Wild, woody and wonderous is the best way to describe the U.S. National Arboretum in winter.
Spanning 446 acres, it is operated by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. It will turn 100 years old in 2027.
Located off New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road on the outskirts of Washington DC, the Arboretum is a place for gardeners, walkers, and canines. On a wintery day in January 2022, it felt like I was walking through the closet into C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. To rephrase the author, it is “always forest but sometimes winter” at the Arboretum.
Winter in the woods turns the brown tree trunks and dead leaves white. Young and old trees alike wear white caps on their crowns. On a clear day, the sky above gleams like a sapphire. Billowy white clouds dance across its surface. When a strong wind blows, snowflakes fly sideways, then whirl in the air.
Four Season Retreat
The Arboretum is a place where I go to escape into the forest during all four seasons. I can find solace in wandering the twisting paths of The Azalea Collection. There is also a one-way drive along Azalea Road. But in the dark months of winter, the Satsuki azaleas, Kurume azaleas, and historic Glenn Dale azaleas are slumbering. Hill and dale are in hibernation.
The hilly paths meander past groves of rhododendrons and azaleas. They stand together in rows and clumps like woodland gnomes. In the winter, they are dressed in somber brown. Bowed down from a blanket of snow, only their heads pop out to show their curiosity about who is visiting their kingdom.
At mid-morning, there are only two here today—my rambunctious 8-month-old Golden Retriever Parker and I—on the 2022 MLK holiday. Yesterday, snow descended like a white curtain over cities, towns, and rural areas along most of the East Coast from Georgia to New England.
I think most people chose to stay wrapped in afghans at home to watch TV. The fierce winds are blowing my puppy and me forward. I definitely didn’t dress correctly. My ski jacket feels like a flimsy silk shirt. I am freezing.
Parker, on the other hand, is eager to jump into the bowls of snow that resemble scoops of vanilla ice cream. After puppy’s first snow day, he knows how to respond. In fact, he sticks his tongue out to take successive licks. When his paws get icy, he jumps on a bench to rest.
While yesterday’s snow can’t be seen in areas where the sun shines, it still lingers on the darker side. I still see groves, bushes, and flower beds wearing a white quilt. My photos of this snowy kingdom could be transformed into a children’s book about a dog who befriends snow fairies.
Every tree limb that pokes its “snout” above the snow line invites Parker to pounce. He slips and slides on the path, which is slick with moldering autumn leaves. I place my hiking boot down warily on the icy surfaces—little ponds of frozen snow. A dead tree trunk is nature’s outdoor sculpture.
Why is it when we hike alone—or tandem with a dog—that our brain goes out in expedition? I find all worries and preoccupations erased when I find time to spend in the woods. My senses are super tuned like my dog’s olfactory intelligence. He seeks only to bury his nose in the snow to sniff what is hidden beneath.
I want to rise like a hot air balloon into the towering trees that encircle me. The sky is a quilt of powder blue, sapphire blue, granite grey, and powder white swatches. The winds push my crouched body forward while stroking my red cheeks and lips. Breathing deeply, I inhale the winter perfume of decaying leaves and tree limbs.
I have previously written about taking a “forest bathing” class which is a practice of seeking mindful meditation in the forest. The practice of forest therapy was “inspired in part by Japanese practices, but we don’t attempt to replicate their methods, which have developed in a way that is a great fit for unique aspects of Japanese culture. The Japanese term for this practice, shinrin-yoku, translates literally as ‘forest bathing,’” writes Amos Clifford, author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature.
The Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) offers a daytime forest bathing class. Although now on hold due to covid, FOTNA also has run a moonlight forest bathing class. Consult its 2022 calendar for scheduled educational events and programs.
One of the best ways to become part of the forest is to return to favorite woodland areas, such as Rock Creek Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, or the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Since the National Arboretum is just a 15-minute drive from my Washington, DC condo, it is a venue that I visit regularly. Since I adopted my puppy in June, I regularly visit with Parker. Judging by all the humans walking their dogs at the Arboretum, it is a popular locale for a puppy trek.
