Dream Pond: Just Add Water. Then Add More.
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times, January 22, 1998
NOT long ago, I found myself in a crowded lecture hall surrounded by grim men and women sitting before specimen jars brimming with an alarming assortment of scums and growths in brodo. We had come to this annual Pond Management workshop at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., because we all had ponds that were sick in one way or another—choked with weeds, clouded with algae or, in my own case, lacking in the defining characteristic of a pond: water.
Each of us had brought along a specimen of our troubled waters in hopes that the assembled experts—an excavator, an ecologist and a hydrologist—might know how to heal our ponds. And not just our ponds, for as anyone with a sick one knows, a malfunctioning pond casts a pall far beyond its shores, ruining whole landscapes and, in time, its owner’s psychological well-being. For the last few years my own spirits have risen and fallen with the surface of my pond. Imagine my mental state at the end of a dry summer when it doesn’t even have a surface.
The problem begins every year around Memorial Day, when the water level falls as precipitately as a draining bathtub, by as much as a foot a week. You can almost see it happen, all but the sucking clockwise swirl. In a wet year I can count on a respectable puddle through the summer, but most years it drains completely, leaving me with a quarter-acre, 12-foot-deep crater in the middle of my backyard. Frogs have to pack up and leave, a file of startled refugees making their way across the road to the neighbor’s pond. My neighbor has the wet kind.
As reliably as it empties out in summer, the pond steadily and mysteriously fills every autumn, rain or shine. By winter I gaze out on a lovely sight: a glistening lozenge of ice resting in a grove of ash and white oak. As I write, the pond actually boasts a surplus of water; its spillway has leapt noisily to life, and all seems right with the world. And so it will remain until the plug is pulled in June, always the cruelest month in my calendar.
I had gone to the workshop hoping to break this dismal cycle. After listening to lectures on eutrophication, invasive aquatic weeds and the virtues of regular drawdowns and applications of glyphosate, one by one we shared our stories and then watched as the experts held our sorry specimens to the light. They lifted and fingered each clump of glop, expertly sniffed the different scums and ventured their diagnoses. This woman was suffering from a bloom of algae that a UV inhibitor might cure; that fellow was afflicted with South American waterweed, a recent escapee from the aquarium trade.
Oh, what I would have given for a problem like that! If the neighbor’s grass is always greener, his pond is always wetter: every problem in that room, however dire, presumed the presence of water in quantities I could only dream about. When at last my turn to testify came around, the bearded ecologist held my sample up to the light and pronounced my water admirably clear—”gorgeous” is the word he used, a careless cruelty I can’t very well blame him for. When I stopped him to say that the problem was one of quantity not quality, that my pond had no water, the room murmured in pity.
My pond is beautifully sited, if I may say, so that in August I must gaze upon its emptiness not only from the dining room, but also from the studio where I work, which I carefully oriented to take advantage of the anticipated water view. Mine is an obstreperous wedge of land, hilly and strewn with glacial debris, and I thought that a tranquil view of water would have a calming effect on my workday. As it turned out, I now look up from my computer screen to behold an abyss, a view that only an existentialist could love.
Whenever someone visits my garden in summer (something I strenuously discourage), I hurry the guest past my chasm, always careful to stay on the right, lest he or she trip and topple in. And to think that I used to worry about drownings.
So where does my water go, and where does it come from? When the experts ran my soil sample through their fingers, they suggested that it might be too sandy or gravelly to form an adequate seal. This seemed plausible: I have memories of the excavator yelling above the roar of his backhoe, as it ate into the earth, that he “sure wouldn’t mind seeing a little more clay down there.”
Leaving aside the whole water issue, I can’t imagine a better excavator. In fact, I would recommend Al to anyone interested in having a nicely shaped pit dug in his or her backyard. When I told him my pond was not behaving in an entirely pondlike manner, he couldn’t have been more sympathetic, or less defensive. He freely confessed his bafflement, and in this he is in good company.
Al is only one of perhaps a dozen experienced pond men—excavators, engineers, hydrologists—who have rocked their big boots on the lip of my crater while offering little more than an earnest chin pull. Their collective wisdom about the source of my problem, which would fit comfortably into a short paragraph, makes me wonder if anyone really knows what goes on down there just below the skin of this world. It is easier to imagine the weather on Venus than to conceptualize the behavior of ground water just a few feet beneath the crust we walk on every day. Terra incognita, indeed.
