Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Pond

After buying the old farmhouse at the end of one March a number of years ago, I quickly went around to its back to look at what I had really purchased it for.  Because, although the house was very old and pretty in a vernacularly plain way, the property upon which the house sat was the real gem.  Sloping just this side of gentle as an expansive amphitheater of lawn down to the woods below, it swirled around outcroppings of gray rock and pistachio-colored lichen. It passed two or three ancient apple trees and went through a proscenium formed by opposing copses of enormous white paper birches; their tallest branches meeting high above the lawn’s center stage. I named it “Nature’s Gothic Doorway”.  

 As I took stock of my newly purchased out-of-doors, I imagined how the old farm’s horse-drawn carts would travel upon the flat ribbon of trail that switch-backed midway across the slope. The trail now evidenced by a subtly terraced snaking  of grass. 

It was in contemplation of all this when I found a few large mossy rocks, boulders actually, and a squish beneath my feet.  Small  percolations of spring water were rising to the lawn’s surface which then ran beneath my feet and across the descending lawn beyond in broad sheets.  There were six or seven of them spread over a small distance, all converging down the slope creating a large fan of soggy lawn.  I could barely contain my excitement.  An onlooker might have seen my muted jump for joy.   I became instantly obsessed with visions of what my soggy lawn fan could become so I rushed up to the kitchen and equipped myself with a very large serving spoon.  I scooped out a few spoonfuls of ground which  released even more water from just beneath the grass.  My mind feverishly had its way with both spoon and ground as I  fantasized what must certainly be a torrent just below the surface.  When I finally bent the spoon's handle it was then I came up with a plan:  I’d merge all the springs into a stream that was to tumble, froth, and foam as it swept all its way down to the woods.  For that I was going to need a shovel.

Trading in spoon for spade, I excavated around the springs.  As the water emerged and descended the slope, I guided it by creating rills which now were running through sand, silt, clay, pebbles and rock;  by converging the rills I swept the space with greater fans of water further dissolving the loam and sandy hardpan.  With each spring, for a bit of time, I had the same sculpturing dialogue.  

I discovered some of the springs did not seem to like my bullying, domineering nature and they instead stubbornly stayed submerged beneath thicker mud and bigger stones.  So at these times I relented, letting them have their way because I even though I knew my plan was a good one it would only happen so long as I didn’t force the issue upon  Nature.  I had faith Nature would eventually understand and agree with me in the end.  It was only that Nature didn’t know it yet. For my part I also knew it would take days and days with weeks and weeks of digging, sloshing, negotiating, arguing with , submitting to, but occasionally dominating the subterranean ocean I was sure I was now in charge of.  

The stream was indeed there... sort of.  Considering it had all the water I could summon from its headwaters, all the water it was ever to get all year, in fact, because it was early Spring,  I produced a small but respectable brooklet.  I was  pleased.  I ran the seventy yards or so up to the house and into the kitchen.  I looked through window toward my birch tree theater and the lawn’s new onstage star:  My stream.  

At first I thought I actually saw it, but it turned out to be a rock.  So I squinted.  I wanted to believe my eyes saw what ended not really being there but what they wished was there: the stream.  A stream.  Finally as the day went on and with the shift of the sun as it was beginning to set,  I saw the glimmers of backlit water.  So, it really was there only I would just have to wait till the sun’s position in the sky was just so.  Or I could also resort to binoculars and see it anytime.  But neither option was satisfying.  A revision of my plan was therefore needed. 

I still wanted to see water.  I wanted to see water from every room that overlooked the back yard, and that meant from nearly every room in the house.  So my dream remained uncompromisingly lofty as I ate dirt realized my resources were much more meager than I anticipated.

