As all of my past half dozen or so trips to Washington, DC, have been for business, I’ve never had the time—no, I’ve never felt comfortable taking time from my appointed business mission—to visit the headquarters of the magazine that has inspired me ever since I learned to read, National Geographic. Free of such restraints on my latest trip to the nation’s capitol, my wife and I would be there when the doors opened on one early-April Saturday morning. For me it was a pilgrimage to the source of a long revered professional interest, and my wife wanted to see the Photo Ark exhibit of Joel Sartore’s striking eyeball-direct images of the world’s critters before they all go extinct (and before the exhibit completed its run the following week).
In itself, the exhibit was spectacular! Photographed against simple black or white backgrounds, the individual animals’s portraits were striking. In most of them, the animals were looking directly into the camera, making a direct connection with the viewer. They dared each of us to a staring contest that we humans would eventually win because we can better adapt, as least for the time being, to our rapacious consumption of their habitat—the air, the land, and the fresh and salt water that ultimately sustains all of us. As noted on more than a few portraits, the images before us were all that remained of that particular animal.
In the adjacent exhibit spaces were Crocs and Pristine Seas, which reinforced my less than eager desire to see these reptiles in any other form than a photograph and my Midwestern addiction to vast expanses of salt water, especially where it rubs up against any terrestrial island whether it is a mere dot or a continent. But the visit to National Geographic’s galactic headquarters left me decidedly disappointed. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the organization, but I expected more. Thinking about this while staring at the arrangement of granite in the courtyard that separated the old and new wings of the building, the fault was ultimately my own unrealistic expectations, accumulated like a tree’s growth rings through nearly 60 years of reading this magazine with its distinctive yellow border.
The one image that connected those pages to the buildings through which I had just walked was the large brass society logo inlaid in the floor at the apex between the two exhibit halls. A third, narrower hallway with the blind stainless steel elevator doors that lead to the offices above, separated those halves of the building. In the magazine, the brass disk in the floor filled a grander, airier space. Circling it, imagining different lenses and angles in my photographer’s mind’s eye, intellectually I understood and appreciated how those printed images conveyed the scene that led me astray emotionally.
The rich atmosphere and concisely set scenes in decades of fact-filled articles that nourished my insatiable curiosity and led me to become an autodidactic polymath fed my unrealistic expectations. The writers and photographers who artfully conveyed their particular looks at the world were assembled here in this factory of magazine production. It is, perhaps, more fair to trace the source of my expectations to my grandmother’s library, in the big old house on Fremont Street in Battle Creek, Michigan, than to these exhibit spaces in an office building in Washington, DC.
A member of the National Geographic Society since the early 1900s, she saved every issue, as I used to do, and spending time among them was what I anticipated most during our Christmas visits. From the time I learned to read early in my single digits, I would disappear into this room off the dining room, past the Christmas tree growing from an angular mountain range of colorful presents. With my head resting on my right shoulder I would read the stories listed on the spine of each issue to find my next adventure. And when time ended those seasonal visits, a membership of my own was the Christmas present I most looked forward to each year, a present I give myself still since my parents’s passing.
This disconnect between reality and my expectations was just the first of several such reconciliations this visit required. The next, an unexpected surprise, came as we walked along the reflecting pool toward my inaugural visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Being cherry blossom weekend before Easter, we wove our way slowly through a sea of humanity. My full attention was focused on not trampling someone one ahead of me, or being trampled by someone living their visit through the 4-by-6-inch screen of their phone—until I heard the quack.
To my right was a Mallard drake. Its green head pointed in the same direction I was walking, it was tippy-toeing its way toward the Lincoln Memorial. Not sure, I was seeing this clearly, I sat to make a closer inspection. Indeed, with every slow stroke of its orange, three-toed palmate feet, the center toe of each was clearly pushing off the bottom. I judged the water’s depth to be about 6 inches, and dipping my rigidly extended right hand into the cool, clear water confirmed my general measurement.
Having only seen the reflecting pool in movies, I’d always thought it was deeper. Immediately my mind played the scene were Forrest Gump left the speaker’s stand at the Lincoln Memorial, jumped into the pool, and waded his way to meet Jenny. As the scene played in memory, the water was clearly reached to Forrest’s knees; maybe Tom Hanks is shorter than I thought. That, or the computer graphic artists thought deeper water looked more dramatic. (Either way, it is good enough reason to watch the movie again to answer the question for sure.)
Climbing the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial I complimented its designers for their perfect rise and tread. Inside, a solid human gyre adorned with smart phone sequins slowly circulated around his seated figure. He would have been pleased with the diversity of humans as his feet, and at their gracious good manners as they shuffled about for a closer look.
Working my with half-steps back to the stairs the crowd parted for a moment, when some Asian newlyweds stepped aside from a few set into the…is it marble? “I have a dream…,” they said, where Martin Luther King stood for his civil right proclamation in 1963. Standing in the same spot, I looked out over the diverse ocean of people who lined the stone shoreline of the Reflecting Pool with its visual echo of the Washington Monument. Their numbers were clearly shy of the quarter million people who heard King’s speech that sweltering August day in 1963, but it was close. The panoramic connection to history sobered me and dispelled my lingering pontification of unrealized expectations planted in my youth. What I saw faded from color to a grainy black and white image seen in the other magazines of my youth, and that moment fixed itself in my mind as the singular memory of this visit, and all that came before it.