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Going Out on a Limb Isn’t That Much of an Adventure


Out on a Limb at the Nest BridgeTree Adventure, a new interactive exhibit at the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, spans 92 acres and highlights five of the Arboretum’s permanent features.  The centerpiece of the Tree Adventure Exhibit is Out on a Limb, an ambitious installation that opened on July 4th.  The tree house-like structure includes wood-plank walkways and platforms that lead visitors into the canopy of trees 40-50 feet above the ground.  The installation is punctuated by a giant bird’s nest and the “Squirrel Scramble,” two rope-net canopies that allow visitors to descend (at least a little bit) below the platform, into the trees.

Out on a Limb is an interesting and unique experience, particularly for kids.  Of course, the larger-than-life robin’s nest, complete with three giant blue eggs, has that Alice in Wonderland effect of making you feel completely dwarfed and foreign; and the Squirrel Scramble offers kids the type of energy-burning activity usually reserved for amusement parks (although here it is much smaller, more restrained and seemingly safer).  Beyond those big attractions, there are other, smaller activities to grab the kids’ attention:  A pair of dangling megaphones invites visitors to listen to the forest; high power binocular stations allow visitors to observe the trees more closely; and graphic panels offer information about trees themselves and how they fit into our daily lives.  To complement the Tree Adventure Exhibit, the Morris Arboretum provides a Tree Adventure “passport” with extra information and educational activities.  Passport stamping stations throughout the property prompt kids to keep interacting with the Arboretum once they’re out of the tree house.  

As a member of the Arboretum, I was encouraged to see children racing through the trees with such enthusiasm—running to stamp their passports at the Log Cabin and the Spring House, calling for their friends to show off the new thing they’d learned or seen.  Unfortunately, adults may find themselves less engaged and enthusiastic.  In fact, after the initial “wow” factor of the bird’s nest faded, I was bored and even frustrated by the exhibit.  I felt that in many ways Out on a Limb fails to deliver on its promises.  

Nest BridgeFirst of all, the signage, placards, and activities, which are so engaging for children, offer little additional depth to interest and educate adults.  For the most part, the material is elementary and cursory.  By contrast, I noticed a yellow, weathered sign near Oak Allée within the Arboretum describing in detail the history of the tree-lined walkway.  Yet, at Out on a Limb—with its imposing size and dramatic architectural elements—I noticed nothing similar with an explanation of the design process or a discussion of various arboreal habitats.  

The binocular stations were also a bit of a let down.  Affixed to the binoculars were color pictures of plants and animals one might see, but no direction for where to look.  Obviously, nothing is constant in nature; but with acres of lush forest clambering in on all sides, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Even something as simple as “To your left you can see a 100-year-old maple tree where robin’s have been often seen nesting” would be a welcome guidance.  Finally, the megaphones within Out on a Limb are very poorly placed, directly beside the Squirrel Scramble.  Rather than amplifying the distant songs of birds or the quiet rustling of animals, these megaphones simply intensify the piercing, however joyful, shrieks of children playing in the rope nets.  I was delighted, however, to find another pair of megaphones dangling from a station beside the Log Cabin, which is nestled in a secluded, woody part of the Arboretum. 

I was also frustrated because the promotional materials for The Tree Adventure Exhibit, Out on a Limb in particular, are somewhat misleading.  For instance, the Morris Arboretum’s website suggests towering heights and sweeping views.  Not so much.  Sure, the platforms are about 50 feet a their highest points, but the heights feel somewhat less dramatic when you consider the structure is built into a hillside.  And as for the views… well, Out on a Limb does indeed offer a very literal “bird’s eye view” of the trees, in that all you can really see are leaves, limbs, and branches.  There are no broad vistas or overlooking vantage points from which to see the Arboretum’s elegant, expansive grounds.  To be fair, this, like many things at the Arboretum, will probably be very different in another season, particularly in the fall when the trees shed their leaves. I also was very disgruntled to hear a radio commercial touting a swaying foot bridge for those brave enough to dare it.  I’m not saying the narrow bridge leading out to the bird’s nest doesn’t sway.  I’m just saying I crossed and recrossed the bridge several times—I even stopped in the middle to take in the (limited) view—and I didn’t feel it budge one bit. 

However, what most disappoints me about Out on a Limb is its design. The structure is built on a thick, gleaming metal frame, accented with real wood hand rails, some wood flooring, and wood walls and roofing on the pavilion.  It is striking and conspicuously modern.  In that way, it feels very out of place in the otherwise understated environs of the Morris Arboretum.  What’s more, the imposing architecture that suspends the bird’s nest and underpins the wide platforms intrude in the forest like stylized highway supports.   

Don’t get me wrong: the Morris Arboretum is a wonderful retreat.  With sprawling emerald lawns, quiet woody nooks, and the rose garden’s dizzying array of colors, everyone should visit again and again.  It’s a great place for children to explore and have adventures (Tree Adventures, among others).  But going Out on a Limb may not be as exciting as it sounds.