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The Cracker Barrel: A piece of paradise

Screen capture of the Munsinger and Clemens Gardens website at http://www.munsingerclemens.com

One of humanity's most treasured notions is the concept of paradise.

From the book of Genesis to the Bhagavad Gita, from the Quran to the haiku of Japanese poets, images of paradise abound. We find the word mentioned in the teachings of Jesus, in the ruminations of Plato, in the lyrics of songs old and new.

The word itself, of Iranian origin, literally means "an enclosed park." Through the centuries it has taken on enormous emotional freight, and come, for many, to be synonymous with the Garden of Eden and possibly Heaven. It is regarded by all as a place of bliss, felicity and delight.

In a world filled with suffering and setbacks, buffeted by storms and desiccated by droughts, the idea of a safe and peaceful garden refuge holds powerful appeal. To close our eyes and imagine a place of unending serenity and pleasure fills us with much-needed hope.

But there are many forms of paradise, and not all of them lie in the next dimension.

Two of them, in fact, are located just south of St. Cloud. While quite a distance west of the original Garden of Eden, the Munsinger and Clemens Gardens are little more than an hour's drive away from Echoland.

Situated on the east bank of the Mississippi River on the site of an 1880s sawmill, the Munsinger Gardens have been owned by the city of St. Cloud for nearly a century. Named after Joseph Munsinger, a former superintendent of parks, Munsinger Gardens has undergone several different stages of development, ranging from improvements made by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s to the planting of trees by Campfire Girls and the construction of rock-lined paths, a lily pond, an historic cabin and a fountain.

Its location next to the river imbues it with a wonderful feeling of timelessness and provides an ongoing variety of visiting ducks and geese. But the star attractions at the garden are the flowers raised each spring in the on-site greenhouses: More than 100,000 bedding plants that fill the generous informal plots and come alive with color.

These, together with mums, daffodils, irises, red salvia, hosta plants and many other perennials, all beckon the visitor's eye and bring to the mind a sense of transcendent joy.

Up the hill above the tree-shaded trails of the Munsinger Gardens lie the six contiguous plats of the Clemens Gardens, all bordering Kilian Boulevard and offering a contrasting feast for the visitor's senses. Purchased by Bill and Virginia Clemens and then donated to the city of St. Cloud Park Department, the Clemens Gardens are modeled along European lines, with lovely brick walkways and brick-edged plots and featuring a magical variety of topiary created by the creative trimming of small trees, hedges and bushes.

In 1990, Mr. and Mrs. Clemens funded the construction of a rose garden with 1,100 rose bushes, the colors and fragrance of which mesmerize the eye and perfume the air. Together with a magnificent fountain, a treillage garden and thousands of bedding plants, the roses of Clemens Gardens add an unforgettable dimension to the concept of paradise.

To visit these wonderful gardens, go south of St. Cloud on U.S. 10 to State Highway 301 (Minnesota Boulevard), take 301 west to Kilian Boulevard, then go north. Admission is free, though a voluntary contribution is appreciated. There's plenty of free parking, and maps, souvenirs, restrooms and refreshments are available at the gift store located adjacent to the Clemens Gardens fountain. The gardens are open from sunrise to 10 p.m.

Collections of Craig Nagel's columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com