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The pond at the center of the universe

From Gene Logsdon (1991)

The man standing stone-post-still on the shoreline of The Pond was watching a muskrat swimming on the water surface, its wake forming a V-shaped ripple of scarlet fading to indigo against the sunset. Without turning his head, which might scare the muskrat into diving underwater and scooting for its den, the man also watched, out of the corner of his eye, a great blue heron drifting down out of the sky toward him.

He was used to seeing the heron on its nightly trip up the creek valley, headed back to the rookery where most of Wyandot County’s herons, silent and solitary by day, gathered to roost. But this time, the huge slate-gray bird, its wingspan over five feet, was doing something wary great blue herons do not normally do. It continued to drift down in the twilight, made a pass over the pond, and then turned straight at him as if to land on one of the posts that held the homemade pier he was standing on. Forgetting the muskrat, but still not moving a muscle, the man watched aghast as the great bird hovered above him, like an avenging angel, and perched right on top of his head.

Not many people would have the steely nerves to suffer, without moving, a great blue heron’s talons gripping his head, but this man, my brothter-in-law, is not known in these parts for reacting to anything in an ordinary manner. He had already realized that no one was going to believe him unless he caught the bird. He started inching his right hand up the side of his body. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Gotcha! With one swift grab, he snatched the heron’s legs in his hand like a chicken thief removing a hen from the roost and bore his prize homeward so that all the neighborhood might see and believe. His family gathered round, ignorant of the danger involved. None of them knew that great blue herons can skewer an unsuspecting human’s eyeball right out of its socket with one lightning stab of its beak. This time, fortunately, its captor wore glasses and when the heron jabbed at him, it only knocked the glasses from his head. When another onlooker reached for the glasses, the heron speared him in the hand, having endured, it seemed, enough human attention for one day. A quick decision was reached. In the case of herons, better two in the bush than one in the hand. The bird haughtily stalked away, looking like the dignified old lady who hoped no one was watching when the wind momentarily blew her dress over her head. Then it regally pumped its wings up and down, slowly lifted itself into the air and flew away.

Life at The Pond, as we have always called it, has been full of such adventures. One of my sisters, who lives where she can see The Pond out her window, watched a cormorant repeatedly waddle out on the diving board, raise its wings slightly in the typical way cormorants do, and dive in. My sister assumed the bird was diving for fish, but she was not sure. “It looked exactly as if it were just having a good time,” she says. “And who knows. Maybe it was.”

Another day, I arrived at The Pond for a hockey game to see about a dozen little nieces and nephews sprawled out, face down on the ice. My first thought was that they had finally done it—killed each other in one grand hockey massacre. Closer examination, however, revealed that they were peering down through the crystal-clear ice at a trio of snapping turtles, their carapaces as big as meat platters, clearly visible scarcely two feet below, lolling on the pond bottom as if it were June. If we all laid there without movement, fish would congregate under our bodies, obeying an instinct to hide under logs, which they now mistook us for. The ice had become a giant television screen, tuned to nature’s own PBS station.

Three generations of our family have worked, played, fought (the only verb that properly describes our hockey games), picnicked, swum, camped out, made out, and celebrated holidays around The Pond. Most of all it has been a haven where any of us could come when the need to be alone hit us, to sit and slip out of the consciousness of self and into the arms of a little wilderness that thrums and hums with enough activity to keep a naturalist occupied for a lifetime or two. It is not an accident that Thoreau gained inspiration for his best nature writing on the shores of a pond.

A pond, surrounded by meadow and with a grove of trees growing nearby, attracts and concentrates an amazing diverstiy of wildlife. In this humdrum corn-belt country of north-central Ohio, The Pond has hosted, by my count, over forty different kinds of wild animals, not counting hockey players. In addition, we have identified at least 130 bird species around, on, or above The Pond. I have not begun to learn the names and numbers of different insects, the most fascinating pond wildlife of all. There is a little water bug, for example, by the name of Hydrocampa propiralis, which likes to eat the leaves of water weeds. However, it can’t swim or is too lazy to try, and so, like a good American, it uses technology instead. It builds itself a tiny boat out of bits of leaves, and sails off into the wild blue yonder.

