A July 2004 trip
to Washington, D.C. by Idler
Quote: You can spend thousands of dollars to catch glimpses of exotic wildlife on safari. Yet, you’ll spend next to nothing if you open your eyes to the equally exotic but less understood nearby world of insects. Join me as I go on a 'bug-hunting' safari.
Restaurant | "Teaism"
There are three Teaism locations in D.C., but the one handiest to the Mall is located on the corner of 8th and D street, NW. It’s an oasis for Congressional interns, college students, museum curators, and suchlike, a refreshing change of pace from the tourist-driven eateries on the Mall. The décor is peaceful, the lighting is dim, and, if you snag a spot by the koi pond, the sound of water is soothing.
Essentially Japanese in inspiration, but with a Pan-Asian cuisine, the concept behind Teaism is simple: offer the world’s best teas in a tranquil setting and provide affordable, choice foods to complement them. A gentle word of warning: don’t go here expecting to find the standard ‘chicken Caesar salad’ chain-restaurant fare. Instead, prepare yourself for something new. Be adventurous.
Recently, I sampled a drink intriguingly named "Zhen Zhou Pearls," also known as "Bubble Tea" in Taiwan. It’s a delightful tea-and-milk concoction that features pearl-sized dark tapioca balls and is served with an oversized straw large enough to sip them. Sound yucky? It’s not. Just barely sweetened and served over ice, it’s unexpectedly appealing, the soft, chewy pearls contrasting nicely with the milky tea.
The quintessential Teaism meal is, of course, the bento box. I’ve had salmon and chicken-based bento boxes here, the compartments containing a nice balance of salads, soy noodle dishes, and piquant slices of pickled ginger. There are also Tandoori items, such as Naan bread, though not the puffy Indian restaurant version but lightly brushed with oil and grilled. And I always have edamame, lightly steamed green soy beans served in their pods.
Try seaweed salad, a not too salty but undeniably so blend of chopped cellophane rice noodles, crisp seaweed, red pepper flakes, and sesame seeds. Faintly crunchy and rubbery at the same time, this is another dish that is more enjoyable than it sounds. A bigger surprise, however, is the sweet potato salad. When most Americans think ‘sweet potato,’ they think of something awash in brown sugar, butter, and, perhaps, marshmallow topping. Instead, imagine unalloyed chunks of cooked sweet potato, served chilled with a creamy fermented soy dressing.
That’s right. Fermented soy. Before wrinkling your nose in disgust, give it a try. It’s quite liberating, actually, and goes surprisingly well with Dragon Well green tea, my favorite (so far) of the twenty-five teas on offer.
Insider Tip: To get a feel for Washington’s culinary internationalism and sophistication, get at least a few blocks away from the Mall to dine.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on July 31, 2004
Teaism Penn Quarter
400 8th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
Attraction | "Invertebrates At The National Zoo"
But, as you might guess, the area of the National Zoo I find most interesting is devoted to invertebrates. Although ninety-nine percent of all species lack backbones, the zoo’s invertebrate display is modest. However, I enjoy it for several reasons. First, there is the pollinarium, filled with fluttering butterflies. I also can’t resist the immense spiny lobsters, ghostly colored anemones, and tank full of nautiluses.
Then there are the spiders. Not just the usual spider display – some poor red-kneed tarantula sulking in a terrarium -- but spiders out in the open, in an immense web that occupies a large, dark corner of one room.
They are Madagascar Golden Orb Spiders, Nephila madagascariensis, and the very sight of them sends some folks into a tizzy.
"Get away from there! Right now! Horrible things!" I heard one mother scream as her child drew close to the spider display. She yanked him away, obviously though needlessly agitated. This species is not aggressive and is basically web-bound. That is, they find it very difficult to walk anywhere but on a web. If you dare come close enough to observe – for they are indeed very impressive spiders, with long legs and substantial bodies – you’ll see that the ends of their finely-tapered legs have tiny hooks, not at all suited for terrestrial movement but exquisitely adapted for aerial life.
They need space – lots of it – since their webs are often more than six feet across. The thing that impressed me most the first time I saw this display was the cleverness of it. The zookeepers could pretty much trust that no one was going to touch or tamper with the web, given the fear people have of spiders.
Another thing I enjoy at the zoo is the landscaping. It’s more than just pretty, it’s local-species friendly. The area outside the invertebrate display, for example, is abuzz with bees and pollen-gathering insects among the buddleia, agastache, monarda, and other well-known butterfly attractants. Throughout the zoo, there are habitats suitable not just for the glamour mammals, such as the (to my mind rather dull) giant pandas, but for the frogs, bats, birds, snails, squirrels, and other local creatures that come unbidden – and remain encaged.
