Thursday, January 12, 2006

Wintersweet

With my folks gone and the flooring project on a bit of a hiatus, it's back to being a stay-at-home dad and all-around Monkey Daddy.

The Boy and I are reestablishing our routines, which he likes. (He would probably like his old routines with the Monkey Mama even better, but I try not to take it personally.) He is cutting another tooth, so his two big teeth are in progress and trying to join their lower jaw mates. Between that pain and the difference in routines , the Boy was a little fussy today and hard to feed. I braved a trip to the grocery store, and survived relatively unscathed.

It has been amazingly good weather: bright blue sky and brisk t-shirt temperatures (about 60). I think it is simply mandatory that I enjoy days like that. So it was off to the Arboretum.

I walked with the Boy in his sling, and the dog on leash. We walked to the Hickey Overlook, and took in some views of blasted, urban-industrial Northeast Washington. We climbed down and then down a rough trail through the Asian collection.

On the way, there was a large sprinkler head mounted at eye-level. (The kind that goes chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk WHIRRR!!! chuk-chuk-chuk-chuk WHIRRR!!!) It wasn't activated, so I took the opportunity to investigate the mechanism. The Boy watched me chuk it around a few times, and was engrossed himself. He lunged for it, and felt the metal. We moved on to greener pastures. Literally.

There were all kinds of neat plants. At this time of year, the low green ground cover species were the most appealing. I reached down and felt some of the springy plants, and the boy watched but was not moved to grasp any himself.

We found some fountain grass-looking stuff, and its bleached straw color was stark against even the meek green of plants in winter. I moved closer so that the boy could clutch the feathery part of the grass at eye-level. I didn't let him get close enough to put it in his mouth, though: the wind-born seedlings looked a little like a choking hazard. Onward.

The path evened out and wound through occasional structures and seating areas that were varying degrees of formal, natural, or Asian. I followed a slope down towards the Anacostia river, which was bright and nearly still, visible through the tree branches. It was close enough to hear the busy honking of a large flock of geese that were scattered on the surface of the river. It was very pretty, prettier than I expected of the Anacostia.

At one little clearing halfway down the slope, I stopped to take in a view of the river. I don't know when I became aware of it, but the open clearing seemed to be matched with fresher, headier air. I started to take deeper breaths, inhaling through my nose. Only then I perceived this incredibly fragrant scent. Then it was obvious that the world was filled with that scent, and that its perfume gave the air its vitalizing rush.

I traced the scent to three woody trees at the edge of the clearing, partway down the slope. At first glance their branches seemed nude, but on closer inspection they had large quantities of little yellow flowers! (Even though the weather has been unseasonably warm for a few days this January, I was not expecting blooms.)

In the interest of science, I plucked one of the thumbnail-sized flowers. Holding it under my nose didn't really intensify the smell. It just made it a little less ethereal, a little more obvious. It was strange, hard to describe. I put the flower under the Boy's nose, to no reaction. I crushed it under my nose, and then held the crushed petals under the Boy's nose. I liked it, but the boy drew back.

The tree was helpfully labeled. (Arboreta are good that way.) It was Chimonanthus praecox, common name Wintersweet. If I ever have some land, I would think about planting one someday. In a clearing I could walk to, to discover blooms and a wonderful scent even in the cold of winter.

Another dog walker tipped me off to the area between the Arboretum boundary and the river bank, a flat grassy area about 40 yards wide. I had often looked for a place at the arboretum where the dog could run off leash, and this was it.

Exiting a gate and closing it behind me, I kept the dog on leash at first: the geese. But the dog is a stick-fetching dog, not a bird-hunting dog, so off we went. The Boy was fascinated by the geese. I improvised a "baby sign" on the spot, a wavy number that referenced the shape of a gooseneck, and reinforced the words "goose" and "geese" a lot.

I told the Boy that the geese might not be there when we come back next time. So we would just have to enjoy the moment as it is. Then we found a trail and walked it.

Not for the first time on one of these outings, I kicked myself for not bringing the camcorder. The day was nice, the river was bright, and the geese were honking. Kind of like the time at the zoo when the juvenile gorillas were cavorting around, beating their chests, popping their lips, and jumping up to slap the plexiglas barrier right in front of us. Or the first time the Boy saw a giraffe. Honestly, I need to bring that thing along more often.

After a while, we walked back into the Arboretum and up the slope to the car. For a special treat for the Monkey Mama, we braved downtown traffic and picked her up from work. The three of us -- with the dog carrying on in back of the station wagon, to great laughter from the Boy -- headed home for dinner.

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