I have found over the years that we humans live life in a curious way--acutely aware of certain events and yet singularly oblivious to the daily occurrences that herald the march of time. In a sense, we live our lives remembering past events, hoping for future possibilities and/or fearing future circumstances, but the present seems invisible to our consciousness.
True, we might tick off the days, weeks, and months on a calendar as we fulfill an obligation, anticipate a vacation, honor a birthday, or prepare for a holiday, but, as age creeps into our bodies and makes us aware of our mortality, it is the continual passage of the seasons, maintained by the cyclical cadence of the moon, stars, and tides that guides us as the years flow one into another. So it was that the first spring came to my garden pond.
Spring is that time of year when everything is visibly beginning its surge of renewed life, and nothing as yet seems to be dying. The first spring in my garden pond was, in that sense, special because it was marked by a marvelous event. It began in late March, when I noticed three of the smallish orange fish in relentless pursuit of Neon and Blackie, the two large females. There was no apparent rest for either of them as the three males followed them in and out of the aquatic plants, around the rocks, and from the surface of the water into its depths. This activity continued for about a week, and then ended as abruptly as it had begun. Although I knew little about fish, I surmised it to be a spawning ritual, as successive springs were to confirm.
The incessant chase over, I forgot about it as the days grew warmer and the pond's water commenced to take on a greenish tinge of what became its annual, but short-lived, bloom of algae. As April gave way to May and then June, the pond's vegetation grew so fast I had the illusion of seeing it expand. The first flowers to bloom around the pond were the marsh marigolds, Pacific silverweed, and buttercups, which added patches of brilliant yellow to the dark grayish black of the lava border. Then came the white of water hawthorn and yellow and pink of the water lilies.
The fully expanded lily pads were a favored place for the fish to get out of the sun's direct light but still enjoy its warmth. From late spring though early autumn, they could be found beneath the lilies' pads, where a slowly moving tail or a slightly protruding nose was all that gave them away. As spring advanced, the vegetation grew to fill the pond with the lavender flowers of water hyacinth; the yellow of floating hearts and bladderwort; the blue of spiked bulrush; and the white of lizard tails, elodea, and bogbean. By late spring, the pond became a magnet for insects.
Dragonflies were among the earliest arrivals that first spring, but showed up only sporadically thereafter. Although few in number, one was clearly a male because it selected an area four to six feet long and two to three feet wide and began to slowly patrol it. Each patrol lasted only a few seconds, after which the dragonfly selected a tall cattail leaf as a perch, one that offered both a clear path of flight and allowed its occupant to orient himself in such a way that he could receive the maximum sunlight. From his perch, he could either fly out and capture food or defend his territory against the encroachment of others of his kind.
When another dragonfly was spotted within three to six feet of his perch, the male instantly flew up to meet the intruder, and both dragonflies assume a face-to-face, hovering posture about six inches apart for one second or two. The defending male would then suddenly fly at the interloper, and there ensued a great clashing of wings and bodies, after which the intruder tried to escape by flying in an ascending, vertical spiral that often terminated eighteen to twenty feet above the pond, where the defending male would again attack with a clashing of wings and bodies. The chase seldom lasted more than thirty seconds before the intruder was escorted beyond the territorial boundary. Alas, the dragonflies rarely stayed long; like a teasing breeze, they tarried but a moment, and then were gone.
In addition to the combatants, slender, powdery-blue damselflies also arrived. Flying close to the water's surface, the females dipped the ends of their abdomens, touched the water, and deposited their eggs. With the deposition of each egg, another life was added to the pond as these predaceous nymphs hatched and began to prey on the growing abundance of minute, aquatic creatures.
As the weather continued to warm, flies, bees, and wasps came to drink. As well, there was increasing activity among the female wolf spiders as they hurried from plant to plant across the water's surface, carrying their egg cases beneath them. In addition to insects and spiders, scrub jays, robins, and other birds came to drink and bathe.
