Monday, October 24, 2011

A Great Nation Deserves Great Gardens

I went to our nation's capital last week and was surprised at the scarcity of trees.

Washington D.C. indeed holds many of our national treasures - the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and its reflecting pool, and the Smithsonian Museums, just to name a few - and wraps them in all the best aspirations and values of our democracy. Anyone, no matter what race, religion or immigration status, can walk the Mall and visit the monuments and memorials installed there, and anyone can view the collections of the Smithsonian without needing to show identification or pay a fee.

But I have to say that I was a little shocked that D.C. has so little of what I consider to be America's most defining feature - the magnificent natural landscape. There's certainly no amber waves of grain in this city, nor purple mountains' majesty - just block after block of concrete, asphalt, steel and glass. The only trees I saw in my two days' visit were saplings in the planters outside the US Department of Transportation, a few anemic street trees near E Street, and the trees providing shade to the Occupy DC protesters in McPherson Square. Even these trees were not enough to distract my attention from the buildings, buildings everywhere.

Where are the street trees and landscaped medians? Where are the public gardens? Where are the streetside planters with colorful annuals designed to break up the monotony of grey buildings and grey sidewalks? Considering that Washington D.C. was built on a swamp and has to have enough concrete to provide an office for every lobbying group, advocacy organization, federal worker and Congressional staffer, I'm not expecting this city to look like Yosemite Valley. But it seems that Americans and foreign tourists alike are being let down when the only hints of America's impressive national endowment of natural resources in the Nation's Capital are housed indoors in the American Art Museum or hidden away in the National Arboretum several miles from the National Mall.

Gardens make even the starkest concrete jungle more beautiful, adding color, vivacity and charm into an otherwise moonscape-like setting. Gardens bring life to an inanimate, people-dominated world and remind us that our roots are still connected to the earth. Gardens can be a national monument to showcase the outstanding, amazing native plants of the United States - what could be more American than the National Tree, the mighty oak? I've never been to see the cherry blossoms bloom near the Jefferson Memorial in the spring, but I'd be willing to bet that a grove of mature oak trees would be just as stunning.

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