I don't have a lot of winter traditions. I don't go caroling, or ice skating; mostly I trudge around cursing the cold. (I'm allergic to wool, damn it! It's no fun trying to dress up in scarves and sweaters when you have to be dodging wool at every turn.)
But one thing I do love is my annual trek down to the United States Botanic Gardens to see their display of model trains, which are let loose in an incredible multi-level landscape (bridges, tunnels, a waterfall) made from plant elements that fills an entire gallery room. I go on a Thursday, when they stay open until 8 PM and there is music. I watch the kids run around, then stop in their tracks and gape in awe. I poke my head into the orchid parlor, inhale that warm and sweet-scented air for a minute, and imagine I'm somewhere tropical and lush instead of slushy and gray.
Walking through the Railway Garden is free. It's very DC. And each year, no matter where I am in life, it fills me with joy.
The trains range from the recognizable Thomas the Tank Engine characters that make kids crow with joy to classic vintage silver bullets that are usually run on the above-head tracks, perhaps to keep them away from curious hands.
2011's structures--it changes every year--are themed "Who Lives Here?" From "Fairy Flats" to "Critter Condos" to a peacock palace. An opossum house hangs upside down by a tail, while "Giraffe Garage" has a lonnngggg staircase up to the second floor. The cleverness and attention to detail of these buildings never fails to surprise me. And the designers are not afraid to be slightly weird. This year's Monkey Mansion made me think of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom--I kept expecting it to reach out and gobble up the bumblebee train.
In the central atrium of the Garden, the Russian folk band "Samovar" kept the crowd cheering through traditional songs. One guy was rocking out on a balalaika. Just last week I was writing a poem that included a random line about "common household balalaikas." This felt like a good omen, to see one live & in action within the week.
You may notice what appears to be a scale version of the Washington Monument looming in back of the band. It is. They render many of DC's great structures--Capitol, Supreme Court--again in all-plant materials. You have not lived until you've seen the great dome of the Jefferson Memorial's rotunda reincarnated as the belly of a big gourd.
You can't go to the Botanic Gardens and not take in the plants as well. So my father, sister and I got lost in the greenery for a while. Christina had a very fancy camera (as you can tell from these photos, I did not have a very fancy camera) and took a lot of close-ups. People sometimes forget that in the world of exotic plants, texture can be as much of a surprise as color. Here Christina is posing with a monkey-tail tree whose branches (fronds?) felt like lanyards braided from the thick plastic floss they'd give us as kids at camp.
My dad and I in Hawai'i. Or at least the Hawai'i room. Later in the evening, it was raining hard and he made an elaborate show of using the one umbrella to protect my leather jacket. "You have on a leather jacket too," I pointed out. "Yes," he said, "but this one has been through three wars." Couldn't argue with that.
You know how goldfish, if they are not limited by the size of their bowl, continue to grow bigger and bigger and bigger? Poinsettias are the goldfish of the holiday plant world. They can easily reach six feet tall and keep growing. You have to admire their ambition.
If you want to drop by the Botanic Gardens, it is not too late. They'll continue to have their extended hours on Tuesday, December 27 (Hot Club of DC, gypsy jazz and swing) and Thursday, December 29 (40 Thieves, Irish rock music). Tell 'em I sent ya. And for a grand finale, as promised, a little live action filmed by yours truly:
Happy holidays, folks!