Butterflies, Gems, & Friends

On Friday last, a friend, my husband, and I took a daytrip downtown to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.  Our objective was to take the DC Metro down to Metro Center, have lunch at M&S Grill, stroll down to the Natural History Museum and spend a leisurely afternoon checking out the Butterfly Pavilion.  It was a good plan and it worked out splendidly.  It turned out to be a gorgeous although cool day and perfect for a trip downtown.

Well, we did get off to a bit of a rocky start – the Metro train was waiting at the station and so we jumped into the first car just as the bing-bong alarm signaled the door was closing.  And, of course, the first car was filled to the gills.  I had hoped rush hour would be over but guess it goes longer than I had remembered.  But, like seasoned pros, we hopped off at the first stop and got on the second car where there were plenty of seats and we could relax our way into the Capitol.  And, it is open today – no Government shut-downs threatened for a few more months.  I often wonder what other countries think of this country with its political disagreements and airing of dirty laundry on world-wide TV.  I have heard it said that democracy isn’t pretty and I would have to agree – nope, not pretty at all – but so much better than the alternatives.  But I digress.

HamiltonBack on track (no Metro pun intended), we soon found ourselves outside Metro Center only to discover that the M&S Grill had closed down.  Backup plan needed pronto.  No problem. This is the Capitol of the whole United States and there are restaurants everywhere so we headed on down the street to The Hamilton.  We were early but that worked to our advantage because we didn’t have reservations.  And The Hamilton is a beautiful restaurant – think gentleman’s lodge or club or something like that – no, not the stripper kind – I mean the aristocratic kind you read about in books.  The Hamilton is all white table cloths, crystal, leather upholstery, wood paneling, beautiful nature prints on the walls, soothing lighting and impeccable service – not to mention delicious food.  Lunch was pretty darned good, if I must say so myself and I’m glad the M&S was closed come to think of it.

Smithsonian 2Out of the restaurant, down a few blocks and over a couple more and we found ourselves in front of the Natural History Museum.  We were getting close on the time so we headed straight up to the second floor and into the IMAX Theater.  We were given our nifty humongous red 3D glasses and found ourselves nice seats in the upper middle of the stadium style seating.  I had worried about things being a bit too crowded on a Friday but ‘twas not the case. And minutes later, the movie began.

Flight posterThe Flight of the Butterflies (filmed in 3D) tells the story of the annual migration cycle of the monarch butterfly and of Dr. Fred Urquhart and Norah Urquhart, the scientists who studied the monarchs and discovered that monarchs do migrate and documented that migration path from the eastern US and Canada to Central Mexico.  The mystery of the scientists’ lifelong study (40 years plus) to be solved was to find out where the monarchs went in winter.  Dr. and Mrs. Urquhart developed a system of tagging the butterflies and enlisted volunteers everywhere (citizen scientists) to find and tag monarchs. They formed the Insect Migration Association which is still active today as the Monarch Watch.  Ultimately, with the help of a couple in Mexico, Ken Brugger and Catalina Aguado, the winter home of the monarchs was discovered in the Transvolcanic Belt of Central Mexico.  The film was good.  I loved the 3D effects when the movie was showing the butterflies.   I especially loved the feeling that you could reach out and touch the butterflies that seemed to be flying throughout the movie theater. But, otherwise, I thought the 3D effect was somewhat wasted on other scenes and sometimes the panning of the camera gave my stomach a little lurch so that I thought I might get a little seasick.  There is a small fee (about $8) for the movie but I thought it was worth it.

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After the movie, we headed on over to the Butterfly Pavilion.  Now it has been some time since I visited one of the Smithsonian Museums and I am always amazed and overwhelmed at the size of the Institute and the museums.   When I was in elementary school, the highlight of the each school year was a field trip.  I remember two.  One was a trip to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.  Being Atlanta, going to see Coca ColaTM might be a bit obvious but, for us, the highlight was getting an ice cold CokeTM and a little souvenir after the tour. I do not remember much about the tour but I do remember that CokeTM at the end and the little brass CokeTM key chain that I kept for many years. The other field trip I remember well was the trip to the Museum at Emory University which had an Egyptian exhibit that included a real live mummy.  Now, of course, by definition, mummies are not alive but one never says “real” without “live” when one is in the fifth grade and wanting to emphasize something truly stupendous….believe you me, it was a real live mummy and nothing at all like the mummies in the horror movies that showed on the Friday Night Midnight Shocker each week.  The mummy at Emory was all orangey and dirty looking – not a bit of clean white gauze anywhere.  Other than these two and other art galleries and museums over the years, I have never visited a museum that is even close in size to the Smithsonian.