As I play Thoreau and watch the life of this little wilderness in action, there evolves in my inner vision, a scene of seething, roiling, dynamic consumption. The Pond is an endless, entwined, labyrinthian dining table, at which sit the eaters being eaten. Barbaric as that vision seems, it is the accurate view of nature, a view without which ecology remains only a vague word, incomprehensible to both environmentalists who wish to protect nature and entrepreneurs who wish to subdue and exploit nature. The Pond teaches that life is not so much a progression from birth to death but a circle of eating and being eaten, the chemicals of one body passing on to form another. A frog becomes a charming prince or vice versa, not by a kiss but by the magic of the biological chain of life.

I sit on the bank and peer into a clump of cattails. As Yogi Berra said: “You can observe an awful lot, just by watching.” A muskrat chomps on the rhizomes at the bases of the cattails. The rhizomes are good for humans, too, if cooked like potatoes. (The young pollen spikes, steamed, are offered as gourmet food in fancy restaurants, and “ears” of this “cattail corn” sell in specialty West Coast supermarkets.) However, the muskrat must enjoy its delicacy with one eye over its shoulder, watching for mink, for whom muskrats are a delicacy. (Muskrats make good human food, too.) The mink, in turn, had better be alert for the great horned owl nesting in the woods next to The Pond. The owl is not at all deterred by the odorous oil the mink can unleash, skunklike, when disturbed, and Mrs. Great Horned Owl’s young would appreciate a change in diet from the red-winged blackbirds she has lately been snatching off the cattails where the birds roost.

Sunfish hide among the cattails, where they hope the big bass will not find them. The sunfish look for snails to eat, which in turn are feeding on algae. If the sunfish watch out only for bass, they may not notice the little Eastern green heron standing like a statue at the shoreline, ready to grab and gobble them. And if they elude both bass and heron, the kingfisher, which sits on the dead branch of the shoreline hickory tree, may dive-bomb into the water and spear them. If the kingfisher is not around, beware of cormorants practicing for the Olympics.

The algae, meanwhile, compete with the cattails for nutrients in the wastes dropped by muskrat and heron and redwing. A frog sits among the cattails, too, half hidden by them and its own camouflage colors. The frog doesn’t know that the cattails and the other pondweeds protect it; they just make a convenient place to hide while it waits to snatch flying bugs attracted by the pondweeds’ flowers. On the upper stalk of a cattail, a dragonfly perches, waiting patiently to make dinner of a mosquito buzzing by. In The Pond, dragonfly larvae feed on mosquito larvae while fish feed on both. Attached to the cattail stalks under water, often in symbiotic nutritional relationship to them, are diatoms and blue-green algae being eaten not only by snails, but various insects and worms. Other types of algae—filamentous algae drifting in the water—become food for bullfrog and toad tadpoles. The snapping turtles, themselves being parasitized by leeches sucking their blood, will eat some of the bullfrog tadpoles, and I will eat some of them after they grow up to be frogs. And, by and by, I shall eat a turtle, too.

Even those plants and animals that die a “natural” death—the most unnatural death of all—do not escape the feast at nature’s table. Bacteria eat decaying matter on the pond bottom, and produce ammonia. Other bacteria “eat” the ammonia and turn it into nitrites. Still other bacteria turn the nitrites into nitrates. The algae and plankton then eat the nitrates and turn them into proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals in them begin the long climb up through the biological food chain. If that sounds complicated, understand that I am oversimplifying the process exceedingly.

The largest or most cunning eaters at the head of the table are kept from destroying the whole food chain because they are the most vulnerable to changes or shortages in the menu—as the dinosaurs once proved. The exception to the circle of diners is rational man, who is clever enough to find sustenance in almost any part of the food chain, but who also has the chilling freedom to rise above it, to act against nature. Thus, man, when he does not understand the full impact of his awesome powers, becomes nature’s greatest danger.

