A chance encounter in the Morton Arboretum's Schulenburg Prairie turned into an 11-year pursuit of knowledge for John Hagstrom.
A retired aerospace engineer, Hagstrom is the first student to complete all certificates offered by the arboretum in horticulture, botanical art, woodland restoration and allied nature classes.
In 2000, Hagstrom was on his knees photographing prairie wildflowers when a tour group of schoolchildren bombarded him with excited chatter about all they had learned at the arboretum. So captivated was he by their enthusiasm, he decided to sign up for the arboretum's naturalist certificate course.
"I suppose my mom inspired me the most," Hagstrom reflects. "When she was in her 80s and 90s, she was still taking college-level courses."
A lifelong learner, Hagstrom, now 74, says he likes to write, travel and paint. When he retired from his engineering career, he wanted to "use the other side of his brain," and looked forward to working in the "soft sciences."
Lest you think Hagstrom coasted through his classes, consider that most certificates are earned in two-and-a-half years. The arboretum certificate courses, while geared to the layperson, are anything but soft.
The naturalist certificate program, for example, includes 10 core courses in botany, conservation biology and field ecology. You can specialize in an interpretive naturalist track, which includes classwork in nature writing and teaching. Or you can focus on the natural areas track, honing your skills in tree identification and restoration of prairies, savannas, wetlands and woodlands.
Hagstrom so enjoyed learning about native plants that he doubled up with courses to earn both naturalist certificates in just two years.
Graduating in 2002 with his naturalist certificates, Hagstrom decided to pursue courses toward the home landscape horticulture certificate.
"My yard is small, but totally planted," he says.
With a 45 percent slope, he says his garden lent itself to terracing, and he employed rockwork along the hillside.
Hagstrom enjoys the naturalistic style of 20th century landscape architect Jens Jensen, but says his own garden is a bit of a hodgepodge with more than 400 plants.
"Despite the things I learned about landscape design, I probably violated every rule," he said, laughing.
Rather than dutifully following the maxims about planting in masses or traditional groupings of three or five, Hagstrom enjoys his casual mixtures of prairie plants with woodland flowers. The landscape and horticulture classes taught him to appreciate the garden as total composition.
"I've always been a gardener, but now I see the garden as a room to live in," he says.
Now, he spends much more time in the garden of his own design, just reading and relaxing.
Not that Hagstrom has been letting moss grow under his feet. He volunteered at the arboretum's Plant Clinic, and in the fall of 2005 began two more certificate courses, nature photography and botanical art and illustration.
"These were tough courses, and involved a lot of outside work," he confesses.
The botanical art and illustration certificate includes work in pen and ink, color theory, scientific illustration and watercolor.
Hagstrom says he had no prior training in art but might have some latent genes because his mom was an oil painter and his son is an artist. As an engineer, he is a very detailed person, and said of his class artwork assignments, "It took me forever to produce them, but I was pretty satisfied with the results."
Even though his whole learning adventure started with his photography hobby, Hagstrom said he still learned a lot through the nature photography certificate classes.
"I've always been a close-up photographer -- always down on my hands and knees," he says. "I needed some more practice with landscape photography."
Fieldwork at the arboretum continues to hone his skills.
In 2010, Hagstrom began studying for his ornithology certificate because, well, why not? He studied the natural history of birds, their biology and behavior, and conservation.
Last on his bucket list of certifications was woodland stewardship.
"This was tantamount to getting my doctorate at the arboretum," he says wryly. "It has always been a lifelong dream of mine to become a land steward."
The woodland stewardship training program offers participants practical techniques for habitat management and restoration. Hagstrom received this certificate in November at a ceremony where he was likened to Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci for his multifaceted interests.
Hagstrom's certificates are being put to good use.
"Today, I volunteer as a steward at both the Morton Arboretum and the Kane County Nature Preserves," he reports.
This is in addition to his work in the arboretum's Plant Clinic and as a photographer for the Morton Arboretum Photo Project.
The unretiring retiree says, "If you come out to the Morton Arboretum, chances are you'll see me out somewhere shooting photos or collecting seeds, planting trees, or hacking down some nasty invasive brush. I love being out in nature whenever I can."
For information on the Morton Arboretum's certificate and other educational programs, visit www.mortonarb.org.
• Cathy Maloney is a writer for the Morton Arboretum. Her column appears monthly in Neighbor.