Thursday, September 19, 2013

Champaign, Urbana, & Monticello, IL

Institute for Genomic Biology
University of Illinois
Champaign falls a bit out of the scope of my current "Neighborhoods of Chicago" blog post series, but after a wonderful weekend there and in Monticello, I feel compelled to include it.  The original reason for this trip was to attend the wedding of two of Ben's swing dancing science friends.  While planning our excursion out of the city and into the corn fields of central Illinois, we decided to make it a weekend trip.  Years ago, I passed through Champaign-Urbana and strolled around U of I's campus briefly, but remained mostly unfamiliar with the area until this trip.  Though I love planning travel, Ben actually planned this super-fun weekend trip, which seemed fitting since he spent four years living there in college.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

In the morning, we went first to the Arboretum and the Japan House.  Driving to the Arboretum, I realized that in contrast with BU, U of I's campus is enormous.  Even without counting the expansive corn fields and soybean fields everywhere, the gigantic buildings (all relatively new-looking and made of red bricks), have space around them and lots of parking lots.  Even harder to believe was that we found free parking lots by many of the buildings.  I think to go to school there, you would really need either a car or a bike.  (BU's Charles River Campus is about 2 miles by 2 blocks.  It follows the T's green B line and is bordered on one side by the esplanade and Charles River and on the other side the city of Boston extends out.)

Back to the Arboretum.  There is so much wide open space here that the school found enough room to create an arboretum full of gardens, cherry trees, fields of oak trees, and trails.  The first garden we explored was shaped like an octagon. There, we passed more varieties of salvia plants than I ever would have guessed existed.  In rows, all the different colors and hybrid strains grew and displayed their labels neatly.  Some have names that describe their colors, such as "Sangria Salvia" or "Amore Rose Bicolor", while others have names that don't tell the average visitor much about what to expect.
Idea Garden - Arboretum
Japan House

From there, we made our way to the Japan House, where we stepped over stone paths and walkways through the neatly raked rock garden around the house.  During the year and on some random dates, the Japan House hosts tea ceremonies and other cultural events. A typical tea ceremony includes the presentation of matcha, which is powdered green tea, and snacks or a light meal.  These ceremonies, influenced by Zen Buddhism, can last for several hours and are considered performances.   Unfortunately, there were no tea ceremonies scheduled during our visit.
Dairy Experiment Barn

Driving away from the Japan House, we passed the U of I round barns, which are three round barns, designed by James M. White and Kell & Bernard, that are used for dairy experimentation.  Historically, these barns are important because they paved the way for round barn construction in Illinois and other Midwest states.  According to wikipedia, the first round barns, actually built in Indiana around 1902, were inspired by the work of Benton Steele, Samuel Francis Detraz, Isaac and Emery McNamee, and Horace Duncan.  In 1908, the first round barn, the Twenty Acre Dairy Barn, was built, and the Dairy Horse Barn followed in 1910.  In 1912, the U of I's final and largest round barn, the Dairy Experiment Barn (left) was built.  Aside from looking stylish, the practical advantage a round barn lends is efficiency in cattle work when compared with other barn shapes.

Grain Elevator
Driving around again, we passed a gigantic grain elevator.  Since I have never lived around corn fields, I was fascinated to see these enormous structures designed for the sole purpose of moving tons of grain.  It's hard to believe how much grain we process until you see one of these.

Illinois and much of the Midwest are fortunate to have dark, nutrient-rich soil that is optimized for agriculture.  The main crop around central Illinois is corn.  Driving around U of I's campus, it seems that soybean crops aren't far behind.

As we passed what is demarcated as the oldest experimental corn field, we peered in from the gate.  The sign next to the field explained that there, it was determined that soil quality is a vital part of agricultural productivity.

Institute for Genomic Biology - U of I
Later, we walked around U of I's campus (to the biology buildings, of course) and checked out the colorful sculptures of DNA Polymerases I, II, and III in front of the Institute for Genomic Biology.  Walking around, I could hardly believe how many buildings that campus has. Although, with such a large student body, I suppose the school really needs all the space it uses.

For lunch, we strolled around Green Street, where all the street signs are marked as part of the college town.  Quickly after lunch, we changed into our formal attire for his friends' wedding and went to their ceremony, which turned out to be the first Catholic wedding I have attended.  The reception was super fun because nearly all the guests were swing dancing scientists.

Green Street
Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Mansion at Allerton Park
The next morning, we drove to Monticello, IL to tour Allerton Park, the private estate of Robert Allerton that stretches over 1,500+ acres of gardens and forests.  Arriving, we stopped at the visitor center, where one of the friendliest volunteers I've ever encountered showed us a map of the walking trails and recommended that we visit the Fu Dog garden.  She explained that Robert Allerton had inherited his estate from his father and, despite having adopted a son, decided to donate the estate to the university.  Allerton had a passion for art, mainly sculpture, and frequently traveled around the world and ordered copies of sculptures he liked from the original artists.

Fu Dog at Allerton Park
As the volunteer promised, the Fu Dog garden was without a doubt the most memorable part of Allerton Park.  A Fu Dog is a sculpture of a blue, wide-eyed dog showing its teeth and making a weird face.  Though facial expressions are really a primate trait, and dogs aren't primates, I had a blast making faces back at the Fu Dogs and looking at all their different expressions.  Up on pillars, two rows of these sculptures line a garden that culminates in a forest on one end and a two-story gazebo filled with sculptures that look like the goddess art I saw in Cambodian Buddhist temples last summer.
Fu Dog Garden - Allerton Park
Outside the Sunken Garden - Allerton Park
In the rest of the park, we enjoyed hiking on the trails, lined with trees and wild flowers, and came upon many gardens.  In the sunken garden, visitors walk up another sculpture lined path and then down a flight of stone stairs into what is literally a garden that is about ten feet lower than the surrounding land.  The stone sculptures leading to this garden are cheerful looking people playing a variety of instruments and carrying baskets.  Inside the sunken part of the sunken garden, sculptures of fish with unusually large mouths line the perimeter.  Aside from the marked gardens, Allerton Park is filled with relaxing hiking trails that wind through fields of wildflowers and forests.
Allerton Park
Later in the day, after tearing ourselves away from the beauty of land at Allerton Park, we had a quick lunch in downtown Monticello (approximately 2 blocks by 2 blocks) and realized with amusement that the Allerton's estate is way larger than the rest of the town it's in.  Just before departing for the city and ending our trip, we visited Mona and her pooch, Peaches.  From there, we turned on our nearly four-hour playlist of road trip music and began the drive through the endless corn and soybean fields back to Chicago.


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