Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world … and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all ... But anywhere is the center of the world.
— Black Elk, Oglala Sioux
If you’re ever able to bust out of the four walls on a Thursday morning in spring, you might make a break for Mill Mountain in Roanoke. You’ll not only hear the musical sounds of woodland birds there, but a happy chattering and laughter at the summit.
The voices are interspersed with spells of meditative silence and the clinking of sanity-preserving, non-roaring quiet hand-tools at work in the woods.
Hidden in the trees of the wildflower garden they tend, Mill Mountain Garden Club members meet weekly to care for this native ecosystem and contemplative space their group has helped create over the past half-century. They serve the life of this one doorway into the biosphere, so that it likewise can serve, instruct and balm its many thousands of visitors, human and wild.
“I wonder if they know the magic that happens here,” Grace Terry wonders, each time she sees the garden club workers convene with their boots and tools and earnest merriment.
Terry, one of Roanoke City’s naturalist educators stationed at the adjacent Discovery Center, leads many young groups into the wildflower garden each year. So she observes firsthand how the kids come to life there, relieved of the many anxieties rattling even our youngest humans today.
She sees them running to their favorite tree, crowing with delight to find a purple or white flower popping up like a bright Easter egg out of the brown humus, or making a wish on “the white oak tree with the ‘bump,’ ” near the garden’s entrance.
Longtime garden club member Whitney Feldmann has also seen profound transformative effects the garden has on young and old. “The place is full of wildflowers, birds, trees, native shrubs and other critters,” she said. “It truly provides a magical sanctuary, right on top of our mountain.”
Although a mere 2.5 acres, the little Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden woodland expands into a vast vertical world. It rises up into steep stories of native trees, pollinators, bats, owls, birdsong and leaf-filtered lights, and plunges deep underground.
Here also, ancient buried spice-chest vapors rise in updrafts, breathings of the deep forest floor — communicative intelligent networks of roots, mosses, protective bacteria, fungi, lichens, leaf litter, beneficial insects, whole libraries of rich humus layers from many decades past.
The little garden has grown for about half a century.
“Mr. Fishburn had given the mountain to the city,” explained garden club President Forrest Moore, taking a work break near the garden’s gleaming buckeye tree. “And there were all these crazy ideas for what to do with this mountain. So the city at some point decided NOT to do all those crazy things,” she said with relieved laughter.
But the 2.5 acres here had been cleared for the former incline, Moore continued. “There wasn’t anything much growing here, so they asked the Mill Mountain Garden Club, at that time, to cultivate it back into a native wildflower garden.”
She and Feldmann marveled at how unusual this was for city officials anywhere, in the 1960s. “This was long before the benefits of native plants were so widely emphasized,” Moore pointed out.
It is also unusual for such a valuable space to have remained continuously unwalled and open — a non-gated community of life, permeable to all passers-through — wildlife, insects, weather, humans — the circuitry of Earthlife.
The group is working to make it even more receptive to people with strollers or mobility aids — via pathways made safer and smoother — though still porous, able to absorb rainfall and snowmelt. While submitting grants to raise the money, the nonprofit garden club is also glad to receive donations for the project, with contact info at their website, millmountaingc.org.
The wildflower garden is also a seedbed of natural-landscaping lore, sending the wisdom of sustainability and circuitry far beyond its little power-socket of acreage.
Visitors learn, for instance, why a dead tree has been left standing in the garden, where it offers a much-needed home for native insects (in steep decline all around the globe), the songbirds who eat them (also in decline) and the valuable fungi that provide immune protections to the whole living system.
Visitors learn the value of leaf-litter, humus, biodiverse plant groupings, canopy, pollinator-feeding blooms, wildlife habitat — “And we hope they take these ideas back home to bring more life to the whole,” said Moore.
Surely that’s a message and outreach for our time — a Passover, Easter, Earth Day and Arbor Day message of life-more-abundant, communion, the oneness of our blessed planet.