WASHINGTON, D.C.--With many bemoaning the changes Obama’s exit has heralded, so too has changed the monument wherein he once orated—in his usual cool-headed grace, his now-nostaligized equanimity—on the country we were and were yet to be in 2009. The famous and often protest-spotted Lincoln Memorial, like our in-flux nation, at present exists in a state of alteration, with plans to drain the marble monument’s adjacent Reflecting Pool having commenced Sunday.
“The National Park Service will drain the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool this weekend after approximately 80 ducklings were found dead, including 53 in one day,” reported CNN Thursday, noting that, “The culprit is a parasite that grows in snails that live in the pool” which “chemical treatments alone aren't sufficient to fully reduce.”
Along with the duck deaths, the Park Service was concerned with the state of the Reflecting Pool given the adverse side-affects the parasite has on humans. According to NPR, “In addition to killing ducks, the parasite—known as a schistosome—can cause swimmer's itch in humans, which is also called cercarial dermatitis . . . While the parasite's preferred host is the specific bird or mammal, if the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows into the skin causing an allergic reaction and rash.Bottom of Form” The parasites reach their human as well as feathered victims by way of infected snails which release them into both fresh and saltwater in bodies such as lakes, ponds, and oceans, reports the Center for Disease Control.
Despite long withstanding rules against such activity, decades of Americans have joined the D.C. sky in utilizing the Reflecting Pool for recreation. The area in which the Reflecting Pool now sits, Maryland’s man-made Tidal Basin has seen nylon and lycra-clad visitors as early as following its construction “out of the mudflats on the Potomac” in the 1880s, according to the Histories of the National Malls.
Recreational use of the area followed modern innovation into the 20th century, wherein Congress voted in 1914 to create an official beach on the Tidal Basin for whites, as well as where segregated, whites-only swimming pools were erected in the 1920s and remained in use until met with the increased liberal sentiment and hardship which prompted their condemnation in 1935. Despite the contemporaneous and subsequent use of the pools, concerns about water pollution were raised as early as 1925, when Congress, along with pressure from black leaders, resolved to outlaw swimming in the Basin.
Worry over the cleanliness of the area’s water continues today, where a simple Google search returns comments from disgruntled Reddit users such as ScornAdorned, who hold the pool in less-than-favorable esteem. “I live and grew up in DC (in my early 30's),” writes ScornAdorned on a July 2014 thread, “and can't remember the last time the reflecting pool wasn't either drained for some never ending construction project or overflowing with goose shit.” Ryan M., from a 2017 Yelp comment, however, disagrees, expressing that “When you see the Reflecting Pool with the National Monument, you are part of history.”
Despite the varied sentiment which exists—and grows—around the Reflecting Pool with as steadfastness as do its surrounding cherry trees, the pool’s presence in and importance to national history cannot be overestimated. Approved for construction in 1910, erected in 1914, and opened publicly in 1922, the 2,029’ by 167’ pool has borne witness to a procession of both national struggles and successes.
In 1939, it watched the infamous Marian Anderson performance of “My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee” which was introduced with the truism that “genius draws no color line” and the creator of whose sounds was discriminated against so greatly as to, following the initial Carnegie Hall-snub which the outdoor serenade was organized to correct, spent the night hours away in the Princeton, NJ, home of Nobel prize winner and sometime civil rights champion Albert Einstein, having been denied boarding at any D.C. hotel.
In 1963, the Reflecting Pool reflected, along with the arresting blue raspberry sky, the sentiment of hundreds of thousands of righteous-minded Americans who assembled in the March on Washington now immortalized by Martin Luther King Jr.’s impassioned Dream.
Along with moments of cultural watershed, so too has the pool witnessed mechanical alteration. “Built in 1920 on marshland, the pool gradually sank, leaking into the surrounding land,” reports the Histories of the National Mall. Because “rhe deteriorating pool was leaking 500,000 gallons of water per week prior to repairs,” the structure, according to the Trust for the National Mall, was rebuilt in 2012 “with sustainable water conservation features including a new water supply system, with water being drawn from the Tidal Basin instead of the city's potable water.”
Despite having been revitalized—gifted a tinted bottom, encouraging reflection, sidewalks where dirt paths used to snake in fits of walnut dust, fixtures not unlike night lights to deter from evening visitors the concrete bruises and oxblood licks which once claimed their unaware ankles, their unexpecting calves—the pool has shed none its ethos of observation. Holding some six million nine hundred thousand gallons of water and sustaining a circulation station which draws from the Tidal Basin, the pool, new with cosmetic improvement, has outgrown none its old vigilance.
