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The Life Aquatic
Callahan is already planning for next summer, asking gardener supervisor Doug Rowley when in July she should return.
Most years, mid-July is prime blooming season, Rowley answers, but the chill in May slowed things by two weeks. On Saturday, when the gardens hold the annual Waterlily Cultural Festival -- which 1,500 to 2,000 people are expected to attend -- the flowers will have unfurled and the lotus will tower, but neither will happen as luxuriously as in years past, nor as lushly as they'll perform in another week.
Rowley leans closer. He is dressed in National Park Service khaki and green, a uniform that telegraphs serious and official, and he's confessing that his favorite moments in the gardens are when it rains. Wherever else in the park he may be, he comes down to the ponds and listens.
"It's very --" he begins, standing here, in the middle of the city, with the trees muffling New York Avenue's traffic and the freight trains rumbling the ground. "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."
Life and beauty teem here. Frequent summertime bird sightings include great blue herons and chimney swifts, Eastern phoebes and indigo buntings, song sparrows and gnatcatchers. Enter the gardens by foot, and the air both stills and turns loud: City sounds dim. Insects chirr and fiddle. Songbirds are a symphony. The resident beaver has dug a channel across the river to his dam.
Surely, paradise is like this, visitors must think.
Rowley, checking on the beaver's raceway, hears a splash behind him. His face goes grim.
"We have snakeheads," he says.
Maybe every Eden has a serpent.
The snakeheads came in with Anacostia River water during a flood, and in spring 2006, when one of the bigger ponds was drained, officials found eight adults and 500 babies.
Geese have also invaded the park, Rowley says. Several hundred are born each spring, and they're hungry: "If it's something they like to eat, it doesn't exist anymore." Their excrement creates algae and spongy-green duckweed blooms in the pond water -- "fertilizer for bad stuff."
Seems like the geese enjoy the gardens more than the neighbors.
"I don't go down there," says Tiara Green, shaking her head, like the gardens are something distasteful. She lives in Kenilworth Court just up the block. "We walk past it, but only children will go down there. Not adults."
In front of the New Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church, Bishop Earl A. Ross says he visited once, as a kid, "years ago," but he's never been back. "Just like the Washington Monument and all the other grand sites of D.C.," he says, "we live right here, but we never look at them."
The kids, though -- they know the gardens well.
"We see turtles." "And frogs. And snakes." "And tadpole fish." "And every kind of bird -- I saw an eagle." "And a blue hawk, and a blue jay." "And every kind of crane." "And a red robin" . . . goes the happy patter of three neighborhood boys, ages 9 through 12, as they leave the gardens one summer morning.
Carlos Thomas, who is 9, lives nearby. Last year, he introduced the ponds to his uncle, Emanuel Speaks, born 50 years ago in Washington.
On a front porch near the gardens, Speaks is repairing the broken chain on a little girl's bike. He looks up and cracks his face into a wide, nearly toothless smile. He definitely remembers his first trip to see the lily ponds.
"It was," he says, "amazing."