The scrub jays were the most persistent birds around the pond, where they ate the ripe fruit of the small, weeping cherry that earlier in the season had been a veritable fountain of white blossoms. They were also perpetually digging in the flower and "veggie" beds around the pond, hunting for the filberts and acorns they had buried the previous autumn. Besides the raucous jays and the early-morning convocations of exceedingly loud crows, there was an almost continual twittering of violet-green swallows that reared their young in the bird box attached to the side of our house but a pebble's toss from the pond. By evening, the chorus of birdcalls was augmented by the ever-moving cries of the Vaux's swifts as they darted hither and yon in the gathering twilight.
Spring in the pond reminded me of Billy Savage, my boyhood friend, and of our almost-daily expeditions along our special roadside ditch to catch the elusive Pacific treefrog. Because this memory was so vivid, I really wanted to have treefrogs lay their eggs in the pond. There certainly were enough algae for the tadpoles to eat, despite the collective appetite of the fish and sundry snails. But try as I might, I could not get treefrogs to stay around the pond more that a few days. Remain in the garden for a time they would, but sooner or later, they traveled elsewhere. After many disappointments, I finally gave up. To this day, I have no idea why the frogs disliked the pond.
I think it was late in the third or fourth spring that I found some larval salamanders in a ditch not far from our house. With the advant of summer's, however, the ditch would soon be well into drying up. In fact, the salamander's little pool had already begun its daily shrinking, as attested by the little, muddy shore surrounding the water. I therefore rescued all of the larval salamanders I could find and released them into the pond. Although I seldom saw one thereafter, over the years, salamanders began to populate the garden, where they could occasionally be seen moving about on warm, rainy nights. Billy and I had always loved salamanders, like we had the treefrogs, although we seldom found one. Their presence in the garden was therefore a special treat, one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Speaking of snails, in addition to the ram's-horn snails I had gotten from a local pond, and the Japanese trap-door snails I had purchased to help control the algae, there was another kind of snail, whose name I don't remember. What I do remember, however, is that this particular snail liked to "swim" upside-down along the surface of the water. At times, there were as many as twenty to thirty of them "doing laps."
In the waning days of spring, shortly before the solstice, which heralded the beginning of summer, I saw the culmination of the momentous event that had begun earlier in the season. Peering into the rank vegetation, some of which was by now dying, I happened to notice a tiny, dark creature that seemed to be pulsating from within. Partly hidden amid the green of the water clover and parrot's feather growing along the pond's edge, it was barely visible. As I knelt for a closer look, I was awed to see a tiny, blackish fish, clearly a recent hatchling. Almost transparent, it was the wee fish's heart that I saw beating so vigorous, and it was this pulsating life that had attracted my attention. So here was the result of spring's romance--the first fish to hatch in the pond, and the only one that year!
I immediately got Zane and showed her "our" new baby, for the fish were by now part of our "family," which included five indoor cats, as well as a goodly number of perennial plants in our garden. To say we were thrilled would be an understatement. We were ecstatic. So it was that "Netsuke," as we named the baby fish, also became part of our family.
We rarely saw little of Netsuke during the first two months of her life. Extremely vulnerable to being mistaken for a tasty morsel by another of the fish, she stayed within the thick of the aquatic plants, well out of harm's way. By autumn, however, she had joined the others. Besides retaining her charcoal coloring, she had a distinctive shape that always allowed us to identify her presence.
Of all the springs in the life of the pond, that first spring is for me the most memorable because it was graced by the gift of Netsuke. Although the first spring is indelibly enshrined in my heart, each spring in its turn brought some special gift into our lives, such as the damselflies that were reared each year in the pond.
The advent of summer was marked by the constant necessity of monitoring the level of water. As summer's heat and drying northeast winds hastened the water's invisible departure through evaporation, it was imperative to maintain the pond's depth in order to ensure water cool enough to retain an adequate supply of dissolved oxygen for the fish. Each day, as the water warmed, those fish not under lily pads stayed deeper in the pond, where the cooler water still had enough dissolved oxygen for them to breathe. Those remaining near the surface were forced to gulp air, a behavioral adaptation that allows carp, which goldfish are, to live in relatively warm water with a low content of dissolved-oxygen.
As summer matured, it became necessary to add water once or twice a week. This necessity invoked the marvel of the garden hose as a conduit for the water, a marvel that was, for me, enhanced by watching the fish come from all areas of the pond to cavort in the cool stream. As well, they often played in and out of the little waterfall I had made along one side of the pond.