As I watch, The Pond becomes a giant magnet attracting the wildlife around it. The barn swallow skims the surface of the water for bugs, the raccoon and opossum fish from the shoreline, the deer come down to the water for a drink, a black rat snake basks in the sun, having already raided a redwing’s nest and satiated itself. A cedar waxwing flutters above the water for bugs. A wood duck floats on it, diving for food. A fly catcher darts out over it and back again to a tree. A buzzard soars high above it all, watching me, hoping that my stillness means I’m dying and that it can get to me before the undertaker does.

My father built The Pond in 1950, with his little Allis Chalmers WD tractor and its hydraulic manure scoop substituting for a bulldozer. Whether he knew it or not—not having any technical engineering experience in such matters—he picked an almost perfect spot for a farm pond. About a fourth acre in size, The Pond drains water from hardly a ten-acre watershed, almost all of it in woodland so that no silt-laden water from cultivated farmland, saturated with fertilizers and toxic chemicals, can wash into it. Most amateurs want to build a dam that catches the runoff from many more acres than that, which means a large pond, which is hard to take care of properly, and an expensive mechanical spillway, plus an even larger emergency spillway to keep water from overflowing and washing away the earthen dam. The Pond has no pipe and concretebox spillway at all, only an emergency grass spillway, off to the side of the dam, which, despite expert opinion to the contrary, has proved to be all that is necessary, barring some catastrophic flood. Our kind of pond, using an earthen dam to hold the water, is called an embankment pond. The other kind of artificial pond is referred to technically as an excavated pond, easier to build and maintain because it is hardly more than a big hole dug in the ground. Many excavated ponds can be found in north-west Ohio on generally level ground, or dug into big hillsides in the more mountainous sourthern regions, or along highways where the soil was excavated for roadbed construction. Embankment ponds are more characteristic of gently rolling country where small ravines cut through low, but relatively steep, hills.

Neighbors stopped by during the summer construction work on The Pond to speculate about when, or if, it would fill with water. Uncle Ade finally reached a verdict.

“It won’t fill up for two years,” he wailed. He always talked as if he had to drown out the roar of a grain harvester.

“And it’ll dry up every August,” Uncle Lawrence chimed in.

Dad, who did not get along very well with either Lawrence or Ade—or, come to think of it, anyone else—paid no attention to them as he scooped the dirt out of the ravine and pushed it into a pile for the dam. The Pond was overflowing by Thanksgiving.

The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) agent also stopped by to cast dubious eyes on the project. He offered to survey and design the dam properly, which Dad took as a kind of effrontery.

“Don’t need government help,” he said.

“But if you let us design it, the government will pay a third or more of the cost,” the technician explained.

“Yeah, and if I do it your way, it will cost me three times as much, too,” Dad snorted.

As a result of Dad’s stubborness, our dam leaked a little, not having the prescribed clay core in the center of it. It had a number of other minor flaws, too, but with some repairs now and then where muskrats tried to dig holes through the dam, it has neither washed away nor gone dry in forty years.

Dad would not take the wildlife experts’ advice on stocking the pond either. The standard stocking practice in those days was so many largemouth bass to so many bluegills, which, time would prove, led to a pond overpopulated with bluegills that did not grow to practical size for either eating or catching. (Nowadays, you can stock your pond with hybrid bluegills that are sterile or with channel catfish that do not usually propagate new generations in ponds.) Dad put only largemough bass in The Pond, big lunkers he caught someplace else. Anyone who hooked one of those lunkers had to throw it back in. “You’ll see,” he said. “they will cannibalize most of their own young, and so we’ll have no overpopulation and the remaining bass will grow to good size.” The wildlife experts sniffed their disapproval and left. One day in 1957, several of us caught ninety-eight bass, all of a pound or more in weight, which seemed to us to settle the argument in Dad’s favor. (About that time we did heed the advice of the SCS and planted “living fences” of multiflora rose on the farm, which eventually turned into a living hell of briars. I have not much listened to expert advice since then.)

