While it is now unfashionable to speak kindly of Washington, there are some things which this city does well, maybe better than anywhere else. One of them is spring.
The city is right on the edge of it now, preparing to feel glorious.The early magnolias and forsythias are, as usual, blatant in their promises. The street elms make a more refined statement of our expectations, just a glint of tender green for the moment, promising much more in the fullness of time. Even the locusts, so numerous and unloved in the summer when they drop all that junk, will soon be almost nice to look at.
If you are new to this city and too busy to notice these things, surely you have seen the change in the people. They are aswarm in those little downtown parks (some bureaucrats actually go out and kiss on their lunch hour) and the regular preoccupations, the great struggles of government, seem suddenly small and uninteresting.
People in Washington only talked about one thing last week: how terrible it is to work inside buildings. The cab drivers and cops and construction workers who suffered in January are vindicated again.
Downs at the central maintenance shops of the National Park Service on Hains Point, where the people are more or less responsible for a successful advent, the feeling of euphoria is considerably tempered by harsh realities. Every spring has dramatic complications for the Park Service people; this one has some tragedies.
Jack Livingston, whose real name is Oscar, was on the phone the other day ordering vast quantities of liquid fertilizer, urging the salesman to make a quick delivery in the interest of reviving the victims of winter.
Livingston is maintenance chief for horticulture and landscaping in central division, and his 90 people cover a diverse domain of scattered acreage, from the downtown circles and squares to the monument grounds and the Mall to the waterfront promenade where young crab apples are just now budding beside the Washington Channel.
Livingston, not being a man who works with words, took some moments with words, took some moments to frame an answer to the question. "Well," he declared finally, "I'm going to have to say it's worst winter I've seen in 30 years, as far as damage to plants is concerned."
Azaleas, juniper, ilex hedges, Japanese yew, ground cover like ivy, old boxwoods, all are badly burned; camelia buds won't open. None of this will be dramatically abvious to casual eyes - the flowering trees are coming on robustly, the tulip bulbs thrive on a cold winter - and so these spectacular effects will be spectacular again.
Furthermore, Livingston and the parks people are working at catching up with the scattered disasters. On an inspection tour the other day, he saw a lot of dead or nearly dead shrubbery, and the best verdict he had to offer, with the caution of a gardener, was that it's still too early to tell.
Now Fountain Four is going to be all right (if you've never heard of Four, it is one of the popular gems, the display of panises encircling a modest fountain just at the entrance to Hains Point). Livingston stopped there first, where his men just finished setting out something like 16,000 new pansies (if you've never set out 16,000 pansies, that is a lot of pansies).
"Now here we suffered a catastrophe," Livingston said The pansies were set out last fall, as usual, but most of them didn't make it to March. "As near as I can describe it," Livingston explained, "we got a pretty good snow and the snow was like a blanket of insulation. Then we got some warm weather and the snow cover melted off of the pansies and then, as soon as that happened, we got a real hard wind and the pansies were tender at that point and this cold wind actually burned. Similar to a sunburn. It just simply burned the leaves right off them, just cooked them."
A few of the new plants were already offering flowers, but the full effect is at least two weeks off. Livingston called out:
"What's your pridiction, Sarge, about when we're going to have a good bloom here?"
Sarge is Wendell Kurtz, an old Army man, who was cultivating the bed.
"What's the weather going to be?" Sarge replied. "You tell me the weather and I'll tell you what's going to happen."
A careful park man, Livinston observed. They would prefer to skip predictions and just let things happen. Every other year, it seems, they get needled about the cherry blossoms, which, Livingston figures, ought to be their own reward, regardless of when they decide to open.
Across the road at the approach to the Inlet Bridge, Livingston checked out the pyractantha hedge, a very old hedge, full and supple, which curves with the roadway. Now it is a reddish burnt color, without a hint of life, as if someone set it a fire.
"We may have lost this," Livingston said evenly. He cut a twig with his penknife and inspected the wood. "See, that's dry now. That's not going to come back."
A shame, Livingston agreed, but he is not yet ready to call this long-established hedge a lost cause. The idea is that the liquid fertilizer will speed up the recovery of the evergreen shrubs, faster than the weather, stimulate root growth and encourage the greening.
Down by the Jefferson Memorial, the ilex hedge which rings the marble temple has the same burnt appearance, so does some of the low-lying juniper.
Just across the Tidal Basin, on the other hand, the Tulip Library promises to begin its bewildering variety act in a couple of weeks. This is Livingston's favorite place, 95 beds of tulips, each different, each with 50 to 100 plants.
"We kind of experiment there,' he said "with different colors, different types of plants."
