Dig for Elephants


Eat your heart out, Boston! We have our own Big Dig in Washington, DC, at the National Zoo, and ours has elephants in it! Well, maybe it’s not quite as Big. But it’s certainly been transforming the core of the zoo for the past fifteen years—on every visit you have to navigate construction equipment and major piles of dirt, although not always the same piles—and it ain’t over yet.

First we got big splashy Amazonia Habitat with its science gallery; then Think Tank, for research into primate (as opposed to primary) education, with the crowd-wowing outdoor overhead O-Line for the use of orangutans when they decide to move between buildings. This was followed by completely redesigned panda exhibits to welcome for their honeymoon a new young panda couple, parents of hugely popular Tai Shan. Then came Asia Trail, with its green roofs, convincingly sculpted rocks, and several new endangered species for the zoo’s species preservation program.

Now the major project under way is Elephant Trails, a research and breeding program to preserve the endangered Asian elephant, which will provide an expanded herd with a more natural and environmentally friendly environment. Phase 1 opened this summer, and on a recent walk I had a look at the elephants munching breakfast near a big new stepped pond, in well-kept rolling grassy fields, like a high-end retirement home. I don’t know what the elephants think, but I’m ready to move in. You can learn more about it at the zoo’s website, and even make a donation and get your name on a plaque.


The pond in the Bishop’s Garden, from a series of paintings at Washington National Cathedral. And a poem.

The Name of a Fish
If winter is a house then summer is a window
in the bedroom of that house. Sorrow is a river
behind the house and happiness is the name

of a fish who swims downstream. The unborn child
who plays in the fragrant garden is named Mavis:
her red hair is made of future and her sleek feet

are wet with dreams. The cat who naps
in the bedroom has his paws in the sun of summer
and his tail in the moonlight of change. You and I

spend years walking up and down the dusty stairs
of the house. Sometimes we stand in the bedroom
and the cat walks towards us like a message.

Sometimes we pick dandelions from the garden
and watch the white heads blow open
in our hands. We are learning to fish in the river

of sorrow; we are undressing for a swim.

— Faith Shearin

The Man with the Plan


Here is a drawing from our homeschooling Local History and Geography book, in honor of Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825), whose birthday it is today. Because of other obligations I cannot give him the lengthy post he deserves, but I hope to do him justice in 2011.

L’Enfant, an artist and son of an artist, came from France with the Marquis de Lafayette, as most Washingtonians probably know, to fight alongside the American colonists for independence, and later, having impressed the General with his battlefield sketches, was appointed by George Washington to design the United States’ new capital, Washington, DC. He created a a plan which was unfulfilled during his lifetime and has been only incompletely followed since, but which nevertheless gives us today this lovely and unusual city.

L’Enfant examined a quiet, hilly site of woodland, meadow, and marsh, uninhabited but for a handful of farms and the tiny port of Georgetown, and visualized an orderly grid overlaid by wide diagonal avenues allowing for long vistas, designed to incorporate stately public buildings, canals, bridges, squares, parks, and monuments: not simply a new bureaucratic center, but a Grand Capital for a young, energetic New Nation.

He had also a number of sensible, intelligent ideas as to how construction of the new city might have been financed, which were unfortunately never followed. Reading about the snail-like early development of the city, its wrangling political factions, its stodgy unimaginative Commissioners, and its greedy unscrupulous speculators, would make your hair stand on end. It also sounds uncomfortably familiar.

In the midst of it L’Enfant and Washington kept before them the vision of a finished work. Along the way L’Enfant, a hot-headed and demonstrative fellow, offended any number of people by vehemently defending his plans against unattractive provincial alterations (like any artist worth his salt) to the point of knocking down a new house that intruded on one of the proposed avenues. Not the way to keep your job. Which he finally lost after an exasperated Washington could no longer defend him against his many critics. L’Enfant remained bitter about his treatment—he was never paid for his work, although others made considerable sums through its implementation—and spent his remaining years as the poverty-stricken guest of a kind friend in rural Maryland, to be buried finally in their garden.

