The independent news organization of Duke University

Chasing our tales

People seem to love showing each other around the gardens. The last several times I’ve been here, it feels like a classroom, people pointing out each individual plant that they want their companions to see. 

I’m meandering through the garden paths after getting caught in some brief afternoon rain (which has already happened several times this semester, something’s up with that), and I see two figures heading towards the koi pond. The man and the woman look young, probably undergrads, and are walking around leisurely enough that it seems they came here with intentionality, not merely to commute through. As I’m noticing their body language, it becomes clear that some exchange of information is happening here. The woman nods intently and grins while receiving the anecdotes that her companion offers up. 

As I pass them on my way up the gravel path, I notice the hand gestures of the man excitedly taking off. He’s gesturing to the koi, to the surrounding plants, as though he knows a secret about them all, like he has enough material to spend several sentences on each blade of grass.  

There’s a palpable energy and joy behind the way he’s engaging with the gardens seemingly because of his companion, the meaning she’s infused simply by being here. Certainly, there’s a wonder and solace that comes with solo nature walks, yet I can’t help but feel that this scene before me would be entirely different if he were alone. This particular kind of joy comes to life when bathed in community. 

These gardens offer a salient example of a location transforming into a vessel for our memories. That this woman was here to bear witness to the young man’s story-sharing seemed to make all his existing tales and facts come to life with new meaning. She also seems to be experiencing the gardens in a completely new way, living vicariously through every informational tidbit that the man offered up. 

Just as soon as the two of them round the corner and disappear, I see a larger group making their way up the path next to the grassy lawn. It’s a student followed by three older adults who appear to be family members. They seem to be one generation older, though he walks several paces ahead and they fall in line behind him like a V-formation of geese. I’m imagining that they’re here to visit him on campus, to see the place that’s filling the role of home while he’s in school. Though slightly less animated than his counterpart at the koi pond, he’s clearly showing this group around, pointing out garden landmarks that he wants to share.

To me, this interaction reads as an iteration of the “show your loved ones around campus when they come visit for the first time” event, perhaps something many of us can relate to. I’ve certainly wandered around the gardens with loved ones, pulling out and sharing archives from my mental Rolodex. I’ve collected many tales from this place; the time my friend collided with a metal bench, prompting our trip to the ER, the time I came here for a small meet-and-greet with a professor as a first year. I lugged my heavy backpack through the paths we walked, barely aware of my sore shoulders, completely engrossed in what the professor was saying. One of the only photos I took during my first visit to Duke was of the wooden twig statue. And just last week, I lost my eight-year-old running watch on the lawn. The stories are very much alive and continuing. 

What’s meaningful to me about this type of pilgrimage is the realization that you’ve made a place your own. Playing tour guide and digging into your memory to share your unique spin on this place—it causes you to pause and take stock of the roots you’ve built. Realizing this, sharing this, is a gift, and I’m letting this sink in as I watch the flock of geese wander off to the next tour stop. 

Garden moments like this are branches of a very specific type of information-sharing that seems linked to caretaking. They feel important for a few reasons. 

First, this anecdote-swapping infuses a whole new sense of meaning into a place; the sharing brings richness to your understanding of a place. I’ve seen this koi pond loads of times, watched those buggers flap around in the water and felt relatively neutral about it. Something about watching this man’s joy as he talked about the koi made me feel differently, though; it made me imagine. What does he know about the koi? What cool fact is he sharing right now? What does this mean for him to be sharing it with this woman? Suddenly, the koi pond was a life force for me, and though I didn’t hear a single word he said, it’s as though his tales added a fifth dimension to the experience of being here. 

Secondly, there’s a certain posture of humility that comes with this kind of interaction. To offer up your stories and your facts, to say, “this is what happened to me here, this is why I think this flower is neat, hey, here’s a cool tidbit about begonias,” you make yourself open and accessible in a brilliant, almost childlike way. 

Finally, receiving these tales, offering space to a person’s interests and thoughts, is one of the greatest gifts. Affirming and bearing witness to a person’s tales feels utterly holy and requires a sort of beginner’s mindset, assuming we don’t know this place in the same way that another person does.  

I don’t mean that we should pretend not to know anything about this campus and act surprised every time we encounter it. Good gracious, it would get exhausting to romanticize the C1 several times a day. But in a very real way, this campus remains a total mystery to us. It’s composed of thousands of sets of memories, infusing each twist and turn of the gardens with meaning and bit by bit, like a mosaic, we can continue piecing it together. 

Sara Kate Baudhuin is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Chasing our tales” on social media.