a 25°F tropical rainforest

words & images sonya patel

Someone once told me that talking about the weather is what you do when you have nothing else to talk about. I don’t much like to talk about the weather. But the weather, in its puissance, will not be relegated. Wind and temperatures of 2°F delayed my departure from LGA by an hour, and when I regained cell service in St. Louis, I received an eastern Missouri weather alert, warning of freezing rain and more snow. I was being goaded into conversation.

This is the time in the winter season when I begin feeling like I can no longer hack winter. The temperatures have numbed my fingers, multiple layers of tights, leggings, and pants have chafed my waist, and steady gusts of air have burned my face raw one too many times. It’s time to move, I think. Or wonder, where can I go and with whom can I stay where it’s 80 degrees or more? I had planned this trip to St. Louis before my winter blues had set in, so instead of flying south, I flew west.

Waterfall, MO Botanical Garden Feb 20, 2015.jpg

It was cold, but not windy in St. Louis. The sky was cloudless. We wouldn’t have suspected a storm was coming if the weathermen hadn’t told us. It was our only day to walk around outside, and my friend, Chris, had one place she was eager to show me before I left: the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Henry Shaw, the founder of the Botanical Garden, came to St. Louis from England in 1819 to open a cutlery and hardware business. As the population of St. Louis grew, he made investments in other businesses as well and, after amassing a fortune, worked to bring European-style gardens to St. Louis. The Missouri Botanical Garden was opened to the public in 1859 and is one of the oldest in the US. In addition to curating a diverse set of lush and diverse plants, the Garden focuses on science, conservation, and education. These focus areas are some of the reasons Chris volunteers there.

Entering the Garden through the visitor’s center, I stopped, stunned, and let out a low whistle. It looked monochromatic: layers of clean snow covered our entire vista and the bark of bare trees looked black in the pale light. It was already magical and we had covered only a fraction of the 79-acre grounds.

We could see our breath as we spoke.

“We have to walk really fast this way.” Chris wore a dark gray scarf draped over her head and around her neck, and black, rectangular, rimmed glasses.

“Got it,” I said. Balling my double-gloved hands into fists and pushing them farther into my coat pockets, I power-walked beside her.

We had arrived with less than an hour to go before closing time, and so we hurried along gracefully curved paths toward the Japanese Garden. When I’d visited during other seasons, the grounds had been filled with people walking and talking, and our paths had been slowed by meanderers and picture-takers. Internally, I’d sigh, click my tongue, and roll my eyes at the noise, as if I should be allowed a private viewing to get the solitary, meditative experience I deeply desired. On this day, however, we were two of seven people in the gardens. I discovered a new reason to appreciate the winter.

Seiwa-en, meaning “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace,” is the name of the 14-acre Japanese Garden. The lake occupies four acres of the 14, and the starkness of the landscape and iced-over waterfalls in the wintertime allowed us to use our imaginations.

After spending most of our time outside, we ducked into the Climatron®, a geodesic domed conservatory built in 1960. It is a gorgeous structure with no internal supports and, in 1976, was named one of the 100 most significant architectural achievements in the US. Birds chirped and whirred, flapping their wings as they flew around above us.  The dome is climate controlled to mimic a tropical rainforest, having a high of 85°F and an average humidity of 85%. We had managed to stumble onto the exact environment I needed.

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