The Pond

Author: Jake Page

Editor’s Note: On a peaceful Saturday morning in early September I sat in my backyard, savoring the scene before me: the grass and trees and black-eyed Susans, all feeling different now — as the sunlight and scents took on an autumn mood. The setting and sense of passing time had me recalling Jake Page’s essay, “The Pond,” that we published in 1987. It’s an all-time favorite of mine. His nimble mind and keen observations and exquisite wordplay. The memory and the morning and changing season got me to conjuring a list of other personal favorites published in the magazine over the years. I decided to share them with you, a new one each Saturday morning until the calendar reaches 2024. —Kerry Temple ’74

There had been little discussion of our pond before the hole was dug. A good idea, we had agreed, and I went on to other things. Good ideas abound here at our home in the Piedmont, the low foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some take on a material reality; others simply float like comfortable ghosts, an optimistic cloudscape of potentialities that are in some ways as important to making a place a home as actually building bookshelves and planting a row of tomatoes. Then my wife somehow perceived an emergent consensus about the pond and, selecting it from among the many wraiths of possibilities, dug the hole.

Our pond is really more a puddle than a pond. It is only about 12 feet long, some seven feet across, and three feet deep at one end. I suspect it would have been bigger, or smaller, depending on the attention span and the energy of the Head Landscape Architect who, one hot day, simply started digging in the back yard. In fairness, maybe she dug until she had achieved the precise configuration dictated by her own sense of aesthetics.

In any event, there was then a hole in the clayey (and unattractive) soil of the yard, right on the edge where the lawn meets what we call “the wild area,” a patch left to be field, wildflowers, raspberries and whatever else it determines on its own. To this day, it isn’t possible to say whether the pond is an extension of the lawn or the wild area. Maybe it’s a link between them, a conjunction like the word “and.”

But first it was a hole in the ground, unsightly and full of omens for me, chiefly presaging a great deal of work — the details of which I could not imagine and the magnitude of which I dreaded.

Fortunately, my wife and I have raised many daughters. Daughters tend to attract swains, and swains are often of more use than sons, for they have a direct interest in pleasing everyone. A swain arrived one day, enlisted me as hod carrier, and we built the concrete shell in the hole that became the pond. We cured it, circled its edge with rocks liberated from a stone wall, and filled it with water. We later discovered that it leaked ever so slightly but by then it was too late for repairs — things were already living in it, aquatic things that no one had the heart to disrupt. So we resorted to adding water to the pond daily. No swain is perfect.

But perfection is a kind of mental tyranny, isn’t it? It exists nowhere in nature except, perhaps, for perfect musical pitch. We hoped the pond would suffice . . . though we didn’t know what that meant, either.

The Pond Fish

For any proprietor of a new pond, two strategies are open. The first: Do nothing and let nature take its course. The second: Intervene and then let nature take its course, which it always does. Both strategies are laden with uncertainty.

Although uncertainty is a state physicists find common throughout the universe, the human brain (left to itself and momentarily free of the dismaying assertions of physicists) finds it offensive. Human brains are not designed for ambiguity. For example, from the time the light hits the eye’s retina to the time when an image ultimately takes shape in the mind, millions of specialized cells found in a host of regions of the brain pick, choose, modify and refine the data. Our neurons produce a concise message out of what is evidently the blur of reality.

The point here is that the infamous scale of one-to-10 applies to nothing in the world, and certainly not to the pond behind my house. The pond would be better if it didn’t leak, I grant you, but so would governments, plumbing, old people and ozone layers. I’m interested in the aptness of ponds, not engineering procedures.

So, when faced with the crystalline water of our new pond, we intervened. We couldn’t imagine how water lilies and fish would get to the pond without help, and a backyard pond without them did seem aimless. So for about the same amount we had paid for concrete, we bought two water lilies and one other aquatic plant that looked like an exuberant four-leaf clover. These plants, encased in a black plastic buckets, slipped into the depths like ancient and mysterious snapping turtles, giving a muddy cast to the water. Within days, the plants bloomed.

The next issue was fish. We had no idea how hospitable our pond really was — for all we know they put carcinogenic preservatives in concrete mix as routinely as in bacon. So it seemed a bit risky to splurge on some expensive Japanese carp called koi which are the thing for upwardly mobile backyard ponds. Instead, for two bucks we bought 20 “feeder fish,” which is to say goldfish bred to be sacrificed to pet alligators, aging Princetonians or heaven knows what. The thought that we had given these 20 goldfish an entirely new lease on life, a chance at Pinocchioan freedom, was no small comfort.

We considered suspending further intervention to see what sort of aquatic world might arise on its own (500 yards from the nearest pond and 1,000 yards from the nearest creek). A properly passive sort of experiment, I thought. But interventionism resurfaced in the guise of a 10-year-old boy who was often seen in the earnest contemplation of the pond. Soon he was holding long discussions at pond’s edge with my wife. I would see them making gentle and graceful hand gestures over the water, two tow-headed shamans cooking something up.

