Whenever I go to Illuminations at Botanica, I’m grateful for the warmth, light and aromatic fragrance emanating from the chimeneas placed throughout the gardens.
The fires are welcome beacons on cold nights, solitary but cheery sentinels amid the hundreds of thousands of electric lights. I love the light show, but they don’t hold a candle to real fire.
The chimeneas always have seemed to me to have been set alight and stoked by elves, because I had never seen anyone around them. At least, I’d never seen anyone, until I got the main fire tender to agree to meet me in the daylight.
Because Illuminations is open every night of the season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s this year, gardener-by-day Rickie Patrick has been tapped to be the tender Sunday through Thursday nights. He hadn’t started a fire before he got the duty, so fellow gardener Shannon Vierthaler, who had been a Boy Scout, taught him how.
Now Rickie is a pro. Illuminations starts nightly at 5:30, and Rickie starts his preparations at 4. He makes the rounds of the 11 or so chimeneas, wadding a piece of newspaper (The Eagle, of course) into a ball and setting it in the middle of the chimenea. He then forms a teepee of sticks around that. About 5 p.m., he sets the kindling ablaze with a propane torch. From then on, he monitors the chimeneas until 8, usually adding a small log of pine, oak, crabapple or mulberry to each when he passes by. He lets the fires start putting themselves out during the last half hour of the nightly event.
“You have to constantly look,” Rickie told me. “If you have to restart it, it’s terrible. It’s colder. You have to get your sticks and get your paper, and people get cold.
“That’s my job, to keep people warm. Keep the fires burning.”
Botanica staffer Lee Howard also helps out, and volunteer brothers Chris and Kevin Cave light the fires on Friday and Saturday nights.
I may never see the fire tenders, but other people do, Rickie assures me.
“I hear a lot of ‘Oh, thank you,’ because people love getting warm, and ‘Keep up the good work.’ I get a lot of that, so it makes you feel good. To see kids say, ‘Oh, fire!’ – that’s great. I love that part of it.”
That creates its own warmth that probably helps Rickie going on cold nights. That, and “I’m always by the fire.”
Botanica also has six heat lamps outside for people who need a warm-up, and a new firepit on the terrace serves up s’mores for a buck.
Botanica’s expansion of Illuminations from a few weekends to a month of nights has relieved the crowds and is expected to double attendance, director Marty Miller says. Last year’s event drew about 11,000 people, and this year’s has drawn more than 10,000 so far, he said.
I think it will be interesting to see what the attendance will be in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I love the fact that Botanica will stand against the letdown caused by those who pack up the decorations on Dec. 26. Family members who are in town only at that time who have not been able to go to Illuminations before will get the chance this year. Because Santa will already have returned to the North Pole and there will not be live musical performances that week, Botanica is going to charge the children’s admission of $5 for any adult who brings two canned goods for the Kansas Food Bank. (Adult admission is $7 otherwise.) And movies and cartoons will be playing in the terrace room. Refreshments will continue to be available too.
Rickie, our fire tender, not only hadn’t start a fire before coming to Botanica – he hadn’t gardened either.
“Now I do,” he says. “It’s totally changed me. There’s lots of different people out here, and everybody wants to help.
“I’m an outside guy now. I do a lot of stuff outside now.”
He also hadn’t owned a chimenea before.
“I will definitely buy one now though.”
The chimeneas are for sale by Woodard Mercantile, and Rickie has his eye on one of them.