I thought it was a simple story. I planted thousands of flowers next to the Dupont Circle Metro escalator. Metro ripped them out , and I escalated. But when asked to explain why I do what I do, I realized the story was more complicated than it seemed.
First, the easy part: Why did I plant those particular flowers? Riding up the Dupont Circle escalator in 2012, I saw a long slope of neglected garden spaces, filled with weeds and litter. I suppose that when most people ride out of Metro’s drab underworld, they are anxious merely to escape and don’t pay much attention to their surroundings. But when I saw a barren place that might, with some work, give people a badly needed smile, a voice in my head said, “This is a job for the Phantom Planter.”
I know that most people don’t listen to these sorts of crazy thoughts, much less act on them. But, for 35 years, I’ve been listening to a voice that tells me to transform a little bit of the earth one flower seed at a time. So the first reason I plant is easy to understand: I’m compelled to create beauty where it’s missing.
It didn’t strike me as even a bit unusual that I wanted to do something. The question was simply what to plant, when to plant it and how to go about it. Over the years I’ve planted some joy in places such as the Navy Memorial; the large, cigarette-butt-filled urns in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; in the security barriers in front of the Israeli Embassy; at the Grosvenor-Strathmore Metro station; and, after the shootings last fall, at the Washington Navy Yard.
What to plant at Dupont was clear. The slope cried out for spring bulbs and hardy morning glories. When? Broad daylight — to cast a glow of innocence upon a deed that would be suspect if carried out at night. “How” would require a bit of acting, given the hundreds of people who would travel up and down the escalators while I was at work.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Phantom Planter wore an iridescent flower cape, a straw hat with exotic feather plumes and an identity-concealing bandanna, along with a bow tie, jacket and hiking boots. But in time I realized that it was better not to make a spectacle of myself if I wanted people to leave me alone to plant. I learned to simply pretend I belonged wherever I was.
Anyone who noticed me would take in a grunting, middle-age man in a yellow work vest communicating through his body language that he couldn’t believe he had to dig holes in the ground to put food on the family table. In fact, as I weeded and cleaned up cigarette butts, plastic bags and soda cans at Dupont Circle, a man coming up the escalator called, “Yo, buddy, I’m glad I don’t have your job.” I smiled to myself and kept up the act.
When I was done, I just had to endure the winter, an easier thing when I know that something I’ve planted will bloom at the end of it.
And that’s the second reason I plant. I need to soothe the pains in my soul.
Whether I’m coping with the approach of a winter depression, the soul-sucking grind of legal work, nearly losing an eye trying to prop up a damaged treehouse or something else, planting flowers isn’t a diversion. It’s an essential balm that renews my joy, increases my focus and affirms my faith.
Spring arrived and my flowers bloomed — but so did the ire of Metro officials, who ordered them ripped out. That act of savagery and my subsequent artistic overreaction help explain why much of my life has been devoted to anonymously planting flowers. I want to resist authority where it’s ridiculous. That’s reason No. 3.
In this case, how ridiculous? Metro hit me with a “cease and desist” order that threatened “arrest and imprisonment” if I watered the flowers. It responded to local, national and international support by ripping out the plantings. And Metro spewed out a stream of bureaucratic nonsense worthy of a dictator on acid.
And my artistic overreaction? With a clothesline, I hung a huge box over the escalator entrance, with Metro’s most idiotic pronouncements displayed inside the box. The outside of the box, however, was covered with life-affirming words of encouragement selected from thousands of responses to my Let My Flowers Grow Web site.
When that failed to bring Metro to its knees, I showed a video on a giant screen outside the Dupont Circle entrance. The video starred musical artists playing and singing Pete Seeger’s iconic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” with one small change to the lyrics: “Metro killed them, every one.” You can view it on The Post’s Web site or mine.
Seeger’s family thought that the folk music legend would have approved, and I like to think he would have approved, too, of my reasons for planting joy.
A fourth reason I plant may be simple genetics. When someone complained about the beautiful, lacy carrot greens my mother grew in our suburban front yard, the next year she planted more than 200 ears of corn. Maybe I inherited some kind of compulsive planting disorder.
So what comes next? Probably more flowers where needed, but probably not for Metro. My dream is to plant thousands of crocuses on the White House lawn for millions of Americans to see. But that’s one fence I’m not crossing without a formal written invitation.
Henry Docter is an artist living in Washington.