smithsonian1We always talk about the Institute as if it were just one big museum.  It is not.  The Smithsonian Institute (SI), founded in 1846, is, in fact, the world’s largest museum and research complex.  It is huge and includes nineteen (19) separate museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine (9) research facilities. The Smithsonian had more than 30.3M (yep, that’s million) visitors in 2012 and includes over 137M objects, artwork, & specimens and more than 8.45M digitized records.  So, when someone says they are going to the Smithsonian while they are in town, you might want to suggest that they narrow down the itinerary a bit.  For this visit, we are, as noted above, at the Natural History Museum. Other museums routinely visited by tourists in town for a week or so would include the American History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and just maybe they might squeeze in one of the art galleries or maybe the American Indian Museum.   (For the complete listing – http://www.si.edu/Museums )

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And I am no less amazed on this visit although we are limiting our time to seeing the IMAX movie and seeing the Butterfly Pavilion.  One thing that really amazes me is that there is this climate controlled, separate vault of sorts right smack dab in the middle of the second floor of the museum.  We have visited butterfly gardens and houses before but none in the middle of another museum like this.  It is not huge but it is big enough and is filled with a good assortment of tropical butterflies.  No monarchs in the pavilion as they are native to the area and a month ago, you could probably see them outside the museum in the butterfly garden.  Of the butterflies in the pavilion, I (just like everyone else) was captivated by the Blue Morpho.  Unfortunately, the two Morphos that I saw just would not perch for even a moment so that I could get a photograph.  So you’ll have to be content with what photos I managed to capture. Again, there is a small fee ($6) for entering the Pavilion…..otherwise, the Natural History Museum is free.

group photo 5Not wanting to leave exactly yet, I suggested that we look in on the gems & jewels exhibit and strolled into what I thought was the gem display area.  My husband kindly advised me that I had wandered into the souvenir shop for gems and was not actually in the display area.  (Silly me.)  But that tells you how big the place is overall…..the souvenir shop was pretty danged big.   We found the Rocks and Gemstones area and spent some time meandering through the exhibit.  We would have been there hours had we stopped to read every sign or look at every rock or crystal or gemstone in the place.  We did stop to touch the oldest known rock (gneiss) on Earth at 3.96B years old. (And, yes, you can touch it – look at the sign beside the rock. It says “please touch”.)

Oldest Rock

And the crystals simply fascinated me – they are so very lovely. I wondered about people who attribute special powers to crystals and ancient tribes who felt that they could use crystals to communicate with the gods.  My husband notes that early radios used crystals that vibrated at a particular frequency to facilitate radio communications.  So maybe there was something to the old legends and stories after all. (Go to Wikipedia and search for crystal radio and read the article – rudimentary but organic materials needing no power source to build a passive radio receiver.  Food for thought – you couldn’t talk to the gods but they could talk to you or to your high priest.)group photo 6

No visit to the gems exhibit at Natural History would be complete without seeing the Hope Diamond.  I mean it was just right there and would take only a few moments to slip through the doorway and take a quick look.  Well, it was a bit more crowded in there than I had realized and nothing is every easy but we did got in to see the Diamond without too much trouble.  I’m afraid my photo is not too good as it was taken relatively quickly as the display rotated the necklace around so that it could be seen from all sides of the exhibit and the gem looked a little dirty on this day…but it was very impressive at 42.52 carats.  It is known more for its flawless clarity, blue color, and history more so than for its size.

Hope DiamondThinking about history, the hope diamond existed more than a billion years ago – before dinosaurs and before humans. It was discovered sometime around 1668 (before the United States) in India.  It was originally about 112 carats which was cut down to 67 1/8 while owned by Louis XIV.  It was lost for about 20 years after the French Revolution and later showed up in England.  You can read the full history here.  The Hope Diamond is surrounded by 16 white diamonds and held by a platinum chain with another 46 diamonds….quite a piece of jewelry. There is a funny story about it that shows how the uber-wealthy do not think the same way as us poor hicks do. It is said that one of the last owners before the stone was donated to the Institute kept the necklace hidden under the seat cushions on the sofa for safe-keeping and has a photo of her dog wearing the necklace. Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity – nothing special about this old thing – it’s been hanging around the house for years.