The SCS had more luck with citizens less contrary than my father, which would include nearly everyone except me. Even if its multiflora rose and autumn olive are turning many Ohio pastures and woodlots into one huge living hell of briars (someone has suggested that there might be some good come in it—the multiflora in eastern Ohio may eventually stop the flow of East Coast garbage into the state), the Service can boast justifiably that it has designed and helped build an estimated 9,000 artificial ponds and small lakes in Ohio. No one seems to know how many artificial ponds there are in the state altogether, but SCS officials in Columbus estimate about 10,000, counting those not assisted by SCS, “and maybe more.” The federal pond-building program was probably the most beneficial government effort for the public good ever funded, so, naturally, it has been all but dropped. Farm ponds can, in some cases, slow the runoff of water to rivers, alleviating the effects of floods and decreasing the amount of soil erosion. The water that is held back may recharge groundwater or evaporate back into the atmosphere to recharge the hydrologic cycle. The ponds further benefit society by taking out of cultivation land that often should not be farmed anyway, ravines and hills that profit-squeezed farmers would otherwise be planting in erosive row crops. Also, ponds near houses and barns can be used for fire protection, and thus lower insurance rates. Many ponds, particularly in the northwestern part of the state, as around Defiance, are used as source of house and drinking water to get away from high-sulfer well water. In many parts of the state, particularly in the southern hilly regions, ponds were built for livestock water even before the SCS came into being. Some ponds are also used for irrigation purposes.

But although Dad was full of ideas for growing fish commercially in our pond, and using the water, enriched with fish manure, to irrigate a super-duper market garden below the dam, The Pond has been used only for recreational and social purposes. It has been the symbolic, if not real, center of our family’s activity. All nine of us siblings still live in this rural county, six of us and our families more or less clustered around The Pond. Thousands of other Ohio ponds have served the same purpose for other families—a close-at-hand vacation spot and health spa. The only accessory The Pond lacks that can be found at other ponds is a cabin beside it. Next to The Pond lies what might be mistaken for a large lawn were it not for the bare spots that mark the bases and the pitcher’s mound. In summer we play softball, in fall football, and then the scene shifts to the ice for the hockey wars. In addition to the ubiquitous pier and diving board, The Pond has a small area of concrete apron on the shoreline where the third generation waded and played as tots, free of the mud, and with a sandpile beach above it. Steel posts, set in the concrete apron to hold the net that kept the children from wandering into deep water, stick dangerously above the ice during hockey season, and we have talked for years about cutting them off. But now a fourth generation is coming along, and the posts may be needed again.

The muddy bottom is the bane of all farm ponds, and the best way to avoid it is with a pier and a raft anchored in the middle of the pond, which is what most people do. My cousin, who happens to own a stone quarry, decided he would dump a few loads of crushed stone into his pond to make a mudless bottom. Ton upon ton upon ton he dumped. The stone just seemed to disappear into the bowels of the pond. The beach he made needed almost yearly additions of sand, too. What sand did not sink mysteriously into the earth ran off into the water and then sank mysteriously into the earth. He finally realized that, even with his own stone quarry, it was costlier to try to turn a farm pond into a swimming pool than to build a swimming pool.

His pond, known as Eagle Park for at least three-quarters of a century, was the scene of the original hockey wars before they moved two miles away to The Pond. The wars at Eagle Park involved the whole community and were dominated by Dad’s generation, especially Uncle Lawrence, who flew up and down the ice on racer skates, the blades of which were eighteen inches long. To keep playing after dark, we soaked straw bales in oil and burned them, one behind each goal. One afternoon, Uncle Lawrence, bored with hockey, drove his old, wooden-spoked truck out on the ice and skidded around in giddy circles, whooping like a kid. He finally overdid it and slammed the truck into the bank sideways so hard that one of the wooden wheels snapped in two. Undaunted, he fetched a tree branch out of the grove and wedged it in under the axle to serve as a sort of sled runner in place of the wheel. Still whooping, he drove the jalopy home that way.