Apart from the need to monitor the level of the water, by early summer, the surface of the pond was about eighty percent covered with aquatic vegetation, such as the small, floating islands of water hyacinth and the round pads of the water lilies, under which the fish increasingly "hung out." Whenever I turned a pad over, I found it covered with little, gelatinous masses of snail eggs. In contrast, the smooth tops of the pads accommodated the landings and takeoffs of insects seeking a drink on hot days.
As the flowerbeds surrounding the pond came into full bloom, they supported many hundreds of bees, flower flies, butterflies, and other pollinators, as well as a hummingbird or two. The aerial traffic around the pond made it the hub of life in summer's garden. In addition to the aerial comings and goings, the soil along the edge of the pond and in the flower beds witnessed the purposeful travels of armored pillbugs; highways of incessantly harried, industrious ants; and the nightly hunting of predaceous ground beetles, centipedes, wolf spiders, and funnel spiders that rushed anything close to the mouth of their web funnels, including drops of water from the garden hose.
Whereas the plants of spring were decidedly new and fresh, by summer their aging was apparent in both pond and flowerbed. The lily pads were attacked by small, leaf-rolling caterpillars, which ate chunks out of them, and thus despoiled their smooth margins. In addition, dark aphids congregated on the pads' surfaces, causing them to look decidedly unkempt. In the flowerbeds, many of the leaf margins were notched by the nightly munching of black vine weevils, including those of the giant lilies that perfumed a summer's eve with Heaven's own scent. Late summer's cloth-of-gold and autumn's asters were stripped of leaves by caterpillars, which we fed to the fish, much to their enjoyment. As well, the ever-present pillbugs decimated the lobelia and anything else they fancied, while the slugs dinned on the marigolds.
In the pond, it became necessary to thin some of the submerged plants, such as elodea; lest they grew so thick they blocked the passage of fish. It was at this time that I found some of the nymphal damselflies, larval craneflies, and myriad snails around the base of plants I pulled from the bottom. This work was, of course, "supervised" by the fish, which darted hither and yon through the cloud of organic debris that washed off the plant's roots.
And so, summer passed, as each day saw the sunrise a little later and set a little earlier. The shortened days of late summer were accompanied by swelling buds of blue, white, pink, purple, and lavender asters. While the asters had to await their turn, the Russian sage lifted its many "arms" of powdery blue to the sky, and the black-eyed susans shone a brilliant, deep yellow in the play of light and shadow as the wind swayed the branches of the great black-walnut tree that stood guard near the southwestern corner of the garden.
As summer waned and the first hint of autumn's gathering chill claimed the night air, the orb-weaving spiders commenced to make known their presence. At first, a single, symmetrical web extended from branch to leaf in the pear tree. Then came a second, securely fastened to the corners of the wooden fence enclosing the garden in back of our house. Then a third tied to the tall seed stalks of grass along the pond's edge. One by one, the orb-weavers announced the pending change in seasons as the sun slid silently southward, and the day's heat was increasingly dissipated by the nighttime chill.
Autumn was characterized by warm days that cooled toward evening as the sea breeze blew in off the Pacific Ocean. The autumn moon, silent and full, illuminated the garden with a silvery light that sometimes gave the appearance of newly fallen snow, while the cricket symphony swelled to fill the air.
In early autumn, trickster breezes began testing the leaves of the trees for their willingness to break free of their bonds and float momentarily on the wind. Along with the occasional leaf that chose to drift with the breeze, the seeds of thistle, fireweed, and dandelions rode the skittery currents of air blowing over the garden. Now and then, a thistle seed would parachute onto the water's only to be blown about as though pond fairies were playing with it.
By the time autumn was ready to fully claim center stage, orb-weaving spiders were seemingly everywhere. They festooned the walkways, snagging whatever they could in their intricately beautiful webs, most of which seemed invisible as they blended into the background. By morning, however, each web emerged into view because the cool the night air caused condensation to form, bedecking them with droplets of moisture that flashed rainbow colors in the sun like so many priceless jewels. Now the pathways and the vegetation became troves of sparkling treasures that changed colors when viewed from different angles. Thus, a stroll through the garden was like entering into an enchanted fairy-tale land, where an all-encompassing serenity and beauty would forever reside.
