The pond is dark – that black-green that hides all things until they surface. The water is cool and still on a hot summer day with just a few dimples of waves lapping at the shore. Red-winged blackbirds fly in and out of the rushes. Full of life, ponds provide a home for beaver, muskrat, turtles, fish and frogs. There is a banquet of insect and crayfish groceries for them right on up the chain to the predatory birds wading in the shallows or ducks upending themselves to graze on underwater plants. And yet the water itself, with its microscopic creatures and active decay and renewal seems to be a living entity on its own. I know all this, so I don’t like to be in ponds.
You have to actually step into a pond before you get to swim above the mud and gunk and rotten spinach feeling that squeezes between your toes before you reach the depth that floats you above it all. If you stopped to think about the snapping turtle who can break a broom handle in two with its jaws or the fish with possibly sharp teeth who wants to taste-test your feet, you wouldn’t go in at all. There is the horror of feeling something brush against your legs, circling where you can’t see. It is a well-known fact that leeches live in some ponds. There is also no consideration for others by those same creatures mentioned above to not use the pond as a toilet. Let’s not even get into the slime of algae floating like green clouds or rooted to sunken things.
In the early 60’s, I gladly accepted an invitation to go camping with a Danish family who lived across the alley from us. It may have been a pity invitation because they saw my chaotic home life but I said yes because I was infatuated with their son, Eric the Handsome, although it was his older sister who invited me. I was 13 and still had not learned to swim, even after taking lessons from a Canadian Olympic swimmer.
The sister (I don’t remember her name) and I headed to the pond for a swim on a beautiful summer day in southern Ontario. She wore her athletic-looking swimsuit, I wore a heavy cotton hand-me-down from a neighbor. We were almost in the middle of the pond, my Danish friend trying to instruct me. I started paddling away from her like a loose fishing float bobbing in a current. When my toes could no longer touch that silty, soft bottom I knew I was in trouble. I was a typical drowning person – I could not speak or yell, I could not turn to her nor move in any direction or raise a hand to give her a signal that I was drowning. All my strength was being used to keep my head above the surface, gulping in what oxygen I could along with plenty of pond water. Somehow this young girl recognized my distress, swam the 