Eagle Park in the 1920s and thirties really was a park, with a baseball diamond as well as the large pond for fishing and swimming, and a nice grove of hickories for picnicking. Across the road from it was a little red-brick schoolhouse, crumbling away today, which I suppose was the reason the park came to be there in the first place. Grandfather Rall built the pond, and he did not do it for frivolous reasons like providing the community with a park. He needed water for his sheep. He drained the pond once, and even though I was only a little boy then, I can still remember big catfish wriggling down the sheep paths below the dam in a couple inches of water, looking as out of place as a bishop on a manure spreader. Grandfather grazed sheep not only on the pasture around the pond but on the ball diamond, too. Waste not, want not, he said. Eagle Park had its own baseball team, which had the reputation of whipping all challengers. Fritz Cassel, who attended that little red schoolhouse and would later serve twenty years in the Ohio legislature, says he was the water boy. Literally. “Whenever a ball was hit into the pond, I had to go after it,” he says.

Since nearly everyone in the neighborhood was a farmer then, whenever the ice was thick enough, work stopped, whether it was midweek or weekend, to play hockey. Weekend was not a word in our vocabulary. I wonder now, after all these years of progress and prosperity, how many rural neighborhoods have a free park all to themselves, kept manicured at a profit by sheep, and with the time to enjoy it? When we were poorer, we were a whole lot richer.

The hockey wars shifted to The Pond largely because Dad installed lights that allowed us to follow our madness far into the night without fear of running into burning straw bales. And it continued for a while to serve as a community watering hole as well as a family gathering place, just as Eagle Park did and many ponds in Ohio still do. The Pond hosted lodge meetings and church groups (although not immersion baptisms as Eagle Park once did), and especially school parties. These parties moved from pond to pond, depending mostly on which owner had young people at the right age for such activities. But gradually, most of the ponds have become, for the time being, anyway, forgotten little domains of wild nature where only those with old memories go now and, long to, as James Whitcomb Riley said of his day, “Strip to the soul and dive once more into the old swimmin’ hole.”

But if the countryside empties of people, it fills with more wildlife. The deer that sift out of the woods for a drink at The Pond were unknown in the days when catfish swam down sheep paths. Canada geese, once very rare in these parts, have become a destructive pest around farm ponds. And even ten years ago, no one would have thought a cormorant possible here, let alone working on his half-gainer. Life is a wheel forever turning. Whatever goes around, comes around. I have a hunch even the young people will come back someday after they realize the cities have deluded them.

But one wild species, Homo hockiatis, is definitely dwindling, being found in all the county only on The Pond, and then only in reduced numbers. Will a whole crowd of them ever flock again to The Pond to beat each other with hockey sticks or sit on the bank by the fire drinking hot chocolate? I think the peak year was 1957, when even in February we were all still eager for one more game. Snow had fallen six inches deep on the ice, however, and a warm wind was melting it and the ice. Uncle Lawrence decided the only way to remove the wet snow quickly was with our Allis Chalmers and its manure scoop. Dad did not think much of the idea, but he went along with it. After all, this probably would be the last game of the season.

Since the tractor had little traction on the ice, Lawrence would start out in the grass, careening along in road gear till he got to The Pond, then drop the blade and let the weight of the tractor slide it and a scoopful of snow to the other bank. Halfway through the job, halfway across the pond, the thawing February ice gave way, and the tractor sank four feet into the water, while Lawrence sat astride the seat, whooping hysterically. “You’re still the craziest man I know,” Dad yelled at him, shaking his head. “Me crazy?” Lawrence roared with hyena-like laughter. “This is your tractor, not mine!”
~
See also Gene’s The Man Who Created Paradise
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts

Editorial Notes: Thanks to Dave Smith of OrganicToBe.

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