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 arch formed by opposing copses of enormous white paper birches; their tallest branches meeting high above the lawn’s center stage. I called 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 made a subtle snaking terrace of grass.
It was in contemplation of all this when I was met with a few large mossy rocks, boulders actually, and a distinct squish beneath my feet. Bending down, I saw small percolations of spring water 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 “stream” like a large ooze creating a fan of soggy lawn. I could barely contain my excitement. An onlooker may have seen my muted jump for joy. I became instantly obsessed with visions of what my soggy lawn fan could become.
I rushed up to the kitchen and equipped with a very large serving spoon, scooped out a few spoonfuls of ground releasing more water from its high table just beneath the grass . The more I dug the more water gushed out. My mind feverishly had its way with both spoon and ground as I fantasized what must certainly be a torrent just below the surface. It was then I came up with a plan. I’d merge all these springs into a stream that was to tumble, froth, and foam as it swept all its way down to the woods and for that I was going to need a shovel.
Trading in spoon for spade, I excavated around the springs . As water emerged and descended the slope, I guided them by taking spadefuls of earth and directed them to converge. With each spring I had the same dialogue. Some of the springs did not seem to like my bullying, domineering nature, rather, they stubbornly stayed submerged beneath thicker mud and bigger stones. So at times I relented, letting them have their way because I knew my plan was a good one and as long as I didn’t force the issue, Nature would eventually agree with me in the end. It was just that Nature didn’t know it yet. I knew it would take days and days of digging, sloshing, negotiating, arguing with , submitting to, but occasionally dominating the subterranean ocean I was sure I was now in charge of.
A stream was indeed there... sort of. By now, it had all the water I could summon from its modest headwaters. All the water it was ever to get all year, in fact, because it was early Spring. My efforts produced a small but respectable brooklet. Nevertheless I was pleased. I ran the sixty yards or so up to the house and into the kitchen. I looked out the 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. I squinted. I wanted to believe my eyes saw what was not really there but what they wished was: A stream. Any stream. Finally with the shift of the sun, as it was beginning to set, I saw glimmers of backlit water. So, it really was there. I would just have to wait till the sun’s position in the sky was just so or resort to binoculars. But neither option was satisfying. A revision of my plan was therefore needed. WHY? I wanted to see water. I wanted to see water from every room that overlooked the back yard, and that meant nearly every room in the house. So, my dream remained lofty as I reluctantly realized my resources were more meager than I anticipated.
Still, a vision is a vision and what does one replace a vision failed than with another vision? A new plan. A pool! So clever I thought. So easily done. I had already done the hard work and gotten the springs to obey me (with some tacit compromise of course) making them form a single runnel (I could now admit my stream was no more than a largish runnel because I now had a better dream, a more satisfying vision). All I’d have to do is dig something for the runnel to flow into and contain the water so 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 matter of a day or two there it was. It worked. Not only did it reward me with little ripples upon its surface, but those ripples could be seen from my kitchen window, that perch which acted as final judge of whether my vision was realized or not. True my pool was small, only three feet by four and about eight inches deep. But, it was shaped like an eye which grew silver and then gold and occasionally hazel when the clouds allowed the sky to peek through. An eye of liquid mirroring 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 continued. New leaves on the birch added green to my eye while greater warmth stole water from it. My eye was shrinking and shrinking fast. It then dried up. Yes, it would fill with a hard rain, spill over even, only to cruelly return to a dark hollow socket. I was new here. Nature was not junior to my groping expertise at landscape design. Evaporation my unexpected foe, was now abetted by a retreating water table which absconded with my water, having its 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 knew full well I would resort to any trick to fool Nature into giving me what I felt was rightfully mine. But I knew Nature had a vested interest and owned more than half of my venture’s shares so I figured I’d better have Nature sitting with me at the water table during our next board meeting.
I figured I could only enter the water table’s lair, by digging deeper. I could minimize water loss by making the basin wider, longer, and deeper, thereby yielding a substantial volume of water to resist evaporation. Who knew? I might even unearth more springs! The summer was the time to dig, before the Winter ice and snow and Spring run made dredging necessary with back breaking labor.
I invested in a pick (a girlish one with a red handle), shovels, wheelbarrows, pails and rope. I dug into the gravel with the moist sand enticing me with what just laid below. Occasionally, rain filled the bottom of my basin with a few inches of muddy water. On one summer day, after such a rain, I saw a frog had come to investigate my work. It was bobbing in the water looking directly at me. I was charmed by an acknowledgment such as this and so grateful that I made a pact with the green wood frog (I also knew the rest of nature would be listening).
“I’m digging this for you, you know!”
The frog looked at me, impassively, not judging, just blankly appraising like frogs are wont to do.
“That’s right. I promise you a home”.
The frog stayed put, bobbing, while I dug the rest of the day filling buckets of earth and water and dumping them on the shore. I took care not to accidentally evict the frog to whom I had just promised a home.
My digging intensified. I dug by moonlight. I dug in rain, I dug when I cried. I dug while I sang. I’d 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 it would not do.
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 ground it permeated. I could take out the ground in chunks. For that, I was often thankful and praised the water. After a while the pool was shaping up to be a large basin of mud and ice. It was uglier than a cesspool. Thinking the honeymoon might be over, I even started thinking of it as a cesspool.
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 caked with earth. I greeted him and told him not to mind my appearance. That I was just in the middle of “cleaning the bathroom”. I don’t know how he responded because by the time I finished my words, I was laughing myself blind with hysterics and he was gone. That’s what nature was doing to me. Making me submit to uncontrollable giddiness and probably un-welcomed bathroom humor.
Because the emerging pond had become so ugly that Winter, come early Spring I decided the pool was to be festooned with wild flower plants I was going to start from seed. But the pool was not simply a pool anymore. It had grown and began to take shape as bits of native green emerged around it. It became more defined and rich. It had become deep... five feet. It was long.... 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. Consequently, I felt like I both knew it intimately yet was detached and astonished by it. It was something so alien yet wonderful.
I had channeled the excess run off making a small but effective cascade down a staircase of rocks. It even made a sound. I planted more flowers all around to give it a crowning glory. I tidied up, I admired, I meditated, I was mesmerized. I almost slept with it.
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 was starting to make its descent through the trees and light was hitting the water so as to reflect and project the ripples upon the flat face of one of the giant stones which now acted as a screen. Watching this display for a few moments I noticed a frog beneath a marsh marigold blossom. It stared directly at me and ballooned its membranes. My work was done.
I told the frog “See? I told you I would make a place for you to live”.
Satisfied now, I got up 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 could. There was a rich shadow giving a mysterious contrast to the land. The air was soft, dry, cooling, fragrant and clear. I reluctantly said so-long to my pond and entered the house. I made my way to the kitchen where my husband was waiting. I went to the sink and looked out from my perch of judgment. There it was. A miraculous tarn of clear mountain spring water peeking through “Nature’s Gothic Doorway”.
It was in contemplation of all this when I caught sight of a large splash followed by waves which hit the shores. Some large frog I thought. Maybe a bull frog. But through the birches, I saw something entirely different. There, floating and bobbing, was a duck. By the looks of it, a female. Then another duck. A male. Now to me, any male duck is a mallard and this one was painted beautiful shades of caramel, red, purple iridescent rainbow, emerald green, and blue... all outlined in a bright white. Seeing something that beautiful overtook me and broke my silence.
My husband came to the window and said
“Oh, wow! 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. 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 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.