The Kampong: Where Nature & Magic Collide
November 20, 2017Pola Bunster
Or what I call my second installment of “Tales From a Local History Buff.”
The name David Fairchild might ring a bell to some of you, if just for being attached to one of the most breathtaking gardens in the country. To me, that name means preservation. It means childhood exploration. It means that amidst so many structural and cultural changes, Miami’s history still lives strong today and that’s always something special. Especially for someone who was brought up by the stories of our city’s innovative founding fathers and mothers.
Ever since I was three, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden was my home. It was my queendom to frolic through at whatever speed I pleased. I loved that place (and still do) with my entire spirit even before it added the “Botanic” to its name. There were a few years when my mother volunteered as a tram driver there, back when the ride was curated by a pre-recorded cassette track and all she had to do was press play and hit the gas. She even directed a play there that traveled around the entire 83-acre oasis and took the place by mythical storm. I hung from the old chickee hut built by local Seminole representatives where only a green prairie now remains. I befriended the legions of iguanas and hugged the baobabs–in many ways, to know Fairchild is to know me.
But this isn’t a piece about Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (that will come soon). This is a little hat tip to the man who helped bring it to life with a curious demeanor, love for travel, and a very gifted green thumb. More to the point, this is a tribute to the beauty of his other Miami home–his actual house–a more hidden, lesser-known goldmine for tropical escape: The Kampong.
And it isn’t just his house. The entire 10-acre estate is a tropical botanical garden, too. Tucked away off of Main Highway in Coconut Grove, that part of the grove that takes your breath away with its dangling banyans and lush streets, it actually makes me kind of sad thinking that more people–locals or otherwise–don’t know about this incredible place. If you drive too fast down the winding highway you’ll definitely miss it and chances are you have countless times. But if you slow down and keep your eyes open long enough, you’ll see the banyans blanketing the coral wall and brick red gates with their shade; you found it.
Walking in, your eyes become simultaneously transfixed on the surrounding beauty while still feeling restless at not knowing where to land. You can’t believe someone actually lived here. And not just anyone, but one of the greatest American Botanists ever: Dr. David Fairchild. If the title of “plant explorer” doesn’t make you giddy, his contribution to botanical science should. Not only did Fairchild manage the Department of Plant Introduction program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but he was responsible for bringing over 200,000 exotic plant species to the U.S. most notably mangoes to Florida and the flowering cherry blossoms now synonymous with D.C.
More than a scientist, Fairchild was also an avid traveler with an almost unquenchable thirst for understanding other cultures, most particularly those of Southeast Asia. This love for the region is immediately noticeable when your eyes first set upon the main house built in 1928, a blend of Spanish and Southeast Asian influences. At Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, he was able to use the space as a place for research and preservation but at his home at The Kampong, he was able to fill inner voids by surrounding himself with all that he held most dear. And you really can feel that love.
But aside from the seemingly endless array of exotic plants, flowering fruit trees, and serene architecture, the most magical thing about this place is the peace. The quiet. The lack of car sounds and its stark distance from civilization. With unobstructed views of Biscayne Bay and limitless pockets of tropical escape, The Kampong is one of Miami’s last vestiges of serenity. It’s where history blends with nature in a way only a person truly fluent in the language of plants would be able to create. For those of you who might think Miami is lacking in depth, I challenge you to feel that way after visiting.
I’ve clinked glasses with local preservationists there, watched in awe as Balinese dancers and shadow puppets told the ancient stories of the East. I’ve sat on the grass and listened to the sound of wind amplified by the branches that greeted it on its way to and from the ocean. And every time I visit, I leave a little lighter– as if bathing in all that natural beauty shook off all the worldly stresses developed by man. It’s my secret haven and I’m happy to share it with you whenever you’re looking for a time portal to jump through or are just in need of seeing what 65 different types of mango look like. All you have to do is call.
Cover photo from Garden and Decor.