The young couple in front of us on the plane from Cleveland to D.C. wore matching Cabela’s “Realtree XTRA” camouflage sweatshirts. He was a bigger guy with shaggy hair, and she a towhead with a bun, or at least that’s about all I could make of them from behind, until it was time to get off. Then he stood up and took off his sweatshirt, revealing a t-shirt underneath that read, “If it shits, shoot it. If it’s green, cut it down.” I’m not sure how all those fit-for-shooting shitting things would persist if the green were cut down, nor how much good the Realtree XTRA would do sans forest.
The first national treasure we visit in D.C. is the United States Botanic Garden, which rests just southwest of the Capital Building, caddy-corner from the Rayburn House Office Building. According to the garden’s website, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison wanted a national garden to promote the importance of plants. Congress established the garden in 1820, and the current conservatory—enormous and domed—was built in 1934. I’m sure there are members of today’s Congress that would find this investment a complete waste, unable to make any connection between their own well-being and that of, say, an orchid. But maybe they haven’t wandered across the street to see the orchids, blooming sensually, siren-like, their scent drifting in the humidity.
We arrive at opening, 10 a.m., and there’s a line of tots waiting to get into a special exhibit of model trains. Bypassing tiny trains and whiny tots, we enter into the conservatory’s garden court, lined with fruit trees and marked by miniature versions of the Capitol’s famous buildings made out of plant matter. That’s cool, but I’m here for things lush, like the orchid garden. Maybe certain congresspeople could actually be offended by the orchids themselves, recognizing a kind of plant pornography when they see it. There’s not much subtle about the orchids, tinted like ladies' underpants, wishing for hummingbirds. One of my favorite paintings is Martin Johnson Heade’s Cattleya Orchid and Three Hummingbirds (1871), which the National Gallery of Art acquired in 1982, though it’s not currently on view. I acquired a print at the National Gallery in 1990, and it’s currently on view above our bathtub, where sometimes I admire it while drinking a glass of white wine.
The jungle display inside the conservatory’s dome feels like a heaven of houseplants. I recognize a few types from home, but these specimens are vigorous and huge, spilling and drooping and carpeting and generally looking not at all like houseplants. Shades of green overlap and glow, and I wonder what type of camo Cabela’s might develop to hide in here. Palms reach for the glass, and they must sometimes need to be whacked shorter or else they’d pop through the panes. I brush past a plant bearing structures that remind me both of phalluses and of condoms; it’s a pitcher plant called Nepenthes, named for the mythical drug of forgetfulness, also known as (ahem) monkey cups.
As we pass into the desert display, the first load of tots is released from the trains, stampeding into the cacti with their handlers, impatient about things not on tracks. All around them, needle-y lobes. I wait for them to dissipate, through the orchids and jungle and out to the sidewalks, heading down the Mall for the Air and Space Museum or maybe just air and maybe just space.