WHY me? To dwell on such questions is, I know, a pointless exercise, though in this case I know exactly why me. Very shortly after my pond was dug five years ago I wrote an article in which I gushed, stupidly, about its wonders, how it had so miraculously filled, first with water, then with life. I went on about the sex-crazed frogs that had taken up residence on its banks, the outboard beetles and Jesuitical water striders that lazily doodled its surface, and all the other creatures that in a few months’ time had transformed a gaping wound in the earth into a thriving habitat giddy with life.
My crowning act of hubris, though, was to claim my pond as proof that humans like me can actually improve on nature—can change the land in ways that increase not only the beauty but also the sheer quantity and diversity of life in a place. This was not a smart thing to say in print, not so soon. Within days, nature saw fit to pull the plug on my wondrous ecological achievement, forcing the frogs and water striders and beetles to decamp or expire.
So now, the erstwhile nature-improver spends his Saturdays talking to excavators and engineers, assessing the carrying capacity of glacial till and the irresistibility of hydrostatic pressure. I have entertained a raft of different schemes, everything from spreading bags of powdered clay—bentonite—along the banks (expensive and doubtful), to pumping water into the pond from an old artesian well on the property (expensive, doubtful and loud). A fellow was here one day brimming with confidence that he could fix my pond: he wanted to sell me the latest in clay liners, the kind used to seal the bottoms of toxic waste dumps.
“If they can hold stuff like dioxin,” he told me, “you better believe they can hold a little water.”
And for the sum of $10,000, he estimated, I could find out. I wondered briefly about what it would take to get my pond designated a Superfund site.
I have also wondered, on dark days, what it would cost simply to fill it in and cut my losses. But that, too, now seems to be a multi-thousand-dollar proposition, to truck in and spread the vast quantity of clean fill I’d need to make a pit so big disappear. Either way, it looks as if I’m going to be pouring a lot of money down this hole.
Unless, that is, I do nothing. This is the latest advice I’ve gotten, yet it is not quite the counsel of despair it might sound like initially. I telephoned a local engineer by the name of Pat Hackett, who displayed an understanding of my leaky pond that was uncanny, when you consider that he has never laid eyes on it. Mr. Hackett’s gift, it seems, is to be able to see clear into the opaque soul of the earth. All I did was tell him precisely where in northwestern Connecticut I lived, and he proceeded to describe what was going on directly beneath my feet.
“O.K.,” he said, “I know the place. You’re on a slope of glacial till there, which means the water table changes dramatically over the course of the year. There’s a tremendous amount of ground water coming down that hillside, heading toward the Housatonic, and my guess is it’s riding above a ledge of rock. That’s what’s filling your pond. It’s also what’s emptying it after the snow melt, because glacial till won’t hold water moving like that.”
Water is literally passing through my pond, Mr. Hackett was suggesting. Certainly this explained its gorgeousness. My pond was not so much a reservoir as a kind of window on a seasonal underground river. I asked him about the clay liner.
“Waste of money,” he said. “The hydrostatic pressure is so great, the water coming in will burst right through it.” So is there anything to be done? The engineer didn’t answer, at least not directly.
“Sounds like what you have there is a vernal pool,” he said. “Interesting habitat. You might think about it that way.”
I hung up, discouraged. But in the days that followed, his cryptic answer stayed with me until it acquired an almost koanlike quality.
I began reading up on vernal ponds, which hold water only part of the year, typically in the spring. It seems that these ephemeral bodies of water perform a vital role in the great dance of ecology, especially today, when the world’s frog population is in trouble.
Since vernal pools dry out completely in the summer, fish never become established—very good news for the frogs, whose eggs and offspring fish like to eat. The hole in my backyard may be a lousy pond, but it’s utopia for amphibians. Mr. Hackett had speculated that I probably had no problem with mosquitoes, which, come to think of it, is true, a blessing I owe to the frogs.
So I’m trying to look at it that way—as a vernal pool, rather than a failed pond—and that has made all the difference. True, I need to explain all this to visitors who haven’t had the benefit of Mr. Hackett’s enlightenment; I might even want to put up one of those carved wooden plaques you see in the national parks, explaining that the odd grassy depression before them is in fact a seasonal habitat of inestimable ecological value. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do. Instead of the expensive clay liner, which might not even work, I’ll go with Mr. Hackett’s priceless silver one, which already does.