By Katie Stannard
I’m sure the sign plastered on the ceiling in my orthodontist’s office was meant to inspire supine patients during their appointments: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”
Matthaei-Nichols staff are taking the challenges of this spring and summer and making lemonade out of them—new batches, new recipes—while balancing work and safety. Read on for their stories. 

Keeping the Arb in Shape

“It’s more people than ever before,” Chad Machinski says, witnessing the upsurge in Nichols Arboretum visitors this year. Chad’s everyday work throughout this time as woody plants and trails technician provides “a sense of being an integral part of keeping things going,” he says. Though the absence of interns and other student workers sometimes makes the volume of work daunting, Machinski shares his resolve about not being able to do things on the same level as when fully staffed: “we do what we can do.” He notes that the Arb is “still beautiful, still resilient, and can still serve the aesthetic and ecosystem needs.” 
Bench in Arb-Photo by Chad Machinski

Along with trees, woody shrubs, and a diversity of plants, benches and other hardscapes invite visitors to discover the Arboretum’s calming spaces, like this bench that fronts a stand of arborvitae. “I don’t hang out here often but I’ve always loved the aesthetic of this bench with the arborvitae backdrop at the entrance to Hawthorn Valley, says Chad Machinski, Matthaei-Nichols woody plants and trails technician. “I like that it’s shady and the barren ground beneath the trees gives it a spooky, fairy-tale look.”

To Tie the Knot, or Not?

Michele Walthall was six weeks into her new position as rental coordinator when the pandemic began. Navigating one event cancellation after another, she moved into high gear in communicating with couples who had scheduled wedding ceremonies or receptions at Matthaei. On any given day now, Walthall might be talking with seven different couples while fielding 15 to 20 new requests to schedule meetings and other events. Walthall explains that she’s been “trying to pivot with people, being honest that we don’t have all the answers” about our public health informed reopening. She’s customizing plans for couples based on different scenarios and circumstances. Her mantra: “We have to be committed to keep trying again, trying to be there and coming up with realistic options. It’s creativity by necessity!” Small wonder that even some who’ve cancelled their events have circled back to reschedule.  

Matthaei-Nichols rentals coordinator Michele Walthall was six weeks into her new position when the pandemic began. Navigating one event cancellation after another, she moved into high gear in communicating with couples who had scheduled wedding ceremonies or receptions at Matthaei. The gardens is a favorite local wedding spot, but the pandemic ground outdoor wedding plans to a halt this spring.

The Grass Is Always Growing on the Other Side

Four full-time summer interns normally split groundskeeping responsibilities between the Arb and Matthaei. Without them, Dan Chapman, facilities technician, has been mowing an average of 20-25 hours per week to keep up with the ever-growing grass. Additional facilities projects at Campus Farm, Matthaei, and the new bonsai display in the conservatory keep Chapman busy. He succinctly echoed other staff when speaking of the constant juggling between limited time and limited staff: “You do what you can.”
Alexis Ford in conservatory-1

Matthaei-Nichols Events Coordinator Alexis Ford cleans up the conservatory. Whether outside or under glass, nature keeps growing and changing, needing constant attention to keep it looking tidy. With volunteers, students, and many staff not present on the grounds of Matthaei during the closure, staff are stepping up to take on roles outside their usual job description.

Paradise, Tamed

Alexis Ford, event coordinator, is no stranger to hard work. In previous events-related jobs she’s worked on everything from fixing sound systems to trash receptacle placement. This has served her well over the past four months as she’s provided hands-on assistance to the plant side of things at Matthaei: working in the conservatory and the display gardens on tasks ranging from cleaning up leaf debris, to trimming, weeding, and pruning enormous plants. The yuckiest thing she’s encountered? Finding rotten fruit buried under leaves–the slow realization when noticing a few flies in an area to then discovering a squishy, bug- and fly-covered mass of what used to be a recognizable fruit. But the best part about conservatory work, according to Ford—though it gets hot under glass in the summer—“it’s paradise, and I get to make paradise more tame, although it fights me the whole way!”