A rural Kansas arboretum takes an unexpected star turn—and a drop-in visitor finds himself planting trees with a musical legend.

By Jess Hoffert
February 22, 2021
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Bartlett Arboretum
| Credit: John D. Morrison

I recognize Robin Macy's platinum hair almost instantly as she crosses the White Bridge with a bucket of garden trimmings. Don't ask about the Dixie Chicks, I remind myself as she approaches. It's not that she doesn't like the group now known as The Chicks. It's that she was one. A founding member. But that's her past. And this—tending to Bartlett Arboretum, a 111-year-old paradise of trees, trails and meditative landscapes in the tiny railroad town of Belle Plaine, Kansas—is her present.

On her way back from a music festival in the '90s, Macy took a wrong turn (she calls it a "right" turn) that led her to this secret garden among a swath of wheat fields 25 miles south of Wichita. She felt it calling her somehow. Turns out the Bartlett family, who faithfully took care of the place for generations, was ready to hand it over.

Leap forward 23 years. Macy is still here. A map of the 15-acre property reads like a natural theme park: There's the Terrace of Paris, a Carpe Diem Tree Swing and the Loblolly Stage (host to folksy musicians, including Macy on occasion). A Trail of Champions snakes through towering woods that protect nodding bulbs from Kansas gusts.

Totally unexpectedly, Macy invites me to plant a few trees with her. "You've got some nice paws there, you sure you don't want gloves?" she asks with notes of native Texas twang as I eagerly get my hands dirty. "Give 'er a good belly rub to wake her up," she instructs as I scratch the gnarled root ball before placing it in the ground. I still can't fully grasp the beautiful spontaneity of it all.

My compensation for this life-giving act—as if I need anything more—is a home-cooked lunch with Macy and her small squad of volunteers inside a rail depot converted into a gathering space. As we share salad from the Bartlett hoop house while chatting about life's little surprises, I see why Macy's never going back.