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jennifer loviglio
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A pond's cycle of life
 
 

It's early summer, and I can hear a frog trilling in the little pond in our yard. Like a female frog in heat, my heart swells at the sound. I hop over to the window. Then I remember: the frog is full of shit.

At first I thought he was calling for a mate to come and get busy with him. I had visions of amphibian love: the pair quietly humping near a water lily, the bloated egg-filled female getting dunked underwater as the scrawny male bounced on top of her.

They'd leave zillions of black eggs suspended in clear gelatin. The tadpoles would hatch, sprout legs, and we'd have a pond full of frogs. The same thing happens with toads here every year. But for the first time in years, it's not happening. No one is mating in our pond. And it's all Nature's fault.

When we first looked at this house several years ago, we decided that if we bought it, we'd let the pond go back to Nature. It was a dinky, man-made contraption - a plastic-lined hole in the ground with a few fancy fish and some flowers in it. It was pretty, but we were horrified by the shelf full of chemicals - liquids and granular substances and drops - required to maintain it as a habitat for the fish. As it turns out, by the time we moved in, the fish had died. We pulled them out with a net and dumped them - and their chemicals - into the trash. That's when the fun started.

Before long, we saw tangled strands of toad eggs and gluey blobs of frog eggs floating among the irises. The children, who were then just tots, watched with me as every day a new development occurred.

"This is Nature!" I announced, when the black dots hatched into busy little tadpoles.

"Cycle of life!" I said when some tadpoles died, black commas drying on the water lilies leaves.

"Ontology recapitulates phylogeny!" I said when the tadpoles, no bigger than a child's fingernail, developed legs and climbed out of the water onto the rocks.

"Gross!" the kids said when the pond water, magnified by my dissecting microscope, turned out to be a warm soup of larvae and bacteria.

Seasons changed, and so did the pond. Leaves accumulated, dogs and squirrels fell in and climbed out, and the water turned the color of tea. Smelly, smelly tea. In the winter, frogs dove to the bottom of the pond, where they hibernated, partially frozen. All winter the kids threw rocks and sticks onto the ice, testing its strength when they thought I wasn't looking. The frogs, reemerging in the spring, trilled and ribbited loudly. They were fist-sized amphibian boom-boxes searching for love.

According to plan, Nature went wild in the pond. Maybe a bit too wild. Now it's dense with years of fallen leaves and choked with duckweed. Instead of amphibians diving into its murky depths, chipmunks skitter across the top of it. There's water down deep, but the top layer is solid. Solid enough for foot-high maple trees to get hold.

The new plan is to fill it in, build a patio, and expand my vegetable garden. But if the original plan was to let it return to Nature, why are we filling it in? Just because the pond has outlived its usefulness, we're getting rid of it. I feel as if we're reneging on a deal.

Realizing this gives me the same uneasy feeling I get at zoos - all those boxed-up animals are there so we can gawk at them. And I'm not sure what to think about groups of duck hunters and bird-watchers who protect habitats so they can engage in their respective hobbies. Everyone has good intentions. Yet it still seems we're "using" nature.

The question is: Is that so wrong? When we set out to help nature for selfish purposes - as when my family threw out the pond chemicals - we are helping the environment. But it seems we all want a certain kind of nature. We want "Nature." Educational. Entertaining. Accessible.

I'm big enough to confess that sometimes Nature elicits in me more than just altruistic thoughts. One year, I could have sold tickets when vicious crows made thrilling, repeated attacks on the pond. The action easily rivaled Wild Kingdom's most violent staged scenes. Unfortunately, this happened just before every phone, portable music player, and toaster oven had a built-in video camera.

The movie I never got to make opens with darkening skies as a cloud of black birds crosses in front of the sun. The winged beasts - monsters beside our B-movie-model-sized pond - land near some fat toads sunning themselves on the flagstones. The crows jam their beaks into the fleshy bodies, again and again, ripping skin and sending blood flying. An orgiastic frenzy of screeches, flapping, and spewing fluids ensues. Moments later, with a menacing cacophony of screams, they swoop away.

Even though this went on for days, the frogs and toads returned in full the next year, when you could still see the dried toad skins forming black outlines of the deceased on the flagstones. Like Nature's chalk lines around the corpses, they served as reminders that this, too, shall pass.