new council ring
New bench seats on the Arboretum council ring keep it hyper-local
By Joseph Mooney
Take a seat on the new bench slabs that top the council ring in the Heathdale section of Nichols Arboretum. Recently installed by Matthaei-Nichols Collections and Natural Areas Specialist Tom O’Dell with the help of staff and students, the wooden slabs replace the old planks laid down nearly 20 years ago.
Square-Council ring seat planks at Matthaei

The new bench seats finished by the U-M Cabinetry shop sit at Matthaei waiting to be installed.

Square-Council ring install-2

Students and staff install the seats.

Square-Council ring install-1

Students and staff install the seats.

What makes these seats special is their origin. They were cut from a 130-year-old red oak growing on the edge of the Heathdale in the Arb, toppled by a spring gale in 2018.
The tree was cut into logs, set aside for seasoning, then milled. After storage at Matthaei the U-M Cabinet shop finished the milled wood into bench slabs. In all, it took nearly two years from fallen tree to restored bench seats.
Matthaei-Nichols Natural Areas Manager Jeff Plakke and then-staffer Jeff Walters installed the original council ring almost two decades ago along with its solid granite supports. In case you’re wondering how the benches stay put, a landscape construction adhesive is used to hold them steady.
snow council ring

Before the original council ring was installed 20 years ago, former student intern Jim Lempke built one of packed snow. Adjacent photo: a view of the old council ring with benches in need of replacement.

Old council ring

A Place to Gather

For a historical perspective we talked to recently retired Matthaei-Nichols Director Bob Grese. Bob explained that the Arboretum council ring was inspired by landscape architect Jens Jensen’s use of the circular structures as places to gather in wild areas and gardens for conversation, storytelling, and similar activities.* “One of our former student interns—Jim Lempke—who shaped much of Heathdale, first explored the idea of a council ring, building one of packed snow with some of his volunteers,” said Bob. (See photo.)
council ring-older photo circa 2010

Catriona Mortell-Windecker, Matthaei-Nichols university outreach coordinator (left) and April Pickrel, former staffer, sit on the original council ring around 2005.

A typical Jensen council ring design incorporated stacked limestone, according to Bob. For the Nichols Arboretum version, he pointed out that “using glacial boulders similar to what we have throughout the arboretum made sense.” A company in Saginaw cut off the top of boulders for use as seating in garden spaces. “We ordered the boulders from them and then made the bench tops from oak tree branches that had come down in an ice storm.”
traditional Jens Jensen council ring

Landscape architect Jens Jensen typically used stacked limestone for his council rings. Pictured here is one of Jensen’s council rings in the children’s garden area of Columbus Park in Chicago.

Throughout the years the Heathdale council ring has been a popular meeting spot, drawing many visitors and inspiring on-site performances and the occasional wedding. On your next visit to the Arb, check out the refurbished council ring in the Heathdale!
*Funding from the Julie Norris Post endowment for Heathdale made the original arboretum council ring possible.