A cooling mist for the bipeds.
Insider Tip: The zoo opens at 6am, and early morning is an excellent time to visit. You’ll see many locals jogging and power-walking along the winding paths then. Less energetic folk coming in on the Metro are advised to get off at Cleveland Park, rather than the National Zoo stop. It’s no further from the zoo but is a downhill, rather than uphill, walk.
Smithsonian National Zoological Park (The National Zoo)
3001 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Attraction | "The Orkin Insect Zoo at the Natural History Museum"
It might seem odd that a company dedicated to exterminating insects does so much to help us understand them, but as the displays point out, the overwhelming majority of insects are innocuous or even beneficial. By viewing diverse habitats and live exhibits, visitors get a sense of the astonishing diversity of insect life. If some estimates are true, then there may be as many as 29 million undiscovered species of insects. They’re the most dominant life-forms on Earth, yet we know comparatively little about them. This is what excites me about insects: they represent the unknown and yet they’re omnipresent.
The Insect Zoo provides an opportunity to watch Smithsonian entomologists at work in a large glassed-in area where they raise and study insects. They’re hard at work behind the partition, but they periodically bring insects out to ‘interact’ with the public.
On one visit, a grandmotherly-looking woman was passing around Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Although cockroaches inspire only disgust in most people, soon she had a gaggle of fascinated kids (and a few stalwart adults) clustered around her taking turns gently holding the sleek 4-inch-long insects. When my turn came, I was surprised to feel how warm the cockroach was. I’d expected it to be cold and clammy.
"It’s warmer than me!" I exclaimed.
On another visit, silkworms and their cocoons were on display. I picked up a cocoon, marveling at its soft density. I learned a lot about silkworms that day talking with the curator with his box full of fat, mulberry-leaf-munching silkworms.
My personal favorites, though, are the jewel-like beetles. Though not alive, they are among the most vibrant things in the exhibit, with shimmering iridescent colors matched only by ‘blue morpho’ butterflies. Coleoptera (beetles) are by far my favorite order of insects.
The Insect Zoo can be crowded, especially in the afternoon, so come early or be resigned to moving at stroller gridlock pace. I always round out my visit with a look at ancient arthropods downstairs in the fossil displays -- reminders that while humans have been around some 100,000 years, insects, in their myriad forms, have existed for over 350,000,000 years.
Insider Tip: If looking at all the creepy-crawlies hasn’t made you lose your appetite, the Fossil Café, located behind the dinosaur and ancient sea life exhibits, is a relatively quiet corner of the museum. There you’ll find toothsome desserts as well as a range of snacks, coffees, teas, and juices.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on July 31, 2004
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
10th Street & Constitution Avenue NW
Attraction | "Insect Ecology: The National Botanic Garden"
Just steps from the Capitol Building, the National Botanic Garden has long been a favorite retreat on the Mall. One year, I recall, a section of the Conservatory was given over to an astounding display of orchids, while another exhibit was devoted carnivorous plants. Near the entryway, the Garden Court’s fountains and changing floral displays are an irresistible photo opportunity. The winter holidays are heralded with a riot of poinsettias, while red-white-and-blue plantings trumpet early July. At the heart of the renovated Conservatory, the "Jungle," with its towering palms and paths winding through lush tropical foliage, provides an otherworldly escape for busy legislator and casual tourist alike.
There’s far more to the Botanic Garden, though, than the Conservatory. Just across Independence Avenue lies Bartholdi Park, featuring a lovely fountain surrounded by gardens designed in a classical style. Future plans call for a three-acre National Garden next to the Conservatory at the very foot of the Capitol Building. Along with the gardens of the Smithsonian, National Gallery, and National Park Service, the revitalized Botanic Garden is yet another sign that downtown Washington is undergoing a landscaping and gardening renaissance.
My most recent trip to the National Botanic Garden was to hear a talk by Eric Grissell, author of Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology. Dr Grissell, a research entomologist with the Department of Agriculture, espouses a practical philosophy that advocates balance rather than absolute control in the garden. His basic message is this: insects are not merely pests that gardeners must fight -- they are an integral part of the ecology of the garden, and a good garden displays a richness of both plant and insect life.
It was easy to like Dr. Grissell’s message, which focuses on ‘letting it be’ rather than ‘having it MY way.’ Many gardeners are, simply put, control freaks. Yet the gardener "must ultimately face the garden on its terms or face the alternative of constant vigil or eventual ruin." As he amply demonstrated, there is simply no practical way to win the war with insects. Instead, by cultivating a diversity of plants and habitats, a healthy balance results as the insects, frogs, birds, and other garden dwellers establish equilibrium. In short, by accepting imperfection, we are rewarded with a far richer garden.
