Step into South Coast Botanic Garden any time during the past couple of months, and you’re likely to have noticed an overabundance of lights. If you’ve driven by at night, I have no doubt you’ve seen it glowing from Crenshaw. I sincerely hope you’ve had a chance to visit the park after sunset. Running from about 5pm to 10pm, the sun’s been down and the volume’s been up at the park.
I visited first as an attendee, the second night the event was running – before I learned about the volunteering from an email. Volunteering seemed like one of those too-good-to-be-true scenarios. You mean to tell me that I can hang out at the park for hours on end, for free, snacks provided, while assisting other nature-lovers to enjoy their time exploring the amazing lights and dizzying plants? At first, I thought it would fill up instantly and never leave room for little ol’ me. I learned quickly – weekends are popular. Weekdays, perfect as a way for me to relax after a day of work, worked out perfectly. Stroll up to the park a little before 7:15pm, dinner already enjoyed, extra scarf in my pocket. Get out around 10, roughly the county curfew time for portions of recent history. Couldn’t be much neater than that.
I made sure to volunteer at least once at every location. The river was the most sought after position, and more than a few people from the first shift (starting around 4:45, I think) hung around into a second shift at the river. If any of the supervisors are reading this, they’ll probably remember me for pestering them into putting me into the river or the cactus corner, as I called it.
The park was set up to guide visits through a particular walking path. These segments are arranged below according to my own division. The park divided the path up into a few sections (which shifted borders about halfway through, If I remember), and considered there to be 9 vignettes. This is how I thought of the space:
Courtyard’s Wave of Light – “Baja Surf” by Bruce Lindquist
Step 1 – the Entrance.
GLOW, as much as an honest description for the event, also stands for Garden Lights Ocean Waters. That, perhaps, is a more inclusive description of what’s going on.
At the start, you walk through the normal entrance to the park, just right of the ticket booth. The wooden walkway overhang is plain no longer. Instead, waves of lights churn underneath, dousing the whole area in a deep sea blue. You start out walking under the waves.
Palm Circle’s Surfing Safari- “Baja Surf” by Bruce Lindquist
Promenade – Unnamed by Jerzy
Step 2 – the Palm Circle
The roundabout at the front of the park is also the first chance to see the real color palette. Reds, blues, greens, and some incoherent mix of all three (with white and violet mixed in independently) splay over every tree. Regular eucalyptus looks like rainbow eucalyptus with a painting addiction. The Palm Circle is also the end of the journey once you’ve completed the half-mile lap – or where you can decide to loop again, and take another lap. The Palm Circle is connected to the Rose Garden’s Light Show by a long straight walkway, souvenirs to the left. Glowing plants stretch down the left and right sides, while a massive silk floss tree hangs its fruit overhead.
Rose Garden’s Dancing Lights – “Mermaid” by Train
Step 3 – The Light Show
Lights set to music, and it’s standing room only. This is a concert for the eyes, and a place where volunteers buzz around to show you to open standing places. This is also a great place for volunteers that love to talk to people, as this is where most people really start to get into their walk around the park, and guests will sometimes take a right instead of a left. It’s a busy spot. Watch out for the octopus just down the hill!
Banyan’s Rainforest – “Vivaldi Storm” by 2 Cellos
Step 4 – The Rain Forest
I’m not sure if this is meant to be a rainforest or a forest of rain, but it’s stormy and set to classical music regardless. The banyan trees (figs of some sort, as one guest pointed out) are lit heavily from beneath in mostly blue and green. Glowing strands of christmas tree lights drip twinklings of light down at the pace of classical music. The generators give a little undertone of a hum in the background of the music. I can still hear the pumping of the violin when I’m writing this at home. This is quite possibly one of the most peaceful portions of the GLOW exhibit, since it’s before the confusion of the river and away from the bustle of the living wall or light show.
River Portion 1 – “River” by Ben Platt
River Portion 2 – “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison
River Portion 3 – “Ocean Eyes” by Billie Eilish
River Portion 4 – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Music Travel Love
River Portion 5 – Unnamed by Jerzy
Step 5 – The River
Don’t get wet! This was the wildest display of lights seen yet at the park. Some strange, rotating bulbs overhead cast a constantly rolling and roiling display of blue bubbling light across the packed dirt path below. It really and truly seemed like fast-flowing water at times. Bravo, Brava, Bravi! Small cacti to the sides were sea anemones. A wide field covered in lights was, in the second-hard words of another volunteer, “whatever you want it to be. It’s the ocean – it’s mysterious.” The music kept the pace up, and you eventually exit near the bottom of the cactus garden, into darkness. The coral reef stretches upward in the darkness.
Desert Garden’s Coral Reef – “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bob Lyons
Step 6 – The Coral Reef
Cacti lit from underneath (monster lighting) stretch up to seemingly impossible heights. A myriad of colors shift against the normal dusky greens and browns, and nothing seems as it was. I overheard more than one couple arguing whether the tall specimen in the middle of the cactus patch was a Joshua Tree, and I can’t blame them. The music is great to get your feet bouncing; which is welcome, because on most nights you’d have cold toes by now. This was always my favorite corner.
Living Wall’s Fireflies – Unnamed by Jerzy
Step 7 – The Living Wall
This was a most astounding living painting. During daylight hours, the living wall is a wall made up of beautifully arranged succulents. Different species are packed tight in expanding rings, like a sunset or a stone in a pond. Add to these a constantly rolling wash of pastel lights; yellow and red and purple and slivers of blue between green. Then, on top, speckles of firefly lights bobbing at the surface. More than once, I sadly remarked, “They’ll never let me take this home”. And, even more, “I want this on all my walls, and it’ll probably just fit.” The music was gentler than any other area, and the constantly shifting lights were peacefully hypnotic. The only issue here was how long people would stay to get just the right photo. It was lovely, and I totally understand.
And then you’re back at the Palm Circle, ready to head home or go for another lap. I’m proud to say, it seemed like most people braved the cold and went for more than one lap. Once you’ve gone on the first pass and taken all the photos you possibly can (guilty as charged), the second pass is much more sedate and enjoyable.
I’m writing this a bit before my last volunteering chance. I’ve signed up for the last shift of the last Sunday it’s running; January 10th, 7:15pm – 10pm. I’m hoping and believing that it’ll be the most amazing evening yet of the new year.