It is possible that my cab driver has never heard of the United States National Arboretum. It is also possible that I am describing its location incorrectly, or speaking unintelligibly. I have spent six hours on a train, rolling south into a snowstorm that is becoming increasingly ominous. An escaped bobcat is loose in the capital. A lunatic cartoon dictator is president. It is possible that nothing will ever make sense again.
I want to see the National Grove of State Trees, because there is a hopeless romance about the concept of a national grove of state trees in a nation that has possibly fragmented beyond repair. But I get distracted along the way.
I somehow direct the cab to the gate, in the northwest quadrant of the city, and on foot I enter a carefully planned and maintained space that feels half-wild. This is probably due to the weather. The sky is colorless, and delicate snowflakes swirl around me, sticking just slightly to the ground and creating an eerie white fog. I pull my hood around my face against the cold, like a 17th century lady setting out on a perilous journey.
I stay on the paved paths, as the snow has rendered the grassy areas too precarious, and too beautiful, to step on. Then my walkway curves and I see an expanse off to my left, stretching out in the snowy mist like a mythical land or an optical illusion. The Ellipse Meadow.
I know its name because later, I will look it up. But when I first see it, the words that spring to mind are “moor” and “heath.” On it, distant amid the whirling snowflakes, are the National Capitol Columns, built in 1828 to decorate the East Portico but abandoned in 1864 when the architects changed plans. I know they are a bit of trivia, a historic mistake happily salvaged for a public amusement. But I can only see them as the ruins of a prior, better civilization.
As I move towards them, I am the only person walking in the Arboretum. It can be disconcerting to be alone in a vast and unfamiliar space, but I am not afraid. Wrapped in my coat and my veil of snow, I imagine any danger lurking behind these trees could only be a make-believe danger – a centaur, perhaps, or an escaped bobcat that might blink at you with yellow eyes then vanish into dust. As I get closer, and the imposing rectangle of Corinthian columns recedes, a few vehicles circle slowly, almost furtively, on the Arboretum’s gently curving roads.
The columns stand, as they should, atop a slope, forming a silent sandstone acropolis. When I first saw a D.C.-area friend’s photo of them, taken not long after they were placed here, I thought they must be one of America’s secret wonders. These days, they are something of a fashionable spot; the Arboretum forbids commercial photography here without a permit, and in the days after I planned my trip, I coincidentally saw the columns at least three times on Instagram.
I pause in front of them, then climb the hill and wander between them, small beneath their useless grandeur. I stop to photograph a circular plaque that reads, in part, “These columns designed for the United States Capitol continue to reaffirm our nation’s commitment to fulfilling the dreams of a flourishing land and people.”
Finally, I walk on, away from the Ellipse Meadow. Ellipse, of course, means an oval shape, but it derives from the same word as an ellipsis, a space left in speech or writing when what could fill it is obvious, and does not need to be uttered to be understood. The snow, which had given way to a clear and almost sunny sky while I was absorbed by the grace of the columns, begins to fall once more.