Quite a necklace, quite a story, and quite an interesting day.

If you would like more information about Flight of the Butterflies and the Smithsonian Butterfly Pavilion and Museums:

Smithsonian Institute:  http://www.si.edu/

Natural History Museum: http://www.si.edu/Museums/natural-history-museum

IMAX Theaters: http://www.si.edu/imax/

Flight of the Butterflies site at Smithsonian:  http://www.si.edu/Imax/Movie/71

Butterfly Pavilion: http://spotabutterfly.com/

Video of Butterfly Pavilion: http://www.voanews.com/content/exhibit_highlights_butterfly_beauty_diversity_value_to_ecosystem/1629981.html

Flight of the Butterflies Movie Site: http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/home/

Flight of the Butterflies – Secrets of Filming:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Majz0IAc9Lw

Free Book for children – ITunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/flight-butterflies-enhanced/id620240557?mt=11

SI Gems and Rocks:  http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth/text/2_0_0.html

Hope Diamond: http://mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm

History of the Hope Diamond: http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth/text/2_1_1_1.html

Dr. Fred Urquhart and Norah Urquhart:  http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/discovery-story/

Wikipedia Crystal Radio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_radio

Visit to a National Garden

I visited a garden this week.  It was a garden with few flowers although the trees and grass are quite beautiful in the dappled sunlight.  It has been called a garden of stones…..gravestones.   The garden is officially closed right now because it belongs to the Federal Government and is closed now as Congress and the Executive Branch disagree over the nation’s budget and funding.  But the garden is not really closed…at least one veteran will be admitted today.

The Old ChapelThis is Arlington National Cemetery and I am here for the funeral of a friend – a West Point graduate, Vietnam War veteran, career military man. He died several months ago and now we’ve come to honor him and pay last respects at Arlington.  I wait with everyone else in the parking lot in front of The Old Chapel.  Funerals for war casualties and veterans have been conducted in this chapel since it was built in the 1930’s.  I find myself pondering all the military men and women buried here at Arlington – how many funerals have been held here and how many different wars are represented by this place.  I look across the hills and I am struck by the rows of markers….

There are just so many of them.

arlington rowsArlington National Cemetery covers about 624 acres and has been used as a cemetery for war casualties, veterans, and their families since the American Civil War.  It is located on the site that was originally the home, Arlington Hall, and estate of Mary Anna Custis Lee – great granddaughter of Martha Washington and wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  But every school child in America knows that Robert E. Lee wasn’t always a Confederate general. Originally he was also a graduate of West Point Military Academy and an officer in the United States Army before the United States split into two and the Civil War began. He was offered the post of commander of the Armies of the Potomac at the start of the Civil War but, conflicted within himself about the war and loyal to his home, Lee wrote to his wife that he could not fight against the Commonwealth of Virginia. He resigned his commission on April 20, 1861 and became the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and, ultimately, the commander of all the Confederate military forces.

Arlington HallWar brings strong emotions to the surface and, once he left to join the Confederacy, Lee would never be able to go home to Arlington Hall again. Fearing for her life, Mary Anna Custis Lee followed her husband’s advice and fled from her home. The Union Army soon took over the property and used it as an Army headquarters.  Its position overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, DC made it a strategic military position that could not remain in the hands of Confederate sympathizers.   Later, in 1864, when most of the local cemeteries had become filled with war dead, the Army’s Quartermaster General saw the political advantage of using General Lee’s home as a cemetery making it forever “uninhabitable” and ensuring that the Lees would always remember the cost of war.  The land was formally taken from Mrs. Lee for back taxes.  She had sent a friend to pay the taxes but he was turned away and the tax payment was rejected because the owner had not come in person – an obvious ruse by the Government to take the land and punish the General and his family.  Mrs. Lee was able to return to her childhood home one last time before her death in 1873. After the war, Mary Anna Custis Lee’s son, who was her heir and would have inherited the estate, sued the Government successfully and the estate was returned to the family but it was too late…it was by this time filled with the graves of soldiers from both sides of the conflict.  The estate was sold back to the Government for $150,000 (about $3.1M in today’s dollars).  The first war casualty buried at Arlington was William Henry Christman on May 13, 1864.

