A hidden jewel: Wing Haven a tranquil oasis for the soul

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 15, 2021

By Susan Shinn Turner

For the Salisbury Post

CHARLOTTE — My daddy loved flowers and plants. So much so that in June, after a battle with pneumonia the previous month, he gingerly made his way out to his patio and supervised the planting of an ornamental pot.

Into it went a pink New Guinea impatiens, a yellow Gerber daisy, and a hot pink wave petunia. He was very specific about the color of the flowers, and their position in the pot. Tall plants in back, short ones in the front.

Susan Shinn Turner in the last photo taken with her dad, Ed Shinn.

The flowers are still growing, but Daddy left us Aug. 2.

So when my husband and I went to Charlotte for my birthday this past week (surely you got the daily email reminders!), we decided to visit Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary, in memory of Daddy.

Tucked into a tony Myers Park neighborhood, Wing Haven is a hidden jewel of the Queen City.

Edwin Clarkson built the home for his new bride, Elizabeth. When they arrived at the property in 1927, she found it surrounded by red Carolina clay, and a lone tree in the backyard.

Over the years, the Clarksons transformed the surrounding property — Edwin eventually bought up adjacent parcels which now total 3 acres — into a lush garden filled with fountains, statues, plaques, benches — and birds.

More than 150 species of birds have been spotted at Wing Haven. Elizabeth once rescued four baby blue birds. One, whom she named Tommy, grew up in the house. He never spent a night outside, and he took his “bird bath” in a soup bowl in her bathroom. He and his three siblings would cling to her arms as she played arpeggios on her gorgeous baby grand in the spacious living room — Elizabeth had been trained as a concert pianist.

It’s in this room that your tour of Wing Haven begins. After a brief talk by the docent on duty (you may buy tickets online ahead of time), you are free to wander the grounds. The gardens are surrounded by a 6-foot brick wall, so you can’t get lost.

The first stop is in the education building, where a brief film about Wing Haven plays on a loop. Narrated by Dick Cavett, the Clarksons tell the story of Wing Haven in their own words. You hear about the time Elizabeth rescued a baby squirrel, and he recuperated in an enormous rose medallion bowl on the dining room table (look but do not touch, please). And the time a robin that Elizabeth rehabilitated needed a ride to a warmer clime. Enter Kays Gary, longtime Charlotte Observer columnist. When subscribers read of the little robin’s plight, a reader offered to take him to Florida on her lap. “Bob Robin” flew first class, the kind of happy ending all readers love.

Then it’s out into the gardens. You can go any way you choose, but you basically make a big circle around the acreage.

Couples give each other lots of different kinds of gifts, to be sure, but Edwin and Elizabeth gave each other bricks, enough to build 10 homes. These bricks now comprise Wing Haven’s walkways. Toward the back of the property are wood chip trails. Thanks to the Clarksons’ foresight, even a warm August day is made a bit more bearable thanks to the tree canopy.

Because Elizabeth so loved birds, you are always steps away from a fountain, which gives Wing Haven a quiet, peaceful vibe. We were there Friday afternoon, and had the place all to ourselves. It was lovely, and it was a nice way to reflect on Daddy’s long and happy life.

When a loved one dies, some people say they visit you in the form of a red cardinal or a butterfly. I knew my father would have other ideas.

As we made our way to the exit, we stopped in one final garden area, ablaze with color. I looked to my right, and there it was — a hot pink wave petunia blooming like crazy.

Hey, Daddy.

For more information on Wing Haven, visit www.winghavengardens.org.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn Turner lives with her family in Raleigh.

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