Driving down Ohio Drive toward the Lincoln Memorial, Livingston talked a bit about himself and the Park Service. He lives with his wife in Temple Hilla, Md., where in his spare time he garden. Vegetables, mostly.
"Half the pleasure is growing them," he said. "The other half is giving them away."
Like many of the older crew members, Livingston came into the Park Service right after World War II and never wanted to do anything else except grow things. He was raised on a farm near Columbia, S.C., and he has the leathery features, he stooped back and grainy neck, of one who has spent a lot of time hoeing dirt.
"I came up during the Depression," he explained, "and took what you could find, so I had to kind of create my own job. I went to Miami, Fla., and I started planting sweet peas in a vacant lot. Then I would pick them and take them downtown Miami and sell them for 35 cents a bunch and I made a lot of money during the Depression. Everybody would buy flowers."
One of his favorite themes is the loyalty of the park Service people to their work. His son, Michael, is a ranger at a park in west Tennessee. Livingston knows lots of old hands who could have gone off to work for the booming commercial nurseries, but didn't.
"It's hard to put your finger on," he said, as though there was something he wanted to say, but couldn't "These people are ready to argue about anything or complain about anything, but in the end they have a certain feeling about the parks that's haru to define."
Over by the Interior Department. Livingston saw the splendid rows of fresh-blooming magnolias in Rawlins Park.
"This makes it all worthwhile when you see a picture like this," he said. In a few weeks, the crews will relieve the fish and turtles from their winter haven - an aerated pond in Simon Bolivar Park on the south side of Interior - and distribute them to other pools.
He saw promise: "Things will brighten up of course, when we get the pools filled, get the water lilies in, get the fish in, get the fountains on."
At Washington Circle, he drove past the new crab apples (too young to flower this season) and went on to the heart of downtown where thousands lunch every day in the parks (and the park crews sometimes mow the grass at night). At Farragut Square, the greenish admiral with his spyglass gazed stoutly off toward the White House, apparently unware that there was a single red tulip already blooming at his feet.
"It's obvious we've got red in here." Livingston said. "Hopefully they'll all come out red. If they're half red and half something else, then I'll try to hide for awhile."
The Park Service plants something like 100,000 tulip bulbs around the downtown, and other gardeners will be pleased to know that sometimes they mix up their colors too.
"Spring comes and we're always a little apprehensive," he said, "until we see bulbs bloom. Then we say, ah, we made it, or we didn't make it and let's do something about it real quick before the public notices.
. . . It's not like dressing, where you can have a conflict in colors. It's a rare thing to have a conflict in colors in nature."
Over at Fifteenth and Pennsylvania, Livingston commiserated with another old hand, gardener Eddie J. McKelvin, who was watering new grass at Pershing Park. His juniper was trampled by inaugural crowds and must be replaced.
"I just told him you were a dedicated man - so act dedicated," Livingston said.
McKelvin laughed with him. He came out of the Navy in 1946, started with Park Service as a laborer, learned gardening and now takes care of Pershing Park and Pulaski, another triangle park which is just down the avenue. McKelvin mentioned that one of the first hings he helped plant back in 1948 was the huge pyracantha hedge down by Inlet Bridge. Livingston told him the bad news.
"Ooooh," McKelvin said in pained disbelief. "All them gone now? Yeah, Jack?"
Livingston said there was still hope, with fertilizer and pruning.
"Yeah, do that, Jack, they might come ba ck," McKelvin said.
The two men talked a bit about the old days, the time when Jack's ear froze in a winter storm, when he was shoveling sand from the back of a dump truck, and about the pressures of greater and greater traffic on maintenance schedules in the parks.
"I stick with it," McKelvin said. "I like to make things grow. I like doing that."
Later on, driving along the waterfront in Southwest, Livingston began talking, for no apparent reason, about his own health. Two years ago, he was out of work for 10 months, in the hospital four times, lost 40 pounds with stomack obstructions and blood clots.
I'm really lucky to be back," he said. "Sixty per cent of my stomach was removed, and complications developed. I had grave doubts about coming back at all."
He turned in the driver's seat and grinned, broadly, a funny little boy's smile on a middle-aged face, like a child who just came in from the dark.
"It's hard to describe", he said, heading back to the maintenance shops at Hains Point. "It might seem old. But it's my opinion that, when you're working with nature, you're just about as close to God as you can get.
"When you're growing things, dealing with nature, you don't need whisky, you don't need dope, it's just a great feeling. When you deal with nature, you know certain things you can't control, you learn to live with them, that's all."
This was waht he wanted to say before, it seemed, and he was pleased to add that point about spring.