By Roxane Strobel
A year ago on a July day, I sat atop the summit of a mountain, bundled in fleeces and basking in the alpine sunlight. I was a summit caretaker with the Green Mountain Club, a non-profit membership organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the Long Trail, the country’s first long-distance hiking trail.  As a summit caretaker, I maintained backcountry campsites and educated hikers about native plants and sustainable outdoor practices. I chatted with hikers about the alpine plants as they nodded knowingly and shared their excitement about seeing a mountaintop that was once barren in the 1970s and is now covered with a variety of sedges, cranberries, and blueberries. 

The view from the summit of Camel’s Hump in Duxbury, Vermont. This was in
2016 when I worked as a summit caretaker for the Green Mountain Club. 
My summer in the Vermont backcountry introduced me to a unique community of individuals who retreated to the remote wilds in order to connect with nature. Although many hikers traveled solo, there was a unique hiking community on the trail.  Stories about wildlife sightings and especially rugged sections of trail were swapped over rehydrated dinners and summit snacks.  I found that the one unifying factor in this varied community of individuals was a deep appreciation for spending time in the outdoors.
The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden in July. The peony garden is a beautiful
community attraction even when not in bloom. 
No flowers but still a beautiful
view and an enticing trail through the middle that begs to be followed.
This summer, I find myself on a July day in the midst of the hot and sunny peony garden in the not-so-backcountry Nichols Arboretum. As the peony intern, I have been learning how to prepare a world-class display garden for its bloom season and care for the health of the beds throughout the summer.

The peony bloom season has come and gone, and I spend large chunks of my day weeding and maintaining the flower beds. As I glance up from the dark soil in the beds, a mother and daughter pair wave at me excitedly from a distance. I wave back, weeder in hand, and, thinking nothing of it, return to my weeding. A couple of moments later I am greeted by light taps on my shoulder. I turn and see the same mother-daughter duo, but now notice that the young girl is holding a small plastic container.  The girl quickly opens the container and enthusiastically shares her findings with me: a swallowtail caterpillar which she found and identified herself. She asks if I might know where this caterpillar would like to live in the Arb. As we search for the perfect place to release the caterpillar to its new host plant, I listen to the girl’s tales of saving this very caterpillar from the perils of a hungry bird. I complement her budding naturalist skills and together we discover a lush host plant. As the girl carefully places the caterpillar onto a leaf, a sense of gratefulness washes over me. Although I am mere steps from a bustling college town, in the Arb I feel connected to my community through nature in the same way I did last summer on a secluded mountaintop. I am so grateful to be part of the diverse community that learns, plays, and grows closer to nature in the Arboretum.
Like the backpackers of Vermont, my new Arb community is also drawn together through a love of nature.  However, unlike the lengthy trips of the backcountry backpackers, the Arb community is able to express their devotion to natural areas in the form of 15-minute breaks from the nearby hospital, school field trips, family picnics, and hammock hangs with friends. This accessibility to the larger Ann Arbor community is what makes the Arboretum so special.

A scene from Shakespeare in the Arb that took place in the peony garden. In
the background you can see the U-M Mott Children’s Hospital. The Arb is on
central campus and right across the street from a busy hospital complex. A
beautiful island of nature in the midst of urban Ann Arbor.
Visitors of all backgrounds find themselves excited by being in nature. I love being greeted with visitors’ questions which range from, “What kind of tree is that?” to, “What is your view on the deer population and its effect on the Arb?” It is so neat to see the wonder on the faces of young and old visitors alike and their genuine interest in these natural areas. With each of these visits to the Arb, the larger Ann Arbor community continues to grow closer to nature.  Each time a visitor sees a woodchuck scurry across a trail, or a monarch rest on a milkweed plant, the importance of natural areas becomes more apparent.
In times where natural areas are undervalued and public lands in the United States face the danger of becoming privatized, being a part of the accessible nature community in the Arb gives me hope for the future. The Arb allows all people to have a meaningful connection to nature through exploring their curiosities, observing unique ecosystems, and even more generally just having a pleasant walk on well-traveled trails. Having the unique opportunity to share my personal enthusiasm for the outdoors with the visitors of the Arb is an experience that has brought me closer to my community through nature and has reinforced my belief in the importance of universal access to natural areas.
Roxane Strobel is a rising senior from Spring Lake, Michigan. She is studying Ecology, Evolution & Biodiversity and Spanish. She is interested in studying environmental health and community organization. When not at work, she can be found trail running or swimming in Lake Michigan. Roxane’s internship is made possible by the Peony Garden Fund created by Martha Parfet. Martha was the surviving granddaughter of Dr. W.E. Upjohn, who donated a portion of his peony collection to the university in 1922. The Peony Fund was created to maintain the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden and make information available to peony lovers and growers around the world.