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Landscape in a Native place

WASHINGTON - The Native place that is the National Museum of the American Indian begins with landscape - slender strips of terrain that nonetheless, in summer, raise stands of plant life that sometimes, from certain angles, seem to make NMAI an afterthought: a museum in the trees, a departure point for blue skies.

Donna House, an ethnobotanist involved in seeding the museum grounds, believes it will be another 10 years before every plant that grows there will grow from a Native seed. But even now, it's clear that some special work is under way. Just as the museum's architecture, sheathed in tawny stone to mimic time-shorn cliffs, provides a much-appreciated counterpoint to Washington marble and granite, glass and paving, argumentation and noise, so do the shrubs, trees, grasses, herbs and flowers flanking it speak of another world ... however briefly, among the 27,000 plants of 145 species, one can imagine a moment before the Europeans smelled land.

A wetlands with a bald cypress down in the swampy water recalls the unspoiled Chesapeake estuary, North America's largest; in some meaningful way, probably not to be exaggerated but still real enough, the Algonquian-language ''Great Shellfish Bay'' is here in little. So with the Three Sisters, corn standing tall along one outer wall, beans climbing it as a trellis and low squash leaves holding down the ground - try just a little and it proves true of ancestral village sounds as it does of great music: the more closely you listen, the more distantly you hear it. The scent of certain light purplish flower clusters - lavender, maybe? - really is here made to transport the senses. And Grandfather Rocks, live beings in the Cheyenne and other Native cultures, almost come to a kind of life we know, cropping up in little clearings as one strolls about, like so many salutes from nature to another artifact. For after all, as something about a Native place and a recent book review call to mind, we here on Earth, humans, plants, rocks and soil and the animals, the wind, rain and fire, all our relations - we happen forever, for as long as light travels among the stars.

The grassland patches are a little too close to the traffic to summon the grass prairies, but give them time.

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