Outside the Botanic Garden, I was pleased to find an exhibit devoted largely to insects, The Great Pollinator Partnership, which runs through October 11, 2004. Twelve container ‘pollination gardens’ demonstrate the vital role of pollinators. The graceful displays on the theme ‘Dancing with Flowers,’ were particularly informative. Did you know, for example, that a butterfly garden should contain not just flowering plants but a moist salt lick as well?
Insider Tip: The Botanic Garden stays open until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. The walk from the Capitol South metro provides wonderful views of the Capitol Building and grounds en route.
United States Botanic Garden
100 Maryland Avenue SW
Now, I know perfectly well that most visitors don’t come to the Mall to visit gardens. I’m not suggesting that the Smithsonian museums will ever be upstaged by a fine display of perennials. But I’d like to coax would-be visitors into some of the many lovely gardens that have sprung up in recent years, places where the weary museum goer can regroup or sit quietly for a few moments. And the Mall’s gardens, well, they’re just a few paces away from the Hope Diamond, a Gutenberg Bible, the Declaration of Independence and other splendors of Washington.
One of the most charming and best-known gardens, the Enid A. Haupt Garden, lies directly behind the Smithsonian Castle. The most frequently photographed and visited garden, it’s a rather Victorian-looking affair that is of a piece with the Castle, full of busy, formal-patterned plantings that are changed faithfully throughout the season – pansies and tulips in early spring, then perhaps salvias and petunias in the summer, culminating with the invariable late-fall and winter standbys, ornamental kales and cabbages.
To one side of the Haupt Parterre, with its hooped wrought-iron railings, floral parterres, and ornate urns, is a soothing ‘Island Garden’ patterned on the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Here water is the predominate feature, with the contrast of rock and water symbolizing nature’s basic components.
This garden lies just outside the Sackler Gallery, which is devoted to Asian art. Oh, and this reminds me that the courtyard of the Sackler’s sister museum, the Freer, is another wonderful retreat. The spare aesthetic of the Asian collections in these galleries provides a refreshing antidote to the bloated sense of ‘too much’ that results from a steady diet of the larger Smithsonian museums.
On the other side of the Haupt Parterre, brick paths wind through a series of small ornamental trees and plantings in front of the Arts & Industries Building. This is one of the lesser-visited Smithsonian Museums, and, in truth, there isn’t much to draw the casual visitor inside, but the area just outside the side entrance is charming, with 19th-century benches set in shady corners and small fountains tinkling in the sunshine. Birds gather here to bathe in the granite channels of water. It is, in my estimation, one of the nicest spots on the Mall.
Of course, now that I think of it, there are several other spots that vie for ‘favorite’ status. One is the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, wedged in a narrow passage between the Hirschhorn Museum and the Arts and Industries Building. (Washington is rife with places named after wealthy donors, as you may have noticed, but this is better than naming everything after Ronald Reagan, which is another unfortunate tendency.)
The Livingston Garden has a sinuous charm, with serpentine paths that make the most of the narrow strip of land between the two buildings. It invariably has a few entertaining botanical oddities, that give rise to "Gee, what’s that?" comments from passers-by. Intensively planted with an unmatched diversity of plants, this is another choice spot on the Mall with a wonderful ‘tucked away’ feel.
There is a rose garden (The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden, to be precise…yes, another donor) in front of the Arts & Industries building, but I have to confess that I’ve never cared for formal rose gardens at all. Roses have to be combined in a more naturalistic setting to have the least bit of charm for me, and, besides, there’s no ‘out of the way’ quality to this patch of intensely colored, much-pruned, sprayed, and pampered floribundas.
There is a Victory Garden on one side of the American History Building, and the Heirloom Garden runs along all sides of the building, but these gardens, to my mind, suffer a bit from the attempt to educate. There is nothing more depressing than a garden that has palpable designs on you, and so I make no further commentary on these well meaning but essentially dull affairs.
A garden which is beginning to come into its own, in terms of plantings, is the Sculpture Garden set between the Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery’s West Building. (I might add, too, that the wisteria vines that bloom in the spring along the front of the National Gallery are, to my mind, the most spectacular plants on the Mall. Yes, I even prefer them to the much-vaunted cherry trees.) Where was I? Oh, yes, the Sculpture Garden.