A vision is a vision and what does one replace a vision failed than with yet another vision?  A new plan: To be a pool.  The water and I thought it so clever and easily done.  I had already done the harder work by succeeding in having the springs obey me (with some tacit compromise of course).  They did great work form a runnel (I could now admit my stream was no more than a largish runnel).  All I’d have to do is direct the runnel to  a basin and contain the water where it could reflect what was above.  For what is water really good for apart from drinking, if not for reflecting sky and trees around it?  In a day or two of digging there it was.  It worked too.  Not only did it reward me with little ripples upon its surface at times, but those ripples could also be seen from my kitchen window- that perch which acted as my final seat of judgement of whether my vision was realized or not.  True my pool was small.   Only three feet by four and just about eight inches deep.  But it was unwittingly shaped like an eye that grew silver,  gold,  and occasionally hazel when the clouds allowed the sky to peek through.  An eye of liquid that mirrored a hovering birch branch or flying bird.  An eye in the landscape.  I rested and thought about how my vision turned out to be an eye.  

Spring ran on and newer larger leaves on the birch added green to the eye while greater warmth of the air stole water from it.  My eye was shrinking and shrinking fast.  It then dried up.  It would fill with  a hard rain, spill over even, but cruelly return to a dark socket of dirt. This told me I was new here. Nature was not unconditionally permeable to my occasional insolence and groping ideas of landscape design.   Evaporation,  this foe, was now abetted by a retreating water table which absconded with my water and probably was having its ineluctable way with it deep below the surface.  I became jealous and grieved.  

I knew I must win back the heart of my vision.  Scheming and plotting,  I would resort to any trick to fool Nature into giving me what I felt was rightfully mine.   But I also knew Nature had a vested interest and owned more than half of my venture’s shares.   I figured I’d better have Nature, either in entirety or by proxies, sitting with me by the water table at the next board meeting.  

I could  only enter the water table’s lair, by digging deeper.  I could only minimize water loss by making the basin wider, longer, and deeper, thereby  yielding a substantial volume of water to resist evaporation.  In a rush of mind I felt I might even unearth more springs!  

I  invested in a pick (a girlish one with a red handle), shovels, wheelbarrows, pails and rope.  I was enticed into the gravel then onto the moist sand of the capillary fringe, that interface with saturation.  Occasionally rain filled the bottom of my basin with a few inches of muddy water.  

One summery day, after a drench, I noticed a wood frog investigating me.   It was bobbing in the water and looking directly at me.  Can I tell you how I was charmed by an acknowledgment such as this and in turn so grateful, that I found the urge to make a pact with the frog (and I also knew the rest of Nature would be  listening).  Trying to not sound too ironic  I said:  “I’m digging this for you, you know.”  
But the frog just appraised blankly like frogs are wont to do. 
“That’s right. I promise you  a home”.  I felt had the final word.   The frog stayed put, bobbing while I dug the rest of the day filling buckets of earth and water and dumping them on the shores.  When it would occasionally disappear I took care not to accidentally evict the frog to whom I had just promised a home.   

My digging intensified greatly.  I dug by moonlight. I dug in rain,  I dug when I cried.  I dug while I sang.  I’d slip and fall down digging- getting up just to fall into the mud again. I was called flat out crazy by some.  A lunatic.  For digging under a full moon?  Well, I needed the moon’s opinion too.  Besides, it was so kind to illuminate my venture. 

“Why don’t you just get somebody with a back hoe to dig it out for you?”.  

A back hoe?  NO!  I’m the one having this conversation with my  soon-to-be-pond, not a man with some machine.  Not that I didn’t give the back hoe idea a thought myself.  But I knew I couldn't do that.

The winter returned but that did not dissuade me from digging and dredging.  The water also continued its cooperative nature by making my work much easier.  Water helped me dig in the ice and snow as it melted and softened any of the ground it permeated. I could take out the ground in chunks of ice. For that unexpected bonus, I was often thankful and praised the water.   But while the pool was  shaping up to become a large basin of mud and ice I saw it as uglier than a cesspool.  I  started thinking that the honeymoon with my vision was over and I started seeing my vision as a displaced cesspool.  But I was to keep that to myself which allowed my continued digging.  