This was the aster's time, and they revealed their splendor, much to the delight of hungry bees and butterflies, the latter with tattered wings and fading colors due to the rigors of their brief lives navigating the wind. The asters were literally abuzz as I wandered among them. The bees, for their part, were far too busy to pay heed to a creature, such as me.
With each night becoming a little longer, the stars seemed to grow correspondingly brighter. Although Orion, the constellation that formed the belt of the great hunter, appeared once again in the night sky, it would be some time in winter before the hunter would claim his rightful place as he graced the far-flung heavens.
While autumn was still young, I planted the garlic for next summer's harvest and picked the ripe tomatoes before the impending frost could damage them and kill the plants. In the pond, aphids sucked life's juices from the lily pads, causing them to turn yellow, then brown. Along the pond's edge, cattails began to die, leaving their brown-headed seed stalks to stand guard as the wind rustled their now-dry leaves. And the sedges, like the cattails, withdrew nitrogen from their dying leaves to be stored over the winter in their roots and thus be available for the rebirth of their leaves in spring.
With autumn approaching its zenith, the various deciduous trees lining the city's streets commenced displaying the reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and browns of leaves having their nitrogen content withdrawn to be stored in the trees' roots. At the same time, the thin layer of cells that once held the leaves firmly in place, began to separate, freeing the leaves from their bonds to drift earthward on quiet days and be blown tumbling over one another when the wind so dictated.
Occasionally, the north wind would bring cold Arctic air out of Canada early in the season and freeze these thin layers of cells at night, only to have the sun thaw them again by day. This freezing and thawing caused the layers to disintegrate en masse and the leaves to fall straight down, quickly covering the ground in a carpet of green two to three inches thick.
Depending on the whim of the wind, leaves from a wide variety of trees and great distances collected on the pond's surface, which necessitated our continual leaf patrol lest their decomposition in the water use up its precious, dissolved oxygen. In addition to falling leaves, the ritual of morning fog began to shroud both pond and garden in a thin, gray cloak of moisture that parted in front of me and swirled around me as I walked.
With autumn well on its way toward winter, the morning light began to reveal, with some regularity, a crystalline coating of frost on the remaining plants around the edge of the pond. At times, I would be greeted by a small, delicate ring of ice, as well as frost, around the pond's edge--the mute herald of winter's approach.
Winter was a time when water seemed undecided in what form it wanted to appear, as though the various facets of its personality (liquid, vapor, or solid) were in competition with one another for self-expression. On the days of indecision, it often manifested in various combinations.
On some days, it rained incessantly. Others might begin with fog and turn to rain, or it might begin as fog, turn to rain, and then to snow. Then again, a day might be foggy with a "hard" freeze on the pond's surface. The grand finale, however, was the "all-in-one day" that started with fog and a quarter-inch of ice on the pond, only to end with snow that turned to rain in late afternoon.
Some of winter's storms came from the region of the Hawaiian Islands in the southeastern Pacific. These storms were warm and wet, with blustery winds. We called them the "Pineapple Express." How I loved them!
It was during these storms that the salamanders wandered about the garden at night, blinking when struck by the bright beam of a flashlight. In addition to the salamanders, night crawlers extended their cylindrical bodies six to twelve inches from cracks in the old brickwork of the sidewalk. Instead of remaining still, however, like the salamanders when touched by the light, the worms snapped backward into their burrows, sometimes faster than my eyes could follow.
Having a life-long love affair with the wind, I reveled in the gusty storms that whipped the naked trees this way and that, storms that send the clouds racing eastward from coast to mountains, where rain turned to snow and fell as next year's supply of water that would fill the pond in summer's heat.
Each storm sent ashore a front of wind that cleared the way for whatever followed. The wind, either cold out of the Gulf of Alaska or warm from the Eastern Pacific, created a mobile design of ripples, puckers, and swirls on the pond's now-bare surface. As you might suspect, however, not all days were stormy.
I remember a winter or two when Arctic air from northern Canada sent the temperature to twelve degrees Fahrenheit for several days and the pond froze to a depth of almost three inches. The water, which seemed suspended in time, defied the winter sun to melt so much as a drop of it. On such days, a fish or two could be seen swimming slowly beneath the protective shield of ice, but most remained in the deepest recesses of the pond.