Michael, a neighbor’s kid, was dispatched to the creek with a bucket and returned with it full of brownish green water — a single bucket worth a small universe, it turned out. Within days grotesque larval forms could be seen squiggling in our shadowy water, tiny bits of energetic thread. Little dark eyes and bedded in silvery slivers of gelatin heralded minnows.

One day there was a moment of terror on the part of us pond proprietors when it became clear that a snake was swimming in there, a garter snake. The minnows were doomed.

As spring became summer, some nasty-looking little monsters with awful hooked jaws became mayflies with graceful long, feathery tail appendages. Whirligig beetles did their dervish dance. Long-legged water-striders zipped back and forth, each foot making an almost microscopic indentation in the water’s surface tension. The little dents magnified until luminous circles where the water strider cast a shadow in the shallower end (as is the case also in many a philosophical discussion ever since Plato’s time) it was more fun to watch these light-enhanced shadows on the bottom — here, boink, there, boink, here. . . .

Tiny red mites, spider relatives, appeared and disappeared, twinkling in the sunlight. The minnows grew to a couple of inches in length and lurked calmly in the caverns of algae that had grown below the lily pads, coexisting with the goldfish. Some wild strawberry shoots from the wild area leaned out over the water and sent roots downward into the murk, hedging their bets or perhaps simply showing off. One would see a metallic blue dragonfly helicoptering among the lilies, hovering and darting on its predatory missions. From a bucket had arisen more than any shaman could have asked.

But lily pads have always demanded frogs, and there was none that anyone had seen — no tadpoles wiggling like frantic sperm under the microscope nope, no late afternoon croaks. Then one day we heard it, a sound like someone plucking a loose banjo string. The frog was spotted staring grumpily out from among the pads. It seemed like a case of spontaneous generation.

The Navajo Indians believe that frogs are born of raindrops; after all, out in the desert lands few ponds last very long. But after a rain Navajo spot frogs in puddles. Obviously, then, raindrops make frogs. (In fact, the frogs of the Southwest desert have miraculously short growth and development schedules. In a matter of days a frog egg becomes a tadpole, then a frog, then mates and then lays eggs that are insulated against aridity and can simply sit there in the dust to be activated by the next rain.) So . . . raindrops make frogs.

Our frog was a green frog, not uncommon at all in the East. The banjo call was a giveaway. Many green frogs are really brown, but this one was green, with a cheerful bright yellow throat that filled up and emptied with an abrupt heave each time it plucked its banjo string. It had circular markings called tympani behind its ears that were larger than its eyes and so we knew (thanks to the Peterson Guide ) it was a male.

We never found out how it arrived. It could have come as a tadpole in the bucket and lived its pre-adult life in total obscurity in the pond. Or it could have dragged itself across the pasture and through the hedgerow to the pond from the larger and older pond 500 yards away, like the Pilgrims seeking the New World (or at least a place less frequented by bossy male green frogs). Or Michael could have donated it without saying so. Any route will do, even the Navajo route, as far as I’m concerned. Ponds make frogs.

The green frog remained, often visible and often not, always lending his voice to the chorus at dusk when the birds chitter and twit as they settle down. Not that the frog was settling down: He was engaged in the sessile cruising of amphibian males seeking sex, and that soon led to another meeting of the shamans. Over the weeks, other green frogs were hauled out of their territories and placed in the pond; all males, too, it seems, because they fled from the original pilgrim (in one case after what we thought might be a mating ritual involving a lot of leaping and chasing but was, in fact, an outright fight.)

The frog to this day is celibate. He has survived two winters, as have the lilies, the fish and the rest. He did have a brief time as a voyeur, but there is no way of telling if this satisfied him or merely sharpened his longings.

The Pond Frog

We had noticed toads around the place, dark khaki-colored American toads. One day, on the edge of the pond under an overhanging rock in the shade of the wild area, we noticed two toads mating, the smaller male sitting burgher-like on top of the equally expressionless female. From what we could make out, toad sex is less exciting than watching water erode a mountain. Nothing moved; the statuesque stillness of toad passion exceeded our attention span. We came and went through the morning, occasionally checking to see if they were still at it.

But the green frog’s attention span works on a different wavelength, one no doubt closer to that of toads. All day, the frog lay motionless in the water, directly in front of the amorous toads, about a foot away, only his head above the surface. It was late in the afternoon, at a moment when we were away, that the cameo dissolved. Whatever was the climax, and my guess is that it would have been imperceptible to us, the toads were gone, the frog underwater.