In 2009, before the renovation, the nearly mile long rectangular body watched former President Barack Obama’s deftly named “We Are One” Inaugural Celebration—an event which drew folding chairs and a crowd of 40,000; in December, following the natatorium’s nearly $34 million rebirth, National Park Rangers, using their personal funds and time, christened simultaneously the metamorphized Reflecting Pool and the approaching year with the lighting of over 2,000 candles and the performance of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” in in nod to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with recognition of the Mall as the locale which had once accepted a warbling Marian Anderson at a time when she had by white society hitherto been denied.
In 1963, before the Reflecting Pool, Dr. King spoke of a tumultuous America. An America rioting against itself. “But one hundred years later the Negro is still not free,” he spoke. “One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” His people, he told the serene, expectant pool, the serene, expectant citizens, was one which had found itself at exile in its own land. “We all have come to this hallowed spot to remind America,” he orated, “of the fierce urgency of now.”
Later, as can be discerned from the transcript as well as the Kindergarten classroom walls and all other such innocuous and visible recesses of collective and bewildered memory, his speech took a brighter turn. “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,” he spoke in melancholy, thoughtful meter. “I still have a dream,” he spoke, wide hands cupped open. Palms exposed like bowls to hold what might have been or might yet still be.
His Dream was a beautiful one. One of Louis Sullivan’s proportion exacted with Alexander Calder’s precision. His was one of the realization of Jefferson’s self-evident truths of equality, of Georgian hills where some men once labored for and suffered at others’ profit lined soon not with plantation homes and cotton clouds but with men “able to sit together” at tables one could not help but discern as those picnic or summer camp tables indicative of youth, wherein one was too ignorant, or inversely too wise to judge by way of hue.
His was a Mississippian “oasis of freedom,” an even plane on which judgement of others sprung in sproutlings nourished not by their unchangeable and arbitrary race “but by the content of their character.” His was “little black boys and black girls [joining] . . . hands with little white boys and white girls” with no more disquiet at such union than that of Christmas strand cylinders in marriages orchestrated with paper both green and red.
His was the plugging of holes, the righting of wrongs, the filling or the filing of privilege’s and poverty’s respective hills and valleys. His was where became “the rough places plains, and the crooked places . . . straight”; his where that “solid rock of brotherhood” suggestive of Plymouth was two centuries late returned, where justice became again clear, became again resounding. Philadelphian.
The pursuit of this Dream, he told the people, the Reflecting Pool—attesting hushed agreement, soft clouds—his witness, was a struggle which called to be brought to fruition “on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” In 2009, forty-six years later and in oration before a country broken not by racism but by recession, a people distraught with the housing crisis and not the crisis ushered by truncheon-wielding policemen and German Shepherds snapping southward, Obama emphasized King’s same message.
“Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content,” Obama spoke, slimmer, individual in his infamous equanimity, but with no less conviction, no less mind than his predecessor, knowing that Dream incomplete.
This week, Breitbart News noted the pool’s renovation with the headline “DRAIN THE SWAMP! FEDS CLEANING LINCOLN MEMORIAL REFLECTING POOL AFTER PARASITE KILLS 80 DUCKLINGS” in a nod to President and right-wing media favorite Donald Trump’s campaign trail promise to “Drain the Swamp” or rid Washington of its perceived corruption. This headline, if none other, tells of the impassioned idiocy, the fiery thoughtlessness which has consumed our country. A thoughtlessness with which the Reflecting Pool, witness to history, and therefore to cruelty, to selfishness, to ignorance, is no stranger.
Shakespeare speaks of Macbethian mirrors which highlight past wrongs. The Greeks speak of ponds, of lakes and of oceans which contain knowledge mortal men would be of luck, but are not of capacity, to observe and know. Maybe the Reflecting Pool can be that for us. A collective database of fact. A reminder of fiction.
Maybe, reflecting cherry blossoms and impassioned intonation, winking at tourist’s Nikon cameras and the bubblegum sheaths of bridesmaids dressed a shade off the flowering which surrounds them alike, reminding us of hardship, warning us against error, observing the cultural flaws we are still at present resistant to correcting. That we, just as the crowds who listened on such a pool’s edges to Dr. King, have wrong yet to right. That we must, as in 2009 Obama reminded in the same spot, “never forget that the true character of our nation is revealed not during times of comfort and ease, but by the right we do when the moment is hard.”
Hard now is the present moment, but the Reflecting Pool, our pseudo conscience, our long-post Revolutionary but similarly-minded sentry, about a state of cleaning, soon will wait fresh, expectant, serene, mirror to D.C.’s bubblegum spring times, to an exceptionality—of morality, of thought—like Obama’s, like Dr. King’s, still yet to arrive.