Why The Lily Ponds Make Me Happy

By Joe Lapp

Helen Fowler Water Lilies in the Display Pond. Photo credit: FoKAG

“The lily ponds,” as I called the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens while growing up on nearby Douglas Street, makes me happy!

Walter B Shaw stands in a boat in the lily ponds. Photo credit: NPS

Why? Well, for starters, did you know that a one-armed Civil War veteran started the digging that made the ponds? That’s right, Walter “W. B.” Shaw lost his right arm at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. But he didn’t let that stop him. He missed the lilies from his native Maine so much that he figured out a way to dig and got going. Now that’s the kind of dedication to beauty that makes me smile!

For me as a youngster, I confess that the delicate radiance of the tropical water lilies in the show ponds behind the visitor center in summer stole my heart. Hearing about the travels that W. B.’s daughter Helen put in to bring those lilies back from far-away places made me love them even more. Hers is an amazing story of achievement during a time when it surely wasn’t easy for a woman to be a small business owner.

Great Blue Heron in Autumn. Photo credit: Gary House

Also, there’s cool birds around. While I’m not really a ‘birder,’ two of my enduring memories of the gardens are hearing the guttural, dinosaur-era croak of a great blue heron as it rose over the ponds, and the high cry of an osprey as it battled to find fish on a windy day. These sounds touched my soul with the essentiality of the natural world, found even in the city.

Dragonfly on dried lotus seed pods. Photo credit: Tim Ervin

While most people visit my favorite national park to see the lotus in summer, I love all the seasons at Kenilworth’s watery gardens. Spring? Look out for snapping turtles, plus smaller species sunning themselves, in ponds clear of plants. Summer means an abundance of blooms, on land and in water. Fall brings colorful foliage reflected in murky water. And winter, well, as a child winter meant ice skating on the ponds, a tradition back to the time of Helen and W. B. While that’s not encouraged these days, there’s still a beauty to the clear, crisp air and the winter sky framed by stark limbs. Plus, there’s some very cool dried seed pods to find.

Hey, wow, my time is up. I’ve barely even started to mention all the ways the ponds make me happy! How about watching rain bead up on water-repellent lotus leaves, or wild rice growing tall just like it did for the indigenous Nacotchtank? I didn’t get to chat about beaver dams, or the throaty thrum of the bullfrogs, or seeing the last luckily-surviving Anacostia River marshland.

Water beads on lotus leaves, Photo credit: Tim Ervin

Well, you’ll just have to visit and get a little joyful yourself over these discoveries – and add your own happiness moments, too. Now, go sing along with musician Billy B (he visited when I was a Junior Ranger!) as you romp in the swamp.

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