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The Secret Garden

Three stops from my apartment, the Metro train emerges aboveground on the eastern edge of the city, tickling the border of Maryland. As the train rounds a bend, the Washington Monument and US Capitol peek above the horizon, looking like miniature versions of themselves. We cross the Anacostia River, flanked by dark green trees and one incongruous hole of golf. A mere twelve minutes after I boarded the train, I disembark in a different world. Across an aging pedestrian bridge that bypasses the rushing traffic of I-295, down a quiet and partially dilapidated residential street, marked only by a simple brown sign and a small parking lot, I find a hidden oasis of nature, Washington DC’s own secret garden.

Okay, so it’s not actually a secret, but it took me four years to discover it was there.

On this weekday morning, it doesn’t appear that many other people know about it either. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens is clearly the lesser-known cousin of the National Park Service’s splashier offerings. The entrance to the park is hardly an entrance at all, just an unassuming gravel path leading from the parking lot through some trees. There are perhaps a dozen other people there, most of them with tripods and fancy cameras. It’s a blue-sky day, and still early enough for the sun to be pleasant instead of punishing. It’s perfect, in other words, to capture the stunning glory of lotus flowers in peak bloom.

The fields of lotus flowers and lily pads spread out before me. I turn down the first dirt path I see, following the edge of one of the large ponds of flowers, and I wonder if I’m going the right way. But it turns out there is no “right” way; there are no marked paths at all, just narrow grass and dirt footpaths that crisscross among the ponds. Many of the flowers are taller than me, and they’re so densely packed that I have to look closely to notice that they’re growing out of water, not soil. Their huge pink and white blossoms gleam in the sun and sway in the breeze. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet for both the bees and the photographers.

There are no signs of civilization here, no cell phone towers or smokestacks marring the sightlines, just a canvas of pink and white and green. Then two military helicopters fly low overhead, and I think that the fields of flowers would be very pretty from the air. I wonder if the pilots bother to look down.

An hour later, I’m back in the buzz of the big city. The July heat is building. The lotus flowers feel a world away. Kenilworth is certainly not the only garden oasis in Washington DC; in fact, DC is blessed with more natural respites than the average city. And I realize that I probably won’t return to the aquatic gardens anytime soon. But still.

Part of the magic of a secret garden is knowing it’s there.

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