"Want to go to the botanical garden?" I asked my son Jacob, then 12. His eyes glazed over. I knew what he was thinking: "Dad wants to collect acorns or something in the freezing cold." It was about four days after Christmas.
All he said was, "No, Dad. It's the middle of winter. There is no garden."
"But," I said, "I hear they have big model trains running all over the conservatory."
He blinked. This I took to indicate a flicker of interest.
I pressed my advantage: "Big trains with trestles and tunnels and buildings and bridges all made of leaves and sticks!" In fact, I hadn't seen these things. I was going on the strength of a newspaper ad, and on the faint hope that, well, on the way in and out of the conservatory, I might get to collect a few acorns or something.
So off we went to the Bronx. The wind was so biting it came through the seams in our gloves.
The pines and spruces and oaks beckoned, but my son dragged me by the hand toward the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Outside the entrance, he asked, "What are those?"
"I don't know," I replied. To be sure, they looked like trees, but they also looked like decorative icing on a cake, or those weird paintings of faces made up of ripe fruits.
He was already gone, peering into a six-tiered treelike object that seemed to define the word baroque. It appeared to be made of coronets of English oak leaves, medallions of reddish magnolia leaves, splashes of dried Celosia and astilbe, patterns of gilded pomegranates, and it was dripping what turned out to be brass chains. Surrounding this fantasy tree was a circle of green and brown onyx spheres the size of softballs. As we looked around we saw that the conservatory was surrounded with these wonderfully strange arboreal constructions. We learned they had been made by a group of inspired madmen called Fernleigh, from Cooperstown, New York; artist Suprena Kenny had contributed some fanciful animals. My son spent half an hour trying to figure out how the trees were put together and what exactly each was made of.
In the end, it was I who had to drag him inside the conservatory. Where were those famous trains?My son set off eagerly in the wrong direction and had to be extracted from a small rain forest.
Heading into the right gallery, we were met by the first train. About twice the size of my old Lionel trains, it was chugging along under the Callistemon and gum trees past a few miniature New York City town houses. Looking down the long hall, we could see that a dome at the end was full of trains, some passing through log tunnels, others racing over nine-foot-high trestles made of fresh-cut ailanthus branches, still more running beside simulated waterfalls and lakes and streams.
A man named Paul Busse has spent the past eight years creating this extraordinary display. Each year, he adds a few new buildings constructed entirely of leaves, twigs, and seeds and welded with resin. Each is modeled on a historic structure. Here is a near-perfect replica of a town house from 1875, there a Staten Island farmhouse circa 1678; here the Brooklyn Bridge, and there Grand Central Terminal. Among Busse's recent creations is a nine-foot-long scale model of the conservatory itself.
My son wanted to know all the pieces of nature that had gone into the architecture: leaves, twigs of contorted willow, bark of all sorts, shelf fungi, nutshells, winged seeds. I could see him calculating how to gather the materials to do such things himself.
"Look, Dad!" he exclaimed. "They made the roof out of acorn caps!"
Acorn caps, indeed, I thought with pleasure. I know where there's a great turkey oak, not 500 yards from here. I'll bet there are tons of acorn caps. And, of course, beside that is a black oak, and beside that…
Yes, we can both get what we want. Even at a botanical garden. Even in bleak midwinter.
New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, N.Y.; 718/817-8700; open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; admission $10 for adults, $4 for kids 2-12. To get there, take Metro North's Harlem Line from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory winter train exhibition will be open November 26 to January 9.