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Write every day no exceptions – Fountains June 11, 2010

Posted by Conventioneering in write every day no exceptions.
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There’s a lot of fountains on the National Mall. There’s so many I haven’t seen them all, and writing on the train as I am I can’t even name all of them. I know there’s one in front of American History, There’s supposedly one at the WWII memorial, but I’ve never been there; there’s one near the National Botanic Garden.

I love fountains; I have ever since I was a little kid. I’m not sure what it is about them. Maybe it’s my fascination with water – it is a pretty amazing liquid, both essential to sustaining life and capable of incredible destruction. It has a lot of nifty properties, like its ability to hold surface tension, the way it expands as a solid. Maybe there’s something about the play of the water, the artistry; really good fountains are sculptures in motion. Honestly, I don’t know, I just really like sitting near moving water. Same’s true of streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans – even if they’re mosquito-ridden, I like being near the water.

There’s a few fountains in or near the Mall that are particular favourites of mine. The National Gallery has its sculpture garden fountain, a great big round pool with a number of jets pointing towards the center. The arrangement itself is nothing special, but the real draw is the fact that they let you stick your feet in the water. There’s few treats better than sitting out on a hot day with your feet in the cool water of the fountain.

There’s the United States Navy Memorial, which isn’t actually on the mall but somewhat off of it. This one always makes me cry if I think about it too hard – there’s a statue of a young man waiting with a duffel bag in navy gear, looking like he’s standing on a windswept pier. At his feet is a map of the world’s oceans. The whole place is a testament to the men who have died in service to our country at sea, and something about that – especially because my grandfather was a sailor, though not in the US military – really hits me hard. I think it’s a testament to the designer that the place has the power to make me cry.

I will never, ever, ever understand the Hirshhorn, but I can’t deny that they have a cool fountain. Almost every piece they have in there makes me go “bwuh” and not in a particularly thought provoking way, but the fountain itself is spectacular. The building itself is a giant cylinder, and this cylinder surrounds a huge pool of water. At the center is a gigantic spout which rises and falls throughout the course of the day, reaching a height of more than sixty feet at its peak – nearly to the top of the building. The water seems to reach for heaven itself, for that perfect circle of blue at the top.

But my very favourite fountains aren’t very well known or frequently visited. These are two fountains behind the Castle, one next to the Museum of African Art, the other next to the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. I didn’t even know these places existed until I wandered back there on a whim one day a few years ago, and was enchanted. This isn’t to say the fountains are empty – far from it – they’re simply much quieter than many other parts of the Mall.

The first fountain is called, I think, the Four Rivers of Paradise (I can’t quite remember, and I don’t have internet access at the moment). There are, as one might imagine, four ‘rivers’, which are actually four troughs of water surrounding a square. At one end is a waterfall, representing the gate of Paradise, and in the center is a single jet of water, representing (I think) Enlightenment. It’s surrounded by trees, and the jet of water is something you can run right through (lots of fun).

The second is less a fountain and more a simple pool of water. I believe it’s called the Moon Gate, and it’s based on the design of a fountain that belonged to the Emperor of China (again, I don’t have internet access as I’m typing this on my laptop on the metro, so I don’t quite know the facts). There are two gates on either side of the pool that consist of two big circles cut into rose colored granite. The pool itself is square, and cut into quarters by footbridges made of the same rose-colored stone. In the center is a great circle, like a full moon. At opposite corners of this pool there are two benches, which also consist of circles cut into square granite. The paths align to the cardinal directions, an important concept in Chinese mythology as anyone who has dabbled in Feng Shui knows.

There’s something powerful about the simplicity of the design. I used to go there after work when I worked up on D-Street as a database manager, just to get out of the office and relax in the open air. Again, it’s seldom crowded, so it’s a wonderful place to come to get away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the Mall. I remember on one such afternoon I rescued a drowning bird from the fountain by borrowing a map from a passing tourist and flipping the poor thing out of the water, whereupon it scrambled into the bushes, and I spent the rest of the afternoon eating some food from the Folklife Festival (I can’t remember what it was, besides delicious) and making sure the bird stayed safe and out of sight. It was a moment in time, among the leaves, me and a bird. I only wish that I had m ore free time to simply sit by the water and think.

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