A presence in the garden

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Maybe it's the hymns playing softly outdoors. Or the gurgle of trickling water. Or the heavenly fragrance of Biblical plants.

Then again, as some say, maybe it's more than that.

"There's definitely a presence here," said Warren Dexter, botanist, gardener, minister, and owner of Covenant Gardens, a family dream and Christian ministry that has quietly evolved over the years in a secluded forest off of U.S. Highway 62 just east of Eureka Springs.

Visitors often comment about the peace they feel in this unique garden, featuring plants of the Bible, Dexter said.

"I've grown accustomed to it, working here all the time. But I think it is more noticeable for guests."

Covenant Gardens opens this month for its 13th season. Dexter and his wife, Sallyann, again are preparing for guests by the busload. It has become their life in the Ozarks.

"We grow a little every year," said Dexter, crouched on his hands and knees, digging in rich soil, planting marigolds.

Without looking up, he explained that according to legend, Mary, the mother of Jesus, wore a gold flower on her garment. The flower became known as Mary's Gold, which over the years the name evolved to marigold.

The marigold legend is a tiny sample of the greater Covenant Gardens experience.

When the last marigold was in place, Dexter stood to his feet and pushed back his cream-colored straw hat.

"Hope you donāt mind a little dirt," he said, shaking hands. His eyes were shining. There was softness in his voice. "Did you meet the Angel?"

Angel, he explained, is the family pet, a friendly, small white dog that usually greets visitors in the parking lot and sometimes leads them around in the garden.

"We're expecting this to be our best year ever," he said. Call it faith.

The Dexters offer tours for groups of up to 40 people. Visitors are welcome to accompany the one-hour guided tours, or stroll through the garden on their own, discovering the unusual plants and reading about them in opened, weatherproof Bibles at each exhibit.

Founded in 1991, Covenant Gardens is open to visitors from mid-May to mid-October. It covers about 39 acres, with 850 feet of pathway that meanders through live exhibits of more than 50 of the 110 or so plants mentioned in the Bible. There are no steep hills to climb, and there are plenty of benches for resting and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.

The garden experience begins the moment you turn off of 62 onto the unpaved access road, at the Eureka Springs city limits sign, one-half mile east of the Passion Play sign.

The road is maintained for all-weather access, and is large enough to accommodate buses. It winds past a cemetery on your left, into deep woods, and takes you to the entrance of Covenant Gardens, a quarter-mile past the cemetery. There is "pull-through" parking with room for cars and large buses.

When you arrive, expect to be greeted by Angel, and maybe Warren and Sallyann, if they are not leading a tour.

Visitors enter through a small gift shop, where they can discover unique souvenirs, and contribute donations in lieu of entrance fees. The garden, as you might expect, is a not-for-profit organization, which depends on tax-deductible donations for its existence.

"We suggest a donation of four dollars per adult to visit the garden," Dexter said.

The theme is non-denominational. There is no sermon or pressure to influence beliefs. "We simply open the Bible to people through plants, and let them decide for themselves," Dexter said.

Some have been deeply affected by the mysterious presence they experience in the garden. One of those was a young man who recently came to work for Dexter.

"His life was changed forever," Dexter said, eyes growing moist. "I'll never forget the look on his face when he found the Lord. You can't fake something like that."

Engulfed by nature, visitors often remark about the peace they feel as they stroll on the meditation pathway that meanders among the exhibits. Many of the types of plants on exhibit were common in Jerusalem during the lifetime of Jesus.

One such plant is the Euphorbia Splendor. It is both a beautiful and ominous plant with crimson flowers and brutally sharp thorns. The plant's common name is Crown of Thorns, believed to be the plant referred to in Matthew 27:29, which reads in part, "When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head."

"There are more than 110 plants listed in the Bible,: Dexter said. "This year we have 52 of them on display in the garden, with 25 open Bibles for reference."

There are only eight other Bible plant gardens in the United States, Dexter said. Most are part of larger gardens, or maintained by churches. The closest is located at Boy's Town, Neb.

Visitors this year will experience several new exhibits including yard art, such as miniature villages, by artist Lavelle Evans, of Louisiana.

Perhaps the highlight of the garden experience is an outdoor chapel that is available for church services, meditation, and weddings. "We do Christian weddings but this is not something that we pursue," said Dexter, who, being an ordained minister, sometimes officiates.

Mainly the chapel is for visitors to sit, reflect, and meditate. Their gaze invariably fixes on an unusual stone that was discovered in development of the property. At first glance, the stone looks like a fish, with head, eyes, gills and tail ---- the symbol of Christianity. Blink your eyes, and the stone takes on the appearance of a slain lamb.

Visitors to the garden are affected in different ways by what they see, hear and sense as they stroll along the meditation pathways. All see the beauty. Some see the miraculous, and there are miracles in the garden, Dexter avows.

And then there's the presence.

The source of that mysterious peace that reportedly walks with visitors down the meandering pathways of Covenant Gardens is no mystery to the Dexters.

"It's His garden," Dexter said. "He's welcome."

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