Michael Ryan

Botanic Garden prompts musings about community, admission fees - and meat sandwiches.

A quinceañera enjoyed the admiration of her coterie Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
A quinceañera enjoyed the admiration of her coterie Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Staff

I thought I was just headed out to commune with nature. Or, like the super-shallow guy in the film “Roxanne” profoundly puts it, to “just be.”

I always take, like, a meat sandwich with me when I go,” the movie’s macho moron adds, stepping all over his brief Thoreau moment.

Seeking a somewhat higher level of consciousness than a meat sandwich, I took a book instead — local author Tim Madigan’s “I’m Proud Of You” — to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden on an idyllic Saturday afternoon Nov. 24.

I did find the solitude I sought, on a bench near the rose garden. But as I re-read Tim’s absorbing account of his remarkable friendship with the man we all knew as Mr. Rogers, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to my surroundings — the sculpted plants, the whittled walkways, the breeze through the trees.

But mostly the people.

They were everywhere. But oddly enough, it didn’t feel that way. With the throng nicely and naturally strung out on the Botanic Garden’s trails, it was hard to realize that you were among hundreds of others. They were quiet, courteous, and admiring of the flora, even in its seasonal repose. They were strolling, then stopping here and there to frame each other within pictures of nature’s splendor. I hadn’t seen so much posing since the last election.

While taking my own photos, I stumbled upon a large 15th-birthday quinceañera party in full dress, the honoree of which was as luminous as any flower in spring. Seeing me steal a photo of them, they asked me to act as official photographer, which I was honored to do.

In short, I ended up communing mostly, and mostly in silence, with my fellow travelers.

It was a minor epiphany, one I realize isn’t exactly groundbreaking but which I think is both profound and timely: The Botanic Garden, and institutions like it, are much more than alluring places. They’re events — some organized, most of them not, but all of which we share with those around us, friend and stranger alike. It is the essence of community, to commune with each other.

The experience helped me more fully understand the angst of many at the thought of charging admission to the entire Botanic Garden, and not just for its special Japanese Garden, for the first time since its opening in 1934. I know now that this is one precious place — one special event that happens over and over, one wide-eyed newcomer at a time.

All the same, I’m convinced there’s no choice but to charge admission to those able to pay. There’s a $1.2 million hole in the garden budget annually, and as much as $17 million in repairs and maintenance awaiting the funds.

But I’m equally certain Botanic Garden and city leaders have heard the concerns and are acting on them. A task force of civic leaders and concerned citizens dug deep over the course of several years to find numerous ways to ameliorate the coming fees of $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for ages 6-15.

Some 4,500 free passes will be distributed to low-income visitors through local nonprofits, while the Fort Worth Public Library will have a limited number of passes for checkout. Third-grade classes will be offered sponsored field trips in which students receive a pass to bring their family back. Whole families on federal food or WIC assistance will get in with but a dollar-paying adult.

Even after all that, the city council Nov. 13 asked officials to come back with more avenues of accessibility. Garden staffers are now brainstorming admission-reducing recommendations, while considering the operational implications. In the meantime, officials plan to convene a meeting with leaders from similar Fort Worth institutions, including the zoo and museums, in order to turn over every accessibility rock.

The top priority has to be sustaining the expansive, expensive garden for future generations. This is so much more than a park; it’s a living museum.

But by the time the plants awaken and the plans ripen in the spring, and long before admission charges bud in July, keeping the Botanic Garden accessible to everyone in the area, regardless of income, will have been nearly as important.

Perhaps the only way they could do more is by handing out meat sandwiches at the door.