One day I was expecting the UPS man to arrive with a package.  After I heard he’d arrived, I walked up to the house in my muddy work clothes, my hair and face smeared both with viscously fresh and caked loam.  I greeted him then told him not to mind my appearance.  I was in the middle of “cleaning the bathroom”.  I don’t know how he responded because by the time I finished my words I was bent over in hysterics and he was gone.  That’s what Nature was doing to me.  Making me submit to uncontrollable giddiness and un-welcomed bathroom humor. 

Because the emerging pond had become so ugly that winter, come early spring I pledged the pool to be festooned with wild flowers I planned to start from seed.  Yet it was clearer the cesspool was not itself anymore.  It had groped towards me as bits of native greenery spontaneously emerged around it.  It was more defined and rich.  It acknowledged its depth... five feet.  It submitted to its own length.... twenty five feet and nearly as wide.  I stopped digging and looked.  The silt settled.  It was actually becoming something, a something I had been seeing only in my mind’s eye for a couple of years now.  I both knew it intimately yet was  detached and  astonished by it.  It was a wonderfully familiar alien.

I channeled the excess run off down a small but effective cascade of rocks.  It gurgled.  I planted more flowers all around to give it a crowning glory.  I tidied up.  I admired it, I meditated upon it, I was mesmerized by it.  I almost slept with it.

While one late May afternoon, when I could not think of anything more to do, I sat with my back against one of the mossy boulders under which so many of my springs emerged.  The sun had started to make its descent through the trees and refracted light hit the water then it reflected, refracted, and projected the imaged ripples across the flat face of one of the giant stones which now acted as a screen to reflect the pond to itself.   As the pond beheld itself while I beheld it I noticed a frog beholding me beneath a marsh marigold blossom.   It stared directly at me and ballooned its membranes.  My work was done.  I said to the frog “See?  I told you I would make a place for you to live”.  

I was satisfied.  I had kept the pledge to all involved, to all who signed up.  As the sun drew down, I rose and began to walk up the slope of lawn, through the proscenium of birch, turning often to see what the pond looked like from as many angles and altitudes that I chance inspired.  There was a rich shadow and a mysterious contrast to the land.  The air was exuberantly soft, yet dry, cooling, fragrant and clear.  I reluctantly said so-long to the pond and entered the house just to make my way to the kitchen window where my husband was waiting.  Over the sink we looked out from my perch of judgment.  There it was.  A  tarn of limpid spring water peeking through “Nature’s Gothic Doorway”.  

It was in my contemplation and my husband's momentary departure from the sink  when I caught sight of a large splash followed by waves  hitting the pond's shores.  Some very large frog I thought.  Maybe even a bull frog.  But through the birches I saw a duck.  By the looks of it, a female.  Then came another duck.  A male.  Any male duck was a mallard to me and this one was painted particularly beautiful shades of caramel, red, purple- iridescent- rainbow, emerald green, indigo... all outlined in a bright white.  Seeing it broke my trance and I called my husband back.  

He said "That is the most beautiful duck I’ve ever seen, I wonder what kind it is”.  

“A mallard”, I said.  

“Oh no it’s not” he said.  “That is the most beautiful duck in the world”.  

Since neither of us knew what kind of duck it was, I decided to identify it with the help of a bird book that came with the house.  It took no time to identify it as a wood duck.  The first line of text describing it was: 

"Considered by many to be the most beautiful duck in the world...”

Now had I a vision of digging a pond so that two  unfamiliar birds would find it and swim and take up courtship activities there every morning and evening for two weeks at the end of that May, I never could have done it.    Nature made sure I knew it was pleased. I was given the gift of a vision I could have never envisioned.


  1. Just delightful. You know those smiles you get when you read or see something that makes you feel that the world can be just fine sometimes... yeah, one of those. Thanks.


  2. A beautiful story, with lovely photos! Thanks for sharing.