Manifestations From the Pond

Our pond is small, compared to those on nearby country properties, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Basically it’s a frog pond only five feet deep in the middle, a third of its depth the primordial muck that incubates dragonfly nymph s and mosquito larvae. Twenty years ago, a back-hoe pulled down a slimy cement pool that filled this corner of our acre lot. Gravelly dirt was dumped in the hole to make a ball field for our children; but spring water and cattails reclaimed this hollow as a mating pool for toads and frogs. So, five years later, another back-hoe dug a new pond and my husband, Ed, spent the rest of the summer shaping its edges and bordering a small grassy ledge with rocks for our chairs and umbrella.

At first, we envisioned deep water with sunfish and perch swimming the bottom and a profusion of ferns and water plants ringing the shoreline. When we planted marsh marigolds, blue flag, and an elder bush in choice spots, native jewelweed, boneset, and Joe Pye weed picked their own places in the boggy parts. When we lodged white and pink water lilies in the middle of the pond, pickerelweed and arrowhead surrounded them and stood erect like commas on opposite shores. Then cattails repossessed the outlets, and uninvited grasses and goldenrod crowded out the turtlehead and cardinal flower. Tough roots of yellow irises, once thought beautiful, grabbed a toehold on as much shoreline as possible, and proliferated into an invincible foe. Gradually, our vision of an artistic landscape of ferns and wetland wildflowers was replaced by a grudging appreciation of both the alien and native plants thriving in the clay soil around our pond. For amid unruly weeds, we glimpsed tiny blue spots of water forget-me-nots and white sprinklings of bedstraw. Next to the rocks we identified bristly nut grass and pink, trailing smartweed, all modest flora offering unique shapes and colour if we but noticed their unobtrusive presence.

After a few years, we conceded that the natural world had its own agenda best left to observe rather than manipulate. When we paid attention, small manifestations revealed themselves, some humorous, some profound, most ephemeral, but all unexpected revelations to be marveled at from the confines of our Algonquin chairs under a green umbrella.

Every mid-April along the margins of the pond, the invisible peeper frogs herald the opening act of the Nocturnal Mating and Territorial Squabbling Season. Soon the elongated trills of the toads, like fingernails on a comb, join this amphibious musical. As the weather warms, the high-pitched tremolo of elusive tree frogs moves from wood to water. Finally in early June, when the shrill calls of the peepers fade away, green frogs add their rubber-band twang to the choir. Occasionally, the rapid, hollow notes of a solitary leopard frog resonate as he seeks a mate in waters that are as busy as a Roman bath in the dark. Come mornings, all is quiet. But along the shore lie jelly masses of frogspawn and, twined around the lily pads, strings of toad eggs whose black dots evolve, if not eaten by predators, into hundreds of tadpoles wriggling in the warm water of the edges. A month later on the day of metamorphosis the border grass vibrates when innumerable brown toads, smaller than pennies, hop towards the grape arbour and out into the wide world of the yard.

During this coupling tumult, spontaneous Frog Wars erupt as green frogs vie for footage along the shoreline. One low croak begins the challenge. A dozen twangs of varying pitches echo around the pond. Like sumo wrestlers, frogs grab opponents and tumble in the shallows. Moments later, losers concede defeat and retreat to prior-claimed territory. Then another couple takes the stage and repeats this performance to the delight of its human audience. These acts of macho-mating recur well into June, when the weary actors disperse to drier parts of the garden and fatten up for winter’s long sleep.

With summer’s approach, the air above the pond’s surface pulsates with the darting zigzags of dragonflies and damselflies. Two-Spot, Nine-Spot, Common Whitetail Red-veined Darter, and Green Darner. After spending most of their lives underwater as ghostly nymphs, they stealthily crawl up spiky reeds, breathe the night air, and shed their larval skins which stick to plant stems like transparent clothes on a line. These ancient insects patrol the pond and devour mosquitoes, midges, flies, always attacking their prey from below. On sunny days, the air close to the pond’s edge dances with the unabashed coupling of Blue Ringtails riding tandem. Over and over, these slender acrobats form circles and hearts before the female deftly deposits her eggs on reeds below the water’s surface. In late summer, as the air cools, Rubyspots rest on rocks, chairs, arms, anyplace warm, and then resume their last minute pairing before an autumn frost ends their brief lives.

