle round, one after another. The fallen trees rot and provides mulch for a new crop of mushrooms. Each individual begins and ends, but life goes on unbroken. We are not forever, but we are part of something that is.
     This is seen most clearly in a national park, an expanse of forest the same now as it was a thousand years ago or, one hopes, a thousand years from now. Our petty squabbles and concerns dim, then vanish.
     But even a well-curated expanse like the Chicago Botanic Garden states this truth clearly, if you pay attention. My wife and I visit year round, enjoying the budding flowers in spring, the brilliant displays in summer, the muted browns in fall, the evergreen boughs heavy with snow in winter.
     In summer 2022, for the "Flourish: The Garden at 50" celebration, large artworks were installed all over. Most were clever and creative and enhanced the splendor around them. One clunked. "HEAR NATURE CLEANSING," barked big white block letters at the entrance, as if nature were having a high colonic. "It would be better if you snipped off that last word," I said, editing.
     And one installation was simply outstanding, Patrick Dougherty's "The Rookery," a six tower fairy castle made of willow boughs, some of them living. Kids loved to explore its little rooms, gaze out the windows. It was a surprise and delight when, at the end of last summer, when all the other anniversary artworks were removed, the Rookery stayed put. Long enough for us to get used to it, though we'd still drift in its direction, to see if from new angles and perspectives.
     Alas, even an artwork grounded in nature must take nature's cue, and this week a reader informed me that the Rookery will be taken down soon.
      "I just learned the Chicago Botanic Garden plans to remove The Rookery in early December," she wrote. "As you’ve written about it I thought you might want to know it will soon be gone. What a shame. It seems like it’s still in great shape and not a danger to visitors."
     Then she urged me to action. 
     "My daughter-in-law said I should handcuff myself to the sculpture. That seems a bit drastic, especially if they aren’t taking it down for a couple of weeks," she wrote. "Maybe you can use your voice, which is much more powerful than mine, to ask the Garden management to reconsider—maybe leave it up for another year."
     That sounds possible. But first I had to find out if her report was true. I inquired.
     "You are correct, we plan to take down the installation in early December," wrote Erin Benassi, director of public relations at the Chicago Botanic Garden. "The Rookery, which is created entirely out of willow saplings, was always meant to be a temporary installation, and the artist, Patrick Dougherty, said we’d get one great year and one pretty good year before it would reach the end of its natural life. Unfortunately, we’ve noticed this fall that it’s coming apart as it dries out with individual sticks poking out and falling to the ground. We feel now is the right time for it to be taken down before the blustery weather of winter hits."
     Even though the installation won't be there much longer, I can't see rallying to keep it, and for a reason that might surprise you. I've been going to the Garden so often for so long, I've come to admire the intelligence and stewardship behind it. Even when it means doing something unpopular, like cutting down mature black alders which were also invasive species.
     Not every change has to be battled. Isn't that the lesson of nature? Embrace and celebrate change. Good things sprout, wax then inevitably wane. Which is not something to be mourned, because new life is on the way, waiting, gathering energy, under the snow. Who knows what fresh delight could someday occupy the clearing where the Rookery once stood? The same organization that brought us the Rookery is now taking it away. I'm going to assume they know what they're doing. Sometimes you have to trust people, and trust is meaningless if it's only extended in situations where you agree with what's going on. It's when something happens that rubs you the wrong way that you have to sometimes take a step back and defer.
      Besides, honestly, when we were there a week or so ago, we paused in front of the Rookery. "Does that left tower seem like it's leaning a bit?" I asked. Hard to tell. Maybe a tiny bit. They can't afford to wait until the thing topples over and crushes a child.
     I'll certainly miss The Rookery when it's gone,the way I miss the huge sugar maple in my front yard. But I planted a tulip tree nearby, and it's going gangbusters. The world isn't ours; we're just borrowing it for a little. A brief span — in this case, a few weeks, before the Rookery is gone. If you haven't been to the Chicago Botanic Garden, this is a perfect excuse to go — the sprout of possibility unfurling from the mulch of loss. That seems fitting.


  1. This is what Sunday mornings are all about. Thanks.

  2. Great story...great pictures. Good time to listen to Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds.

  3. Feels like summer was yesterday.

  4. Love this. Love The Rookery. Love the Chicago Botanic Gardens

  5. Damn! Those of us city folk without a car must figure this out. Will miss the Rookery since I leave the country for 5 days on the 22nd and have a work project and a symphony today- but thanks for the info and the impetus- I WILL find out how to transport myself from here so I can visit on my return.

    1. If you can get to the Howard St. L stop, the Pace 213 bus will take you to the Botanic Garden. It’s a little leisurely, but it works.

    2. There's also a Metra train stop about a mile from the Visitor Center.

  6. I look forward to your column every morning!

  7. Each individual begins and ends, but life goes on unbroken. We are not forever, but we are part of something that is.------ At the age of 90, after seeing my Grandaughter marry yesterday, I savor this reminder.
    Thank you

  8. Oh good lord... I opened this thinking they were tearing down the beautiful Rookery building...maybe an artist can reconstruct another longer lasting installationat BG? Or maybe not. Anyway, beautiful words as always. Thank you

  9. Loved the column today. And thanks to the fellow reader Rick who advised how to get to the gardens without a car! Excellent start to the day!

  10. Beautifully stated. Thank you, Neil!

  11. A fine essay and tribute offering apt perspective. Having enjoyed the Rookery on a handful of occasions and understanding the reasoning you've explained, I don't regret their decision to take it down as much as I'm inclined to appreciate the fact that they kept it up for a second year.

  12. Patrick Dougherty’s art been featured in hundreds of locations around the world. Before my wife and I experienced "The Rookery" in June of '22, we enjoyed one of his installations at the Holden Arboretum, east of Cleveland, a few years ago.

    "Stickwork" wasn't a fairy castle, though. It was a whimsical maze, designed and built to last only a couple of autumn months. But it stood for over a year longer than expected, and drew tens of thousands of viewers. Eventually, "Stickwork" began to naturally decay, and posed a danger to the visitors who walked through it. So it was dismantled. These installations have a shelf life...a year or so...maybe two years, tops. Nothing natural lasts forever.

  13. Just visited a friend in the Chicago area and went to the botanical gardens for the first time. Now I feel even more grateful at having encounter The Rookery when we did.


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