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Hard times are an opportunity to do the unthinkable.

 


OUT IN THE AIR



GATHERED AT THE POND

Laid Bare: The Ancient Ways of Water

Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V

by Jerry Murley

It has been barely a year since last we visited the pond and its environs together. Much has transpired in the intervening months.

Our old friend Bulward was carted off to be subdivided and reduced to ground beef. Not a fox, including Redrick, has been seen since the farmer started his campaign of trap and kill.

Off and on for two days in spring the pond and creek were flooded. Over a period of thirty-six hours, nineteen inches of rain fell on the area. Tree limbs, fence posts, bridge planks, sign posts, uprooted vegetation, and tons of rock both large and small floated and shoved their way down the hills along the creek and on the road and in the fields, lodging in the most peculiar places and manner. The castoffs of the road-walkers, the farmer, and passersby mingled with the rotting leavings of nature to concoct a jumble of debris. Animal nests, dens, and hovels were quickly inundated. Some washed away forever. All furry frequenters of the pond fled to steady ground. Some gone have not yet returned. Some never will.

As familiar forms and ancient ways of water take the course charted by capricious nature, each change brings longing for the bygone and unanticipated delight at the new. A family of frisky muskrats moved onto the creek bank where the river otters once roamed. On summer mornings, the road-walkers watch the muskrats swim back and forth carrying long green stems of grass upon which they and their kin feed along the shady bank.

First came the overabundance of rain and then a hot, harsh drought. The area suffered want of rain for five months. As with the cold during the winter before the flood, the heat in the summer that followed exceeded any the denizens of the pond or their ancestors had ever experienced.

Hard times are an opportunity to do the unthinkable. Due to periodic droughts, contamination of ground water by the flood, and the ever-present urge to expand, the farmer and neighboring men finally allowed the water utility to enter the hollow. The chair-walker had long championed a policy of slow growth and opposed the introduction of piped water into the area. But the chair-walker and other older veterans of common-sense principle have faded away, along with their exalted values. Principles not written, clearly conveyed, and locked in mutual agreement dissolve with the loss of elders and communal memory. Bereft youth is left to find them again.

The rights of water have a way of nourishing dissension among neighbors. Whereas one neighbor up the west hollow was willing to pay for piping in water for the purpose of dividing his land and enriching himself, the farmer permitted his property to serve as the gateway of the utility in exchange for access to fresh water himself. Whereas the old road-walker's family needed water desperately to fill its bathing pools, all the neighbors in between his land and the farmer were asked to join in the scheme. All did and volunteered to pay equally for the opportunity to open up the hollow to who knows what – all in a spirit of neighborliness spurred by a fear of being left high and dry. Some few acquired the extra burden of having to get utility water across the creek – most likely by digging under or into the solid-rock creek bed. Despite overall cooperation, the underlying impression the project made on a few reluctant participants was that a too-quick shotgun wedding had taken place and the bill for the dubious ceremony was huge. Hard feelings rose like bruises from a friendly tussle.

Disruption doubly applied to the pond – most especially among the animals who gather there. The water utility, having done much of the easy work first, tarried overlong into damp November before deciding to cross the pond. Unbeknownst to the animals who abide around the green waters, the farmer once recommended that the utility company fill the pond with dirt as a solution. Instead, the utility men drained the pond and dropped the pipes right across the still waters, the home of the giant turtle and the bullfrog. The frightened groundhog argued passionately that the path of the pipe laying should not disturb his underground home. Of course, the turtle and frog argued just as heatedly that it should avoid theirs. All of this bickering was fun for the crows, who mocked the small creatures mercilessly. That is until the water utility men pushed down the crows' favorite perch by the pond and road.


All these proceedings were carefully, and painfully, observed by old Gandy, the wise heron, who stood on his long, thin legs in the cold shadows of the creek bed. He saw the wet habitat of Bullfrog and Snagnap, the craggy old turtle, laid bare, drained of its precious water and transformed into a muddy pit. He heard Gwobbly, the fat groundhog, grumble as he scurried to safety at the approach of the water utility men. With eyes wide and downcast, Gandy turned away, unable to endure further spoilage of the glistening gathering place that for enumerable summers had so richly accommodated his animal brethren.

Lives around the pond were not even an afterthought in the goings-on of men. To want ill done to another is the gnarly root of evil. Pleasure at another's pain, though masked in righteous concern, is the original iniquity. Yet man was largely unaware. When natural competition tilts to wanton corruption, it is easier sensed than defined by reason, but it is not always perceived. Nature does not sow nor does she reap certain justice, but justice is no less useful or true for being a fabrication of man's ideals. Faulty exchange between man and man is difficult to see plainly; that between man and nature is obscured in the obvious. Nevertheless, not intending or not knowing is no pardon for what is done. Man develops, waste piles, flood comes, drought blisters, and man scratches and scrabbles for water. Other beings matter little. Though soaked in bounty, life ever stiffens its search for that which is fresh, for that which is pure. And man trashes it, once conquered.

It disparages ideals to do injury for little purpose but to dash the serenity and comity of beings and the integrity of place. There were, to be sure, other practical ends in the deeds of the neighbors and utility men. The pond was last disturbed, but it was also of negligible consideration all along.

The peace and plenty of the pond is sanctuary to its inhabitants and admirers. Though exposed to winter's wind as nothing more than a mudding bowl, though its banks may lie parched and barren in a sizzling summer sun, the pond will revive. The birds, the frogs, the turtles, and the hairy creatures will venture back once more to share their worries and their stories – to share the pond.

Water – life must have. But water will have its way. Man's drink and wash traverse the pond at cost to all who rely on it. Having bestirred the emerald pool, road-walkers look away in vacant chill from what was wrought. Nature will surely heal. Man will surely wreck again with little heed. These are indeed the ancient ways of water.

 

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