At other times, the rain either caressed the water's surface or beat it as though it was a punching bag. In the beginning, the pond held its water so tightly that I had to bail some out after each heavy rain. During the latter years of its life, however, bailing was not necessary because a raccoon had nicked the liner about a foot below the water's point of overflow, and the pond became self-regulating thereafter.
Despite the day's weather, the pond, like the rest of the garden, seemed to be asleep for the winter. We even had to stop feeding the fish because the cold water slowed their metabolism too much for them to make adequate used of the food. Consequently, we saw relatively little of them, adding to our sense of the pond's winter repose.
There were times during almost every winter in which a cold, dry spell sent flocks of robins to the pond for water. The robins, having dined on the berries of cotoneaster, holly, and hawthorn, proceeded to liberally distribute prodigious numbers of seeds in their wildly scattered droppings--an activity that kept Zane and me busy all the next spring weeding the germinated progeny. This, of course, says nothing of the walnut seedlings planted by the neighborhood's population of western gray squirrels or the filberts and acorns (of several varieties) planted by the scrub jays, all of which became a year-round weeding project, lest the garden become a forest of shrubs and trees.
Although snow seldom accumulates to a significant depth on the floor of the southern Willamette Valley of western Oregon, there was one winter during which it covered the garden, leaving only the pond's surface visible within its white blanket. I remember two impressions of it--one bright and sparkling, the other dull and gray.
The day following the storm was heavily overcast with dark, gray clouds, the color of which was captured and held fast by the snow, becoming incorporated into its very crystals. In fact, the whole garden, appearing entranced by a dark witch, felt gray and cold. In contrast, the passing of the storm left a sparkling vista in which the pond reflected an azure sky as the sun's light danced playfully off the surface of snow and ice, thereby dazzling the eye.
So it was that a decade of my adult life followed the flow and ebb of the seasons reflected in the life of a simple garden pond. And yet, beneath the surface, in that mysterious place I could never fathom, change was working its will. That is why the pond was a perfect metaphor through which to explore the inner depths of my own psyche, because here, too, change has worked its will over the seasons of my life.
As the seasons of my life pass in review, one of the things I remember most clearly from my childhood, as Billy and I played in the roadside ditch, was my total focus, my total sense of presence in the moment, when the rest of the world would simply fade into the background of my consciousness, until it disappeared altogether. At that point, I was the absolute center of the Universe because everything I perceived came into my consciousness from the Universe and all of my understanding and emotions went back out into the Universe. In that way, the Universe and I were in a reciprocal relationship, one that changed us both in the unity of an interdependent way of being.
As I got older, I sometimes gazed at the stars, especially the Milky Way, when inwardly troubled. At such times, I would have an inexplicably strong sense of being one with all I surveyed, as though I, the person, disappeared and became the night sky and it somehow became me. At other times, I would have the sense of union with the entire Universe while contemplating a grain of sand in a desert or a snowflake in winter. At still other times, a thunder storm in the high mountains would draw me so deeply into its rolling crescendo that I could scarcely breathe due to the feeling of primordial power coursing through every fiber of my being. I also remember being in a high-mountain meadow when a descending cloud transformed itself into a pointed spiral, like a corkscrew, that came straight toward me, seemed to pass through me, and beyond, where it vanished.
Today, as I reflect on the plastic net I once put over the pond to "protect" the fish from a marauding heron, only to drown an emerging damselfly, I realize that the fish, the damselfly, and the pond were each the exact center of the Universe--and so am I, and so are you. In fact, everything and everywhere is the exact center of the Universe because everything is in a reciprocal relationship with the Universe. So, if the center of the Universe is everywhere at once, then it is nowhere at the same time, like a commons that is owned by everyone and thus by no one.
Does being the center of the Universe mean that I am personally responsible for the Universe? No, it does not mean that, but it does mean that I am immediately responsible for how I treat the Universe I perceive, a perception that is constantly changing as I get older and have greater "insight." It is these insights that I see in my pond as I contemplate the double image upon its placid surface--that of the water and that of the outer Universe reflected on and by the water. Hence I have come to the age of reflection as I peer into my garden pond and find therein, through all the facets of the seasons, the mirror of my life.