These breeding rituals fascinate us. One day, we watched the non-stop labour of a Green Darner gliding from stem to stem, never resting in her rhythmic exertion to reproduce another generation before the sun sank behind the cedars. Suddenly, from under a lily pad, a green frog leapt up and swallowed her in one gulp. Only our stunned silence witnessed her transformation from sustainer to sustenance in this peculiar dance of death and rebirth. One moment a dragonfly laying eggs, the next moment nutrients being rearranged into amphibious cells…premonitions of our own dust to dust mortality.

In my dictionary, the verb “observe” means to watch carefully, to witness, to watch without taking part. Silently, from the confines of my chair, I behold the nuanced life of the obscure—tadpoles, minnows, damsel flies—all creatures indistinguishable from another, all alive for one long moment of a season, seemingly to flicker in their beauty and then to feed the turtles, birds, frogs, toads – creatures of a higher order that emerge on logs, branches, and margins of the pond, all alive in their splendor for a few more seasons. To my ear “observe” sounds much like “absorb” which is to soak up or incorporate something into a larger entity in a way that loses much of its own identity.

My time by the pond is spent observing life and being absorbed by it. Moved by the saga of the Green Darner, I reflect on becoming part of a larger whole, part of a universe replicated in the life of this country pond. At times, my monkey mind quiets, the past and future meld into present. My being hovers briefly over water, pulsating gently, like the rhythmic undulation of a damsel fly levitating near the rushes. The mysterious, relentless passage of time ceases for an instant and I relax into divine tranquility, sensing dimly how my cells will one day be absorbed into a greater whole, and with relief, all will be well with my soul.

This pond has anchored us to our property. Late breakfasts, lunches after chores, and countless coffee breaks “down by the pond” offer quick retreats from May through October. Lazy Sunday afternoons suggest opening a book and drifting into a nap. But most often, we just recharge our spirits with glimpses of reticent creatures in the water. “Have you seen the turtles yet?” we ask each other when the peepers announce spring. Come summer and into the fall, we scan the pond for yellow-striped noses with black eyes that peer back at us; or we look for lily pads shifting jerkily as a turtle navigates under-water stems. The first summer our pond was dug, a neighbour girl excitedly told us she saw a turtle swimming there. Sure enough, a black head with a yellow chin poked above the water’s surface. In the dusk, we saw faint flecks of yellow dotting its shell. After a little research, we realized that a rare Blanding’s turtle had discovered our pond.

Three Junes later, a painted hatchling crawled across our godson’s driveway, and was plopped into an aquarium for the summer. When the weather cooled, Isaac chose our pond for its release into hibernation. Not wary of people, this growing turtle often swam under lily pads close to our chairs. Then it would paddle away searching for larvae before disappearing into the tangle of pickerelweed and cattails. Once, another painted turtle crept across our lawn, presumably migrating from the swampy, cedar woods across the street. It too took up residence in the pond, along with those whose shells had been split by cars.

Most of these wanderers outgrew our sanctuary and climbed its banks, heading for the nearby stream where they likely floated to Lake Ontario or another wetland downstream. We mourned each loss, but eventually accepted their need for other habitats, knowing that other turtles will make their way to our watery haven. In the infinite sky above our land, more than seventy species of birds fly past or rest in its trees while migrating north and south. A dozen camp and picnic in the maples, cedars, and spruces surrounding the house, some for the mating season, others as year-long inhabitants. Goldfinches chatter, looping from tree to tree. Chickadees flit about the feeders rasping “chicka-dee-dee-dee” over and over again. In the garden, jays screech while picking apart the sunflowers. None of these birds seem to visit the pond, except for surreptitious drinks at the water’s edge.

In early summer, the iridescent grackles take over this campground and swimming hole. They raid the canteen feeders. They wade along the muddy shore fishing for minnows. As they raise their young, they clean house by strafing the pond with bird droppings aimed directly at our chairs. For weeks, their constant raspy “vaaak-vaaak” fills the air, until one week in mid-summer, when the fledglings fend for themselves, they clear out for festivities further north and free our open-air band-shell for other avian acts.