It’s said that the nerve cells of the frog are structured in such a way that, from the greatest blur of reality, they only pick up dark spots in motion. A motionless dark spot doesn’t register electronically as anything special in the frog brain. In the relatively fragile world of being a frog, it must pay to notice only moving things. Thus, reality in frogs is a flying insect or the ominous shadow of a 10-year-old boy. But I’d be willing to bet that if neuroscientists looked again, they would find some nerve cells in the frog that let them know something is up among toads, as motionless as such affairs are.

Before the long pond was filled with hundreds, indeed thousands of little dark tadpoles, thrashing their tails in chaos and hugging the (perhaps warmer) sides of the pond. For several weeks they remained; the sides of the pond were darkened with them, so many it struck me as oddly ominous. And then one day they were all toads, hundreds and hundreds of little toads no bigger than houseflies, complete with forelegs and back legs. And in the alarming numerical extravagance of toad-reproduction, these mini-toads seemed less scary than the hordes of tadpoles had.

Also, tastier in some quarters. Robins would deign to leave the greensward and pick off a few tasty brown mini-toads, whisking them out of the shadows like hors d’oeuvres. Over the days there was noticeable attrition, but still hundreds of toads remained. It was a severe dry spell and hot. My wife noticed that many toads, as they eventually sought to make the exodus from water across the concrete and rocks to the lawn, would dehydrate and die. That was not something that would ever happen in a natural pond, so more intervention was justified. She extracted voluminous tresses of green algae from the pond and festooned the concrete and rocks in it, also allowing the hose to drip into the algae to keep it moist. The next day all the toads were gone, off to adventure with a destiny that includes lawn mowers.

Even as man-made a thing as the little pond is, it retains a certain amount of independence, of its own dialectic. In winter it freezes over and what survives (which is a lot) survives without any help from us. Even in winter it can be a source of excitement. Early one November morning a flock of yellow grosbeaks blew into the neighborhood like a group of gaudy rock-and-rollers, leaving the proletariat of sparrows and house finches that hang out at the birdfeeder in obvious amazement. I saw a few of the newcomers standing on the water of the pond. During a night that had brought a light frost, the surface had frozen just enough to support their weight; they hopped around on the ice in their yellow and black uniforms, exhibitionists, and then all gusted up and headed south. Minutes later the pond’s surface had turned to liquid again. Everything is timing in show business.

There has been mortality, of course, beyond the daily loss of insect life and the robins’ raids on innocent toadlets. One day there was a moment of terror on the part of us pond proprietors when it became clear that a snake was swimming in there, a garter snake. The minnows were doomed. The instinct was to remove the interloper. Then an even more primal sense took over — the simple awe endangered by any charismatic predator. So we watched the snake perform in dominant ess-curves for a while, and it left. If it caught a minnow (even if it wanted a minnow), we don’t know.

Aside from the frog, a stately character even if he is essentially dim-witted, the creature we were fondest of was a small turtle, a slider imported by Michael, which enjoyed the pond as much as anyone, clearly finding life in even so tiny a refuge nevertheless a pleasant existence. It roamed and nibbled algae and hunted little creatures and sunned itself on lily pads and peered from the murk and even ate from my wife’s fingers. Then one day we found it dead, lying between the water and the rocks on the concrete. Just like that.

In some ways we are the gods — well, maybe the angels — of the little pond, establishing it as an Eden of lilies and goldfish in the first place, bringing about the mythological Great Bucket of Life from which so much evidently flowed, tending, fretting, maintaining the water supply, sitting back and admiring it on sabbathlike occasions, admitting the pond and its creatures into our dreams, watching the sky reflected from its surface in the afternoon, pink and orange with the sunset, and imagining that in some way here in this tiny body of water staring up at the sky is an infinitesimal nerve cell of God’s eye, joining heaven and earth. And why not? There is really nothing wrong with such thoughts as long as they don’t get beyond the limits of proper humility. I don’t know much about ponds when it comes down to it. I have never lived in or on ponds: My brain cells are more attuned to linguistical affairs than to gurgles, more to engineering projects than to caverns of algae.

But our pond has actually been certified by a creature that knows as much about such places anyone will ever need to know. One afternoon, my wife called me excitedly to the back porch. When I got there, she pointed upward and said, “Look, look at that!” An osprey was overhead. Also known as a fish hawk, it is more properly thought of as a fish eagle, as far as I’m concerned, because it is a lordly bird. The osprey is big and somehow ghostly, and when it is not soaring on thermals with wings outstretched, it flies almost languorously with what Audubon called “easy flappings,” as much an owner of the air and water as any bald eagle.

This one was flying fairly low over the pasture as if on some routine reconnaissance when it turned, descended a bit and circled the pond three times. Then it resumed its way south. The pond, our pond, had been noted by an osprey. It was now a part of an osprey’s map of the world . . . a pond to be reckoned with, by god.

Jake Page contributed numerous essays to Notre Dame Magazine spanning a period of four decades before his death in February 2016. At the time “The Pond” was published, he and his wife, Susanne, lived in Waterford, Virginia.