By Lexi Brewer
The house at the Washington Hts. entrance
to Nichols Arboretum, formally called the
James D. Reader Jr. Urban Environmental
Education Center at the Burnham House.
Construction on the house began in 1837.
The house was moved to the Arboretum
location from Wall Street across from the
U-M Hospital in 1998. Today, it holds
classrooms, meeting spaces, and living
quarters for caretakers.
In mid-May I moved into the Reader Center at Nichols Arboretum to begin my new life as a caretaker and Sam Graham Trees intern for Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. I had just finished a 14-hour trek from Missouri as I pulled up to the Washington Heights entrance of the Arb.  “Is this my new home?” I thought, gazing at the dazzling and historic Burnham House. 

The historic peony garden at Nichols Arboretum was one of my
views from the Reader Center for almost a month in late May
and June, . The garden, the largest collection of heirloom peonies
in North America, began in 1922 when Michigan alum
Dr. W.E. Upjohn donated a portion of his own peony
collection to the University.

I grabbed my plant babies from the front seat, stepped out of the car, and began walking towards the front entrance. I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of the Arb. In front of me stood North America’s largest heirloom peony collection, surrounded by unbelievably tall white pines. To my right as I ascended the steps to the house stood what I soon learned is Gateway Garden, which seems to be

The gateway garden in Nichols Arboretum forms the entrance to the Reader
Center. It seems to bloom throughout the summer with native plants.

perpetually in bloom. My amazement continued as I opened the front door and was greeted by violin music. Shakespeare in the Arb musicians were practicing for an upcoming performance and I was momentarily transported back to the Renaissance. I later learned that Shakespeare in the Arb performed its seventeenth season this year, with Kate Mendeloff of the Residential College directing every performance. I walked up the steps to what would soon be my apartment and heard curators and researchers discussing the best way to organize a rose collection in the Arb. As I finally walked through the door to the apartment, I had to take a moment to sit and pinch myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. 

Shakespeare musicians take a break from rehearsing. The weather during the
first days of this year’s performances was pretty warm.
I’ve come to understand that my first experience with the Arb was not actually too different from the norm. I walk through the Arb at least twice a day to reach the caretaker cottage, and I am always amazed at the sheer amount of activity taking place there. Regardless of the time of day, there are people who come to run—by themselves, with friends, or with their dog. There are always families, friends, and couples in the main valley. They picnic, do yoga, or play Frisbee, soccer, or the guitar. There are hammockers and slackliners. People by the river read,

Early misty morning on the Huron River in Nichols Arboretum. The carefully
arranged rocks create a special burbling music as the water courses over them.

swim, float, or move rocks and listen to the “music” of nature. But my favorite activity of all is the simplest: to sit. I sit and listen to the sounds of the Arb: children playing, friends laughing, dogs joyously panting. I watch the sun stream through the trees and sparkle on the river, the wind play with the tall prairie grass, and lightning bugs bring the starry heavens to the earth.  

You can’t help but relax and sink into nature in the main valley of Nichols
I was so overwhelmed that the Arb offers all of these activities to everyone. Anyone could find their rest, whether that would come from exercise, being with friends, or just reading, right here in this pocket of peace. I am so glad that the Arb can be this sanctuary to so many in the midst of Ann Arbor. But at the same time I realize that it isn’t the Arb that offers so much: it is nature itself. People go to run and play at the Arb and Gardens because of nature. It is this backdrop of trees and shrubs that is the refuge. In this one place people, chipmunks, deer, snakes, squirrels, and raccoons find their quiet place (but we try to make sure that they keep out of the trash!).
This perspective has transformed my view of nature and my position at Matthaei-Nichols. I am also fortunate to be the Sam Graham Trees intern this summer, working on a trail system supported by the Graham family. The namesake of the trail, Dr. Sam Graham, helped to pioneer ecological restoration understanding during his time as a professor at the University of Michigan. Now in his honor I help to restore native Michigan tree communities. This work includes invasive species removal, planting native trees and shrubs, and mulching and watering the native species to ensure their survival. We also maintain the trail system and educational rubbing plaques to create a learning experience about these ecosystems for anyone who would like walk through. Through these processes, interns and staff partake in the vitally important practice of natural restoration. We are maintaining these pocketfuls of peace and ensuring that they stay beautiful for generations to come.  I am grateful I can help in this endeavor and give thanks that we all get to call this special place—earth—home. 

Lexi begins her master’s at the School of Environment and Sustainability this fall, studying sustainability and environmental policy. This summer she serves as both a Sam Graham Trees intern and a Caretaker at the Nichols Arboretum. She just graduated from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri with majors in political science and Spanish. Lexi’s internship is made possible by the Betty Graham Fund created by the Graham family.