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The Life Aquatic

"To hear the rain hit the big leaves: It sounds tropical, like listening to rain on the banana leaves. Or like rain on a tin roof," says Doug Rowley, gardener supervisor at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

"It's amazing!" echoes her husband, Dennis Calhoun.

"It's amazing!" exults their host, Helen Penberthy of McLean, when she walks up moments later.

"This is an incredible place. I tell everyone," gushes Sue Callahan of Boston as she paces a grassy dike. "It's a miraculous place."

The gardens are nestled between the Anacostia River and the Anacostia Freeway, just south of New York Avenue traffic that drones like a guilty conscience. They're the creation of a one-armed Civil War veteran. Walter B. Shaw, who in the 1880s worked as a clerk at the U.S. Treasury Department, bought 30 acres along the Anacostia and planted a few wild waterlilies in an unused ice pond. Soon, he and his daughter were importing lilies from the Orient, Nile and South America and developing varieties. After the ugliness of war, he created a life of beauty.

By the 1920s, thousands of visitors were regularly stopping by to see the waxy blossoms and wide saucerlike lily pads. In 1938, the federal government bought the land and turned it into a park, preserved to this day pretty much as it was. It's a refuge for birders and weekend photographers, wetlands aficionados and college students who periodically come to study.

But today, driving to it means passing mounds of discarded tires and worn-out buildings. One can boat to it, but even this route requires a triumph of travail: The Web site warns: "Visitors coming by canoe should be aware that the marsh loses 90% of its water at low tide."

The ponds may be circumscribed by signs of poverty and neglect -- some visitors call the surroundings "a tough neighborhood" -- but the gardens are valentines of hope. Lotus blossoms inspired stories of Buddha, the architecture of Egypt, Chinese culture. They may start from mud and grow up through the murk, but they unfurl into the air brilliant and spotless.

By August -- the month that seems to swamp even the most stalwart of Washington ambitions -- the Victoria waterlilies will look like they're vying for a Guinness World Record. Their colossal lily pads will stretch five to six feet across, like they're plates on a table set for Jack and the Beanstalk's giant.

The gardens, really, are like fairy tales come to life.

Two men from New York, Michael Mai and Philip Wu, have driven down overnight with large-format cameras, eager to catch the lotus at first light. Word of the gardens has spread north: Other photographers tell them there's nothing else like it, anywhere, on the East Coast. Behind them, Callahan is wandering the dikes, taking close-ups with her pocket camera.

Last summer was her first trip, after a friend suggested they go "look at the waterlilies." Callahan, who teaches elementary art, silently rolled her eyes. "I was like, 'Okay. I'll go take some pictures of waterlilies.' "

Then she saw them. "I was floored. It was like looking at the sunflower fields in Europe."


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