In sporadic appearances, a green heron squawks past the pond and hides behind a cedar curtain, bobbing awkwardly on a branch until he deems it safe to fish for minnows and hapless frogs below. This feathered ‘Ed Sullivan’ hunches close to the irises, waiting motionless for prey while keeping a steady eye on his audience, equally motionless across the pond. If pickings are slim in one spot, he crosses lily pads on long, yellow legs to search beneath the elder. Once, absorbed in the hunt, the heron ignored our son Jesse’s camera clicks as he captured the subtle colours of grey-green wings and brown feathers on an out-stretched neck. Subsequent sightings have been rare, as this small, solitary heron, like all good fishermen, seeks its catch at dusk and dawn.

More often, the large, blue heron fishes the stream and pond. One late summer afternoon, it swooped in and settled on the top of the green umbrella, its feet outlined above my startled head. Even our dog’s low growls did not deter its desire to fish. Long wings propelled long legs to the shallow water where it searched for prey despite Chester’s now persistent barking. After an eternity of ten minutes, I released his squirming body from my lap to sprint closer to the pond’s edge. With a slow, steady flap of its wings, the heron lifted off to the north and, clearing the top branch of a black walnut, flew to a quieter fishing hole in the cedar woods.

Over the years, colour, shape, and light, rather than animal visitations, have inspired our family’s creation of Pond Art. Ed’s painted long shots and Jesse’s photographed close-ups hang in many homes north and south of the border, extending the reach of our outdoor retreat to family and friends. Reflected irises, wide sweeps of lily pads, low-hanging elder branches heavy with purple fruit are replicated on canvases suggesting the transparencies of a northern Giverny. Close-up photographs entitled “Pond Geometry” and “Pond Refuse” reveal minutia of water lilies and cattails – the raindrops on decaying leaves, an autumn tangle of flattened stems, the pink underside of a lily pad. While wonder pulls us to the pond, the artist’s eye and the camera’s lens capture its abstractions – complimentary colours of reds and greens, contrasted shapes of straight and round, changing light of sun and shadow, and always the miracle of reflection transposing vertical life onto a horizontal plane. Pond Art converts scenes too intricate to be absorbed into digestible fare, enabling us to perceive beauty in places that reflect featureless repetition or uninspiring chaos.

Absorbed in wonder, we assume our role as stewards of this rural slice of earth, this shared dwelling. We realize there is little difference between the inconspicuous and the amazing; all are caught up in the cycles of life, death, and rebirth; all play a part in this complex community of pond and shore life.

When days grow shorter, the lily pads yellow and decay. Their flowers scarcely open on warm fall days, until one by one, they disappear below the water’s surface. By October there are no more blooms, no more turtle sightings, and only a few Rubyspots resting on the reeds. Instead, in the fire-red reflections of sumacs on the pond’s surface, minnows leap into the air, no longer afraid of predatory frogs and birds. On clear days, the sun spreads a warm light over the faded foliage. A lone cricket repeats a rhythmic note in the grass. A creeping stillness fills the air. Then the first, hard frost crisps everything brown and ushers in the closing act of another year.

By November, cold rains have pulled the leaves off trees and plastered them to the ground. Chalk-white skeletons of birches are etched against cedars that have shed a carpet of needles along the edge of the stream. All the foliage has browned and shrunk back to earth, wrapping it like a shawl against northern winds. Most days, the chairs are empty and, eventually, are carried, with the umbrella, to the storage shed. Only the sky is reflected in the pond, sometimes blue, sometimes steel grey, while the somber crows “caw, caw” high overhead. When nighttime temperatures dip below –5 degrees Celsius, we pull the feeder pipe out of the stream, and rely on winter rain and snow melt to maintain a watery cover for hibernating creatures. Sometimes, on cold clear nights, over the thickened ice, hoar frost scatters intricate ice crystals that sparkle in the early morning sun, beckoning us to gaze in astonishment at winter’s encore.

But once the snow deepens, we only glimpse this frozen habitat during daily trips to the chicken coop. For months, the pond is asleep, tranquil, waiting—waiting for early March when maple sap moves like an elevator up and down the tree trunks and ice melts around the shore’s edge, offering a resurrection of hope and, once more, the grace of its manifestations.

(this piece was originally published in Hill Spirit II)

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