Now, I have to say up front that some of the sculptures in the Sculpture Garden hold no appeal for me whatsoever. Other pieces, such as Roy Lichtenstein’s optically tricky ‘house’ and Calder’s boisterous abstract ‘horse’ are utterly charming. But in the summer the thing that attracts me here are the masses of white-flowering shrubs and small trees, particularly Hydrangea paniculata and crape myrtles, no doubt some wonderful hybrids from the National Arboretum. I do love a white garden – I do, I do, I do – having been smitten by Vita Sackville West’s white garden at Sissinghurst decades ago. I’ve been an utter ‘white’ devotee ever since.
It takes a certain skill and panache to carry off a white garden, though, and in the case of the Sculpture Garden, the designer has wisely not attempted an all-white scheme. No. This wouldn’t work with the yellows, blues, and reds of the surrounding artwork. But, somehow, it still has the pristine feel of a ‘white garden.’
There is another sculpture garden, which I think is a bit more of a success in terms of actual sculpture, in front of the Hirschhorn Museum. Plants are really secondary to sculpture here, but there are some lovely witch hazels and tulip magnolias that are particularly fine backdrops in the late winter and early spring when not much else is happening horticulturally. The Hirschhorn garden is divided into six separate rooms and feels ‘sunken’ beneath the Mall, though really it is the surrounding walls and position of the Hirschhorn on higher ground that gives this illusion. This is a lovely place to come in the winter, when snow decks the burnished black Miro sculpture and there are few people out braving the chill.
Did I say anything about insects yet? Well, you knew it was only a matter of time. There is a delightful Butterfly Habitat Garden alongside the Natural History Museum, set along a narrow passageway that unfortunately is right next to the 395 entrance tunnel so that the sound of traffic is quite relentless. But it is a noble effort, nonetheless, and I’ve spotted a surprising number of butterflies here, as well as fat, saucy mockingbirds who no doubt make mincemeat of whatever flies, buzzes, or flutters through the area.
Mockingbird in the Butterly Garden
These beautiful outdoor spaces provide just the respite needed for visitors to the Mall. When your mind is weary and your feet are sore – and I assure you, they will be if you attempt more than one Smithsonian museum in a single day – seek out these tranquil ‘garden rooms’ to escape the bustle of downtown Washington.
Insider Tip: Free jazz concerts are held every Friday evening from 5 to 8 during the summer in the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden. Bring a blanket to sit upon or cool your feet in the large circular fountain, if you like, but coolers or brought-in alcoholic beverages are not permitted. However, you can purchase a light meal or refreshments from the rather nice Pavilion Café if you’re looking to make a dinner connection or would simply like a glass of wine.
This is primarily an outdoor pursuit, although I find sometimes there is scope indoors as well. There’s a ‘no kill’ rule for spiders in our house, though the wasps that wander in from some attic crevice are a trickier business, necessitating a relocation method using a clear plastic cup and sheet of thin cardboard.
In the garden there are ample opportunities to observe insects, but there are just as many occasions to be annoyed with them. The predatory Chinese mantids might be fascinating, but the depredations their Asian kin, the Japanese beetles, are less amusing. After an early period of frenzied spraying – which did little to curb the ravages of thrips and other assorted villains – I gave myself over wholeheartedly to tending a ‘natural’ garden, though a less-flattering term I’ve heard for this practice is ‘lazy.’ But to my mind I have taken the horticultural high road, determined not to let any damage that insects inflict perturb me. The joy of observing butterflies and other insects is more than ample compensation.
By far the most satisfactory places to entomologize (if that is a word, and I think it should be) are meadows and forests. And, as luck would have it, I spend a lot of time wandering the countryside on horseback, which gives me plenty of opportunity to observe insects throughout the seasons. In fact, I’ve come to think there’s no better place to observe nature in all its forms than from the back of a horse.
For the past thirteen years, I’ve ridden a friend’s Morgan horse during the weekdays when he’s too busy to do so. Oakie’s thirty-one now, an age most horses never achieve, but Morgans are a tough, long-lived breed. We still take our thrice-weekly forays into the gently rolling Maryland countryside, though at a more stately pace these days, with a lot less trotting and cantering. Morgans, once the staple of the American cavalry, are ideal trail horses. You can keep your fine-boned Arabs, high-stepping Standardbreds, and flashy Thoroughbreds. Give me a horse that’s sound, safe, and simple; in short, give me a Morgan.
"Where to, boss?"
Over the years of mostly solitary hacks, Oakie and I have come to a near-perfect understanding of and tolerance for each other’s preferences and oddities. I know, for example, that while he is unfazed by almost everything that terrifies other horses, that large birds such as vultures, crows, or geese flying low overhead will startle him. He will shy at a hawk, but luckily I subliminally pick up on this fear and shy simultaneously in the same direction. This is probably the reason I’ve never fallen off (knock on wood), though if I did, I have every confidence that he’d stand apologetically and wait for me to get back on.
