Kentucky forest, arboretum great place to connect with nature

Connecting people with nature is the primary mission of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

With more than 14,000 acres of natural forest and 600 acres of arboretum, Bernheim Forest - as the locals call it - is both recreational and educational.

The nonprofit preserve was founded by Isaac Wolf Bernheim, who emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1867. His is an American rags-to-riches story. He started out virtually penniless and struggled for a while as a peddler in New York and Pennsylvania. Then he moved to Kentucky and made a considerable fortune in the distilling business with the I.W. Harper bourbon brand. Grateful for his success, Bernheim dedicated the land as a gift to the people of Kentucky.

“Certainly, there is no doubt in my mind that no matter who you are, a stroll through Bernheim’s gardens or hike along the trails will fill you will peace, strength and inspiration,” said George Miller, member of Bernheim’s board and chairman of its Land Protection Committee.

From the Dayton area, Bernheim is a one-tank trip. It’s an easy drive, just off Interstate I-65, about 25 miles south of Louisville. It’s just down the road from the Jim Beam Distillery and the beginning of the famed Bourbon Trail.

What are you interested in doing during a quick getaway from home? Hiking? The facility has 32 miles of trails that will appeal to both the novice and experienced hiker. Plus, there are 16 miles of paved road for bicycles.

Are you an angler? The catfish, bass and walleye are biting at Lake Nevin, also the scenic locale of many special community events.

Bernheim Forest is also a horticulturist’s dream come true. It includes the largest collection of hollies in North America as well as 8,000 labeled trees and wooded plants.

If you are simply interested in slowing down from a fast-paced lifestyle, you can reflect at Quiet Garden, stroll through the Meditation Maze or have a picnic — there are tables throughout the forest, which is primarily beech and maple. Children will also find plenty to do at Bernheim, including exploring a tiny fairy village.

And then there’s art. Lots of art. Big art.

In front of the Visitors Center is Snake Hollow, an interactive willow sculpture by internationally recognized artist Patrick Dougherty. The circumference of the massive installation is about 230 feet.

“It’s an artistic interpretation of two snakes, but large enough that it’s a maze of willow structure,” said Mark Wourms, executive director of Bernheim. “We want people to look at something that’s a relatively common material — like sticks. We can do wonderful things with nature. And it’s just fun.”

Doughtery has created more than 200 large biodegradable installations throughout the world. The closest one is in Dayton’s own backyard: A Wiggle in the Park is a 200-foot-long tunnel-like sculpture at Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark.

Natural, healthy beauty is the goal, and Bernheim fosters creative expression of it. In the botanical garden, designated in 2000 as Kentucky’s Official Arboretum, you’ll come across a collection of sculpture. Many of the pieces were created as part of Bernheim’s Artist in Residence Program. Each year recipients of the program — sculptors, painters, photographers, woodworkers and other types of artists — stay at the forest for up to three months.

But creativity isn’t limited to professional artists at Bernheim. On Saturday, Aug. 25, for example, the preserve will host CONNECT, an event billed as “a collision of art, science and nature” that organizers expect will draw in about 5,000 visitors.

Last year a Louisville science group called LVL1 launched helium-filled balloons wrapped in LED light mesh synched to music. They also mechanized a child’s rocking horse, that they named Butterscotch, and made it spit fire.

“When we heard about CONNECT, we knew it would be a perfect opportunity to showcase some of the crazy projects that come out of LVL1,” said LVL1 Hackerspace president Christopher Cprek. “We are right in the middle of that intersection of Art and Technology. CONNECT is a such unique event. The LVL1 community is enthusiastic about contributing projects every year.”

What exactly LVL1 will do at this year’s event is a secret, but Cprek was willing to give us some hints: “Interactive Christmas lights in trees. Underwater robots mapping Lake Nevin. Exploding watermelons with your mind. Butterscotch the fire-breathing robotic pony might make a reappearance. ”

CONNECT will begin at 6:22 p.m. (exactly 2 hours before sunset) and end at 10:22 p.m. (exactly 2 hours after sunset). Why the sun-driven time? “Bernheim is about letting nature be our guide,” Wourms said.

The cost of CONNECT is $5 per person.

During the week, admission to the preserve is free, and costs $5 per carload on the weekends.

Other upcoming events include Bugfest on Sept. 15. Kid-friendly activities include going on insect safaris and caterpillar races.

On Oct. 20-21, as many as 12,000 visitors are expected to attend Colorfest, a traditional celebration of autumn that includes barbecue, pumpkin-painting, tractor rides and scarecrows.

“There’s always something here,” Wourms said.

For more information, go to http://www.bernheim.org or call (502) 955-8512.

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