Since then, there have been so many more…..

arlington rows 2This is the second military funeral I have attended at Arlington. The funerals are conducted with great honor and respect by the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment. The 3rd Infantry is a fully functioning fighting unit but most people are more familiar with the Regiment’s mission to “honor our fallen comrades”.  As I stand in the parking lot, the horse-drawn caisson arrives along with the honor guard. Although our friend was cremated and will be buried in the columbarium at Arlington, a coffin is placed on the caisson’s wagon and the American flag is carefully and slowly draped over the coffin.  At this point, even before the actual funeral service begins, every action by the members of the funeral detachment is handled with solemnity and respect for the veteran being laid to rest this day.  Every step and every action is calculated and filled with tradition and symbolism.  After the service in the chapel, the funeral procession led by the caisson, the color guard, the 3rd Infantry band, and the honor guard will move slowly through the cemetery to the final resting place for our friend.

Caisson for LeeYears ago when I attended the first funeral here, we elected to walk with other friends and family members in the processional.  It is a very moving experience to walk slowly down through the rows and rows of war dead thinking about all the other people who have walked behind other caissons through Band at Arlingtonthe last one hundred and fifty years.  On our return, we decided not to stick to the roadway to get back to our car at the Chapel; we thought maybe we would walk up through the cemetery.  It seemed like a simple shortcut to cut straight up over the hillside.  Within ten minutes or so, we were hopelessly lost. In every direction there were white markers – all the same – row upon row – seemingly going on forever. We Arlington funeral photowalked this way and that slowing down to read the names on the stones, noting the different religions represented and, more sadly, the ages of the young men and women who had lost their lives in battles. The cemetery has 70 sections representing all aspects of war and the “brothers in arms”.  Section 21 holds military nurses and, more recently, there is a section just for casualties for the “Global War on Terror”.  Incredibly (to me), there is a section with Confederate Color Guardsoldiers and a section with former slaves – war may be fought over political and cultural differences but death knows no such boundaries.  There are the usual sections for different military services and different wars and different occupations.  In all, there are about 400,000 souls that have been laid to rest at Arlington and the funerals continue five days a week, about 6,900 per year. There is a three month backlog. The Government may shut-down but the funerals continue here.

And there are just so many of them….

Unknown SoldierUltimately, we found our way up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and decide to stay a little longer to see the changing of the guard.  This tomb is guarded day and night, rain or shine, winter and summer. There is always a guard from the 3rd Infantry marching back and forth, 21 steps right, turn and then 21 steps left….silently and steadily day after day.  There are actually four service men buried in the tomb, one from each of four major conflicts of the past hundred years – World War I, World War II, Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. The inscription on the tomb reads “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”  I suppose medical procedures and advances in DNA technology in the past decade make it possible that there will never be another “unknown” soldier but somehow I doubt it and wonder how many more will die.  It is sad to think that these young men were lost forever to their families and friends.

Changing of the Guard a the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

But today, we do not walk. There is final short service at the grave-site ending with the honor guard’s 21 gun salute – the sound reverberating throughout the still quietness of the place. Finally taps is played.  Once you hear it, you never really forget the haunting beauty of that lone bugle and the thought of a single soul winging its way up to the heavens.  

Day is done, gone the sun

From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know

God is nigh.

A single soul is honored today.

As we leave this garden, I take one look back and say arlington rows 3one last goodbye to our friend and thank him silently for his service. My glance turns into a long last look through the gates and down the hill at the rows upon rows of white marble markers. At once, I am filled with an overwhelming sadness and new tears come to my eyes. I read recently an anonymous quote – “Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it, it flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it.”  Every last breath…..

And there are just so many of them…..


Sources and for additional information on Arlington National Cemetery:

Arlington National Cemetery: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/

Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arlington_Cemetery

The Old Guard (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3rd_United_States_Infantry_Regiment_(TOG)

The Old Guard (Official): http://www.army.mil/info/organization/unitsandcommands/commandstructure/theoldguard/

Arlington House (Wikipedia) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arlington_House,_The_Robert_E._Lee_Memorial

Arlington Cemetery Unofficial Site: http://arlingtoncemetery.net/

Visitor’s Guide: http://dc.about.com/od/monuments/p/ArlingCemetery.htm

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:  https://tombguard.org/

Taps Lyrics, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taps

Video – Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLVzKTyXI_E

Taps Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wn_iz8z2AGw