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From tending flocks…to tending phlox

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By Betsey Norgard

Herb ChilstromAt age 77, Herb Chilstrom ’54 got an offer he couldn’t refuse. The retired ELCA presiding bishop was invited to serve as interim director of the Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College while its director is overseas for a year. The transition from Chilstrom’s 50-plus years as pastor and bishop to administrative gardener, he tells his friends, was easy: “I’m going from tending flocks to tending phlox.”

Chilstrom gained an appreciation and love for gardening from his mother, a gardener ahead of her time who, along with her husband, put organically grown food on their table. He pursued that interest in retirement when he studied to become a master gardener.

“It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable educational experiences I’ve ever had,” he says.

When the Chilstroms moved to a townhome in St. Peter, Minn., Herb volunteered his services to the arboretum. For seven years he nurtured flowerbeds back to blooming beauty and created a vegetable garden behind the restored settlers’ cabin—which was a necessity for every settler, as well as his own family. During this time the arboretum began to restore more than 80 acres back to its native prairie. Now as interim director, he has enjoyed launching “The Linnaeus Order of Nasturtiums,” a cadre of volunteers who tend the arboretum’s flora. Mostly retirees, the order has “taken off like gangbusters,” Chilstrom says. Despite the initiation, that is, which requires each volunteer to eat a nasturtium blossom laced with cream cheese.

“People are almost begging to get into the order,” says Chilstrom. He has recruited 20 volunteers in two months, and all have passed the initiation. For Chilstrom, this second “calling” also has theological roots. He says that while Lutherans consider Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in the Second Article of the Creed as the heart of Christian faith, “we may have emphasized it to the point where we don’t appreciate as much as we should the First Article, about creation as the gift of God.”

“Being involved in a place like the arboretum,” Chilstrom continues, “gives me a chance to create some balance, to be committed to making this place as beautiful as it can be in a world that is quite broken, where we don’t appreciate the gifts of nature, and where there’s so much desecration of the environment.”

It’s also a chance for some historical reflection. Chilstrom recounts how so many settlers, including his great-grandparents, arrived in Minnesota penniless and began breaking up the prairie, with disregard for Native peoples and their land. “Now when we recapture part of that into native prairie, we are helping people step back and think about what it was like for Native Americans to live here, how they survived in that setting, and the beauty of the prairie,” he says.

In sum, Chilstrom says, “I feel that in my retirement I’ve been uniquely blessed to be located in a place like this where I can think about some of these good things that are important to us.”

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