In Washington, a frost on election day

BYGONES: Asters near the Capitol felt summer Monday, winter Tuesday.
BYGONES: Asters near the Capitol felt summer Monday, winter Tuesday. (Melina Mara/the Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Near Olney, nurseryman Bill Harris awoke to a thick layer of ice on his windshield, and the vegetable garden at work bore the hallmarks of that awful end of the growing season. The peppers were blackened, the banana plants kaput, the angel trumpets as wilted as last season's political slogan. Monday belonged to summer, Tuesday to winter.

"It was a little bit heavier than I thought it was going to be," he said. The frost, that is.

In this moment of political realignment, to one voter, dormancy is a healthy pause; to another it's a return to paralysis. No witches landing on Capitol Hill, but isn't it eerie that Election Day coincided with the first frost of the season for much of the metropolis?

In the movie "Being There," Peter Sellers plays a dimwitted gardener who dazzles politicians with his idiocy. "In a garden," intones his character, Chauncey Gardiner, "Growth has its season. First it's spring and summer. But then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again."

Maybe Chauncey isn't so daft after all. The cycles of nature do indeed come to define the political vicissitudes of Washington: change, growth, retreat. Now, in the months ahead, stillness, and a return to our roots.

At the Smithsonian's Ripley Garden, between Independence Avenue and the Mall, there were poignant reminders of a season slipping away. No frost here, but the newly dug tropicals were being trucked to the greenhouses, the annuals had gone and the gardener was sticking in tulips. A catbird was hanging around for worms. Beat it, buddy. The party's over.

On President Obama's Inauguration Day, the crowds overran the fences around this garden and trampled it mightily. It sprang back, but now the exuberant masses are gone along with the air of change. On Tuesday, just one or two workers and tourists saunter through, and in its shelter find the sun strangely warm on this otherwise crisp fall day.

In Mount Pleasant, John Boggan, a botanist at the Smithsonian Institution, escaped the frost but is readying to lift and bring in a slew of tropicals. "It's not like I didn't see it coming."

The new Congress will find a garden of its own, the U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of the U.S. Capitol. The conservatory displays are being readied for the holiday, the adjoining National Garden is going through a mellow transformation of copper-orange cypress needles, golden, feathery amsonia and brilliant sky-blue asters, drifts of them. The ultimate election plant: switch grass. Tufts line the ridge of a berm, yielding their green for a winter whiteness.

For those whose political lives are defined by division, there is distinction in droves here. You can find plants that are tender or hardy, deciduous or evergreen, woody or herbaceous, mostly native but some foreign, to wit most of the roses (our national flower, heh heh). There's even a tea party plant: A shrubby thing called New Jersey Tea, used in place of the real thing during the American Revolution.

Others see in this garden one cohesive American landscape, but one slipping away. Dorinda Lang and Kevin Smith traveled from Phoenix for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. They lingered in town to take in the National Arboretum and then the Botanic Garden. As they strolled through the National Garden on Tuesday, they seemed resigned to the political pendulum swinging away from them. "It's one thing to hope for change, it's another to hope for instant change," said Lang, 52. "It's unreasonable to hope for instant change."

Lang sees lessons in this garden beyond the ebb and flow of the seasons. "Maybe you can draw a connection between the time it takes to grow a tree and build a human community," she said.

Gardeners hereabouts are getting on with it, cleaning out the frost-tinged stuff, cutting back the shrinking perennials and digging the ground for spring bulbs and winter pansies. Chauncey's words resonate. "There will be growth in the spring."

Until a true freeze stops nature in its tracks, we enjoy a strange beauty. The lavender and roses are blooming like it's June. The tender Malabar spinach is still setting fleshy pink flowers, and the castor bean plant, towering, mesmerizing and deadly poisonous, displays its layers of purple leaves the size of a blacksmith's hand. The garden is existing in a magical limbo. A floral interregnum.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company