If we’re not going very far, I often ride bareback, a comfortable arrangement as I dislike keeping my feet in stirrups. Since I sometimes carry a camera with me and need both hands free for photography, Oakie has learned to respond to a set of idiosyncratic non-rein aids, with gentle thumps of my boots on his sides to guide him and a low downward humming sound to indicate he’s to stop altogether. On his part, Oakie has trained me to swat horseflies by coming to a dead stop the moment one lands on him. Our all-time horsefly record on a single hack is nine, though that’s nine kills and god knows how many misses. My amnesty towards spiders and wasps obviously does not extend to horseflies. Once bitten by one, it becomes abundantly clear why horses buck wildly to dislodge them.
During our travels, I’ve seen some odd entomological phenomena, but none stranger than the massive cloud of ladybugs that suddenly enveloped us one afternoon in a field. If any insect is universally liked, it’s the ladybug, but when there are thousands of them swirling in a cyclone pattern, it’s a bit unnerving. Oakie thought so, too, and trotted out of the insect swarm post haste, though for a mile or so afterward I was brushing stray beetles from my hair, his mane, and other places they’d lodged.
This was an epic year for insects on the East Coast as the 17-year cicadas emerged in May in their billions to set up an eerie, extraterrestrial-sounding mating serenade that drowned out all other noises, even in the city. Washington-area residents quickly divided into two camps: the cicada haters and the cicada lovers.
It goes without saying that I was a pro-cicada, but, alas, Oakie was not. With its buzzing, kamakazi flight, the cicada sounds and looks very much like the dreaded horsefly. Oakie was convinced that’s precisely what every cicada was. Rides through the woods became seriocomic affairs, as he’d stop dead every time a cicada got near him --and there were often hundreds of them whizzing through the air. Attempting to teaching him that these bugs were not going to bite involved an unsuccessful de-conditioning campaign. I, of course, was keen to observe the red-eyed brood up close.
One tree in particular was astir with masses of cicadas for several weeks, with as many as four or five of them on a single twig. As we approached the tree, the din they made was, I admit, unnerving. Oakie signaled his displeasure in all the standard equine ways: tossing his head, backing up or stepping sideways, snorting and swishing his tail in agitation, and generally not holding still for two seconds, which accounts for this rather blurry photo of the insect in question.
If he is less than thrilled with cicadas, though, Oakie’s a trooper when it comes to spiders. Riding through the woods during what I call ‘spider season’ – roughly late July through September – involves passing through innumerable gossamer strands the new spider hatchlings spin at roughly horse level across the width of our favorite trails. I know squeamish riders who will not essay this arachnid gauntlet, but I am more amazed than disgusted by their spiderly acrobatics. In particularly dense areas, I wave a riding crop before me to clear a path, and Oakie sensibly understands that I don't intend to hit him with it. Try waving a crop around while riding a green horse and see how quickly you set a record for an unscheduled dismount.
July is a wonderful month for insect observation. The butterflies are at their peak, and after a sudden shower during a dry spell brings them out by the hundreds in fields brimming with red clover, Joe Pye weed, butterfly weed, milkweed, and bindweed. All the much-maligned ‘weeds,’ in fact, are prime butterfly attractants. Sadly, there have been progressively fewer monarchs about than in previous years, testimony to the ravages of their winter homes in Mexico.
When the grasshoppers and assorted orthopteroids reach their full growth in August, they make a whirring susurration as they leap aside at our approach. Some of these locusts are of biblical proportions. Occasionally a particularly athletic specimen lands on Oakie’s mane or my thigh and that, of course, makes me wish I’d brought a collecting jar to capture it.
When we’ve finished our hack and Oakie’s had his bath, I bring him out to graze on a lush patch of clover just outside the barn, his reward for a job well done. This is perhaps my favorite time, as I lounge in the grass, meditating on the steady hnncch, hnnch, hnnch of his grazing and the accompanying hum of bumblebees plundering the clover. I think of nothing in particular, reduced to "a green thought in a green shade." Without intentionally searching, I invariably spot a four-leaf clover or two, and though I’m not superstitious, I like to keep these clovers pressed in a book of poetry. I found a clover the other day and later carelessly opened the book to press it. Out cascaded four-leaf clovers by the dozens, relics of peaceful mornings and warm afternoons spent in the quiet company of my good friend and steadfast companion.
Can you spot the four-leaf clover?
Check It Out: By a happy coincidence, many entomologists are also engaging writers. I’ve compiled a list at of my favorite books on bugs at Amazon.com entitled, Small Wonders.