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Creek Running North

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July 14, 2005

Two ponds

The pond nearest our house was broad and shallow, perhaps a yard deep at its center, and its banks were clear of weeds. There were fish there, probably sunfish stocked by a former owner, though at age two I was not yet able to identify individual fish as to species. I fed them bread crumbs. They followed me back and forth along the bank like koi in a concrete trough. When my father had the pond drained, the crew that came out pumped the fish into a holding tank for relocation.

My father claims he drained the twenty by twenty pond because my mother was terrified we kids would drown. She says he did it to claim the space for a vegetable garden. The reason no longer matters. One summer week there were fish and dragonflies and the smell of sun-warmed algae, and the next week there was a dry hole full of new tractor tread marks. It was the first bit of environmental destruction I had ever witnessed. After the workers left, I walked on toddler's legs at the bottom of what had once been a familiar, slightly frightening mystery called "pond." It felt like a betrayal. At two, I certainly knew my parents could be horribly, devastatingly wrong, whether putting me to bed or making me eat lima beans. But the idea that Mom and Dad could have been wrong in some large, non-Chris-related way was a foreign concept. As a Dad project, draining the pond was by definition neither right nor wrong. It just was. So why did I feel so miserable?

There were sheep on the farm next door. My sister and I would watch them through the fence. The sun would come up each morning in the general vicinity of Dresden, filling the valley to our east with mist. Our house was atop a minor ridge. It possessed what people in that part of the Finger Lakes thought of as a view. You could see for miles and miles: on a clear day, in fact, five of them.

I dug into the dirt of the old pond bed with a teaspoon. My mother asked me if I was digging to China. The thought had never occurred to me. I wondered how long it would take. I spent a good three days on that hole, and it was almost a foot deep when I finally lost interest.

I was reading by then, a few years early. My mother brought me nature books. I puzzled out the unfamiliar names. Jack in the pulpit. Bullfrog. Scarlet tanager. Bright amanitas burst through the forest duff in the color photos, their red caps speckled with white. Toadstool. Poison. I learned a universal childhood ethnozoology, all the animals and plants that could hurt or frighten. Nightshade berries, black widow spiders, thistles and burdocks. I found a strange white globe on the lawn one day and ran for Mom. It was a puffball. We gave it to her father, who relished them.

The other pond was far in the back of our land, beyond the two apple trees. It marked the western frontier of my Known World. Beyond lay dragons. The little pond was four feet wide and bottomless. My father lost a small tractor in there. He and my uncle tried to dive down with a rope, intending to tie off to an axle and winch the thing out to salvage it. They couldn't reach it. Where the big pond had had broad, sloping shores, the back pond was an abrupt chasm fringed by goldenrod and Joe-Pye weed twice as tall as I was.

I was forbidden to go back there alone. After a while, when I got to be four or five years old and more susceptible to the fears my mother strove to implant, I eventually listened. But at two, the prohibition merely piqued my interest.

There were tadpoles in there, and minuscule fish. As deep as it was - deeper than my Uncle Jack was tall, and him probably a good 6'2" back then - it was so clouded as to seem nearly solid. My father could not have filled that pond if he had tried. It was alive, and artesian thing bubbling up from the hills at the headwaters of Flint Creek. Wisps of algae, green and brown, swirled just beneath the surface. Placid legged tadpoles came to the surface to eat mosquito larvae, then descended into the depths, expressionless. Four inches down and they faded from view. Every few minutes a wave of bubbles would rise, float along the brink. They were usually small, mere effervescences. Sometimes bubbles two inches across would belch to the surface, burst forth a sulfurous wisp.

I would creep carefully to the bank on my stomach, and hang my head over the edge. Tadpoles drifted through cloudy water. Dragonflies flew in tandem, dipping abdomens. I tried to make out the outlines of my father's tractor, but I never quite saw it.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 14, 2005 03:14 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Beautiful piece of writing Chris. I envy you. I have no memories of my childhood with anything approaching the details you write about so eloquently. The vague images that do exist invariably turn out to be from old photographs I’d forgotten I’d seen. It always fascinates me when people talk about experiences they had at 3 or 5 or even 10. I remember so little; but then I’ve never had deja’vu either.

Posted by: OGeorge at July 14, 2005 08:40 PM
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