“I love places where there are crowds of trees.”Nitin Namdeo
Now I find that simply walking past trees on a city sidewalk is not sufficient. I must head deep into the woods so I am surrounded by groves of trees.
Nature pulls us up when we feel down, worked up, and vulnerable. It takes us out of our neurosis, shakes off the cobwebs, and helps us to mentally refresh. Nature shows us the way of the cycles and impermanence of all things and awakens the heart.”Dr. Michele Kambolis
For me, nature is a canvas where paints swirl, blend, and bleed together. I recall a landscape painting by Gustav Klimt called Farmhouse with Birch Trees (1900). A field of bright green is punctuated by blue smudges and lemon yellow dots. An occasional pale pink tulip shape rises out of the grass. To the far left and right are white birch trees that stand as tall as soldiers on watch. In the distance is the boxy farmhouse represented by quick interpretative brushstrokes—powder blue, creamy beige, and dirt brown.
“For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations.”Paul Cezanne
This style of painting (Impressionism) is how the world can look to me when I take off my glasses. I am nearsighted so I see objects as a blur. But this is also how I feel when I walk in the woods—the hard edges are erased and nature blurs together in sublime harmony. Then the cry of the bluejay can startle me (and Parker) so we watch intently when it flies out of the tree branches.
After we are exhausted, Parker heads for a bench. He likes to take this time to just sit and watch his world. When I sit down, he leans his body against mine. It is one of the most calming experiences in the world to nestle beside your puppy and simply gaze at the natural world.
“There’s something very enticing about an empty bench under a tree. And if it’s facing a river, that’s the bench for me.”Joyce Rachelle
National Capitol Columns
After an extended recess on a wooden bench in the azalea groves, Parker and I head for Azalea Road to connect with the Arboretum’s walking path. If you are not a hiking type of person, this sidewalk is an easier way to tour the Arboretum.
In the distance, I can see the National Capitol Columns looming on a hill. This view is accessible from the entire route. From one angle, I see the structure in the bright sunlight. But I had never seen the Corinthian columns surrounded by a blanket of snow. This otherworldly sight made me linger to admire the columns on a snow-clad hill. Storm clouds rise in the distance, turning the skies an angry grey tint.
National Herb Garden
After passing the Bonsai Garden (which sadly doesn’t permit dogs), Parker and I decided to investigate the National Herb Garden. Even when all the plants die back in winter, this cultivated section of the Arboretum is a tranquil spot to walk under the trellis roof and wander among the boxed sections.
Snow fills all the cavities around the lavender plants. Silver leaves mirror the snowflakes resting on tree branches. The fallow earth lies quiet under the snow.
Since many families bring their children to explore the Arboretum, there is a cheery sign to remind toddlers not to trespass on the garden beds. It reads: “Shh! The tulip beds are sleeping. Please do not walk in the flower beds in any location!”
Our final stop is the Administration Building, which is closed due to the pandemic. Designed by Deigert & Yerkes, this Mid-Century Modern building was dedicated in 1964.
Even if you don’t like to hike or walk great distances, this building would warrant a visit to the Arboretum.
“Built in the early 1960s, the Administration Building is a melding of post war modernism with Asian influences, notably the koi pool that surrounds it.”U.S. National Arboretum
Parker gives me the canine tour, which involves stopping and sniffing as we circle the koi pool. Then we round the corner to the entrance. A startling sight awaits us.
In the midst of the grey winter, the branches of a Beni-kawa (Japanese maple) tree raise their limbs as if to embrace the elements. They are a lavender flame set against the white clouds lumbering across the sky. Soon winter’s snow will vanish and spring will arrive.
“One winter morning Peter (substitute Parker) woke up and looked out the window. . . Crunch, crunch, crunch, his feet (paws) sank into the snow . . . Down fell the snow –plop! …”Ezra Jack Keats
Snowy Day Thoughts
Please leave comments about your favorite book or poem about snow! Our family’s favorite children’s book about winter is A Snowy Day written by Ezra Jack Keats. Read it if you want to experience the pure tactile joy of being a kid playing in a snowstorm.
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