He has since been removed to a more honorable site in Arlington Cemetery, overlooking the city that finally rose to meet his expectations. Happy Birthday, Pierre, and I hope you are enjoying the view.


From my sketchbook, the fountain in the courtyard of the Freer Gallery of Art, a quiet place to sit and meditate (and wish you were in that pool). And a verse for Sunday.


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

— Philip Larkin

Mountain Woman Part 2

Continued from Mountain Woman Part 1, August 5

Believing that women ought to share the responsibilities as well as the rights of men, Julia requested to take her turn at the night watch, but was refused. She wrote of the guard master, “He believes that woman is an angel without any sense, needing the legislation of her brothers to keep her in her place, that, restraint removed, would immediately usurp his position and no longer be an angel but unwomanly.”


After a journey of about a month, the wagon train reached the foot of the mountains near present-day Colorado Springs and set up camp. Above them loomed Pikes Peak, which had been named for U.S. Army officer Zebulon Pike, who had come upon it in 1806, tried to climb it, and failed. (“No human being could have ascended to its pinacle [sic],” he wrote.) Despite his failure, the mountain was named for him, giving him an A for effort. In 1820 a group of government explorers finally made it to the top.

On August 1st, 1858, Julia Holmes, her husband, and two other men set out to climb Pikes Peak. The four of them carried heavy packs with food and bedding, as well as writing materials and a volume of Emerson, whom Julia admired. They had a difficult time of it, misjudging the route (no trails! no friendly National Park Service blazes!) and once running out of water. But each night, as they camped among snow-covered rocks or beside waterfalls or in a nest of spruce branches, Julia described her impressions in her journal.

When they finally reached the 14,110-foot peak on August 5th, they wrote their names on a boulder (tsk, tsk). Then Julia read aloud to the group a poem by Emerson, and stretched out upon a broad flat rock to write letters to her friends. (“Hi! You’ll never guess where I am!”) Her Pikes Peak climb gave her the nickname “Bloomer Girl.”

After that the party separated for various destinations. When Lincoln was elected President, Julia’s husband was appointed Secretary of the Territory of New Mexico, where Julia became a correspondent for The New York Tribune. She had four children, only two surviving to adulthood. Afterward they moved back East and eventually to Washington DC, where they divorced (mysteriously, and unusual for the time), and she—now a bilingual Spanish speaker—worked as chief of the Division of Spanish Correspondence for the Bureau of Education.

Like her mother, she was active in the women’s suffrage movement. After women in Wyoming and Utah Territories gained the right to vote in 1869 and 1870, women suffragists elsewhere showed up at their polls to vote, in a combination of optimism and protest; Julia Archibald Holmes is on record as one of 73 women who in 1871 made the attempt (unsuccessfully) to register to vote in Washington, DC.

As far as we know, she never climbed another geographical mountain, but she certainly scaled several metaphorical ones.

CakeWeddingTrish & Jason


Mountain Woman Part 1


Imagine that you are a little girl born in a village in North America in the early 19th century. You, like the other village girls and their mothers, help maintain a family farm: growing vegetables, cooking, scrubbing, making clothes. You might see your destiny as a farmer’s wife, raising children to follow in your footsteps.

But perhaps your mother is also an advocate for women’s suffrage, and your father is a fierce abolitionist, which might give you a somewhat different perspective on your life. This was the parentage of Julia Archibald (1838-1887), later Julia Archibald Holmes, born in the village of Noël, Nova Scotia, in 1838. And today, August 5th, is the anniversary of the day she became the first woman to reach the top of Pikes Peak, Colorado, when she was twenty years old.

When Julia was about ten, the family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts (where her mother became friends with Susan B. Anthony). But they didn’t stay there long. Slavery had been abolished in Canada in 1834, but there was a growing anti-slavery movement in the United States, and Kansas was the place in which the Archibalds decided to support it. They had a mission.

A series of treaties had declared Kansas to be Indian Territory, and a number of Native American tribes had been removed from their eastern lands and resettled there. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of westward-bound pioneers followed trails that passed through the territory, and by 1850 settlers were squatting along the trails and elsewhere in Kansas. Pressure from these land-hungry folks led eventually to (familiar story) the creation of new treaties, the removal of tribes to areas yet further west, and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, opening the area officially to settlement.

It was not only Native American tribes who were unhappy about this. Slave-state Southerners were displeased that the decision about the existence of slavery in the new territory was to be left to its residents. So, as you might guess, both advocates and opponents of slavery rushed into Kansas, each staking out territory and hastily setting up local provisional governments and institutions that were attacked by both sides, setting off several years of violence that foreshadowed the Civil War.

The Archibalds settled in Lawrence, Kansas, a center of controversy, and their house became a way station on the Underground Railroad. In Lawrence Julia met James Holmes, a veteran of John Brown’s campaigns. Apparently he was fiery and dedicated; she was handsome and spirited; there were certainly similarities of background. They were married in 1857.

But they didn’t stick around in Kansas for the resolution of the national conflict. The following year they joined a wagon train headed for Colorado, where gold had been discovered. And a lot of other excited Kansans were doing the same thing. Not many gold-seekers actually found what they sought, but their immigration resulted in the founding in Colorado of towns, businesses, churches, and probably plenty of saloons, as well as a rapid dramatic increase in its population.

According to Julia’s journal, their own party was driven more by “a desire to cross the plains and behold the great mountain chain of Noth America” than to search for gold. She acquired what she deemed a sensible traveling outfit: hat, moccasins, short calico dress, and bloomers. Bloomers had been recently introduced to the public by women’s suffragists as more sensible than skirts.

Her choice of clothing gave Julia the freedom to walk beside the covered wagons instead of riding. She improved her stamina by deliberately increasing her daily distance, and she recorded her observations of wildflowers, landscape, and skies in her journal. The only other woman on the trip disapproved of Julia’s unconventional garb and stayed in her wagon, thus missing most of the scenery. (Like my children, with noses in their books when we travel. “Look! Look out the window!”)

To Be Continued—Please see August 6/Mountain Woman Part 2

Sunset Serenade at the Zoo

This is a heads-up that the LAST National Zoo Sunset Serenade of the summer takes place tomorrow night—Thursday, August 5th (weather permitting), from 6:30 to 8pm. If you have never attended any of these free outdoor concerts, then this is your last chance (this summer, anyway) to pack a picnic dinner and join the fun on Lion-Tiger Hill. The evening usually ends with spontaneous barefoot dancing. According to the Zoo website, tomorrow’s group is The Grandsons, performing from their WAMMIE Roots Rock-winning albums.


From Milkweed to Monarch

While house-sitting for friends in Massachusetts, we took care of Flute, their parakeet, and two caterpillars in the dining room. The caterpillars lived on fresh milkweed leaves from the garden. And they sure put away a lot of leaves, chewing audibly beside us during mealtime (and apparently all the rest of the time).

One day they stopped eating and attached themselves to the side of the terrarium, quiet yet pulsating, and seeming to shrink inwardly, their festive green and yellow bodies growing dark and shriveled. I stayed up as late as I could and finally had to crash. In the morning those discarded husks lay on the floor, each replaced by a gleaming jewel-like chrysalis.

Flute was a much jollier and more sociable companion, riding about on our shoulders and chatting throughout the day, but the caterpillars were a (mostly) silent reminder of the daily small miracles that surround us.



Illegal Immigration

This cartoon is bizarrely appropriate for today, because it is the birthday of the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), whose most famous work, Liberty Enlightening the World, is known to us as the Statue of Liberty. I plan a lengthier post about him in 2011. Thank you and Happy Birthday, Frédéric. May your sculpture continue her courageous task of enlightenment.

Below: Illegal immigration is an issue that apparently remains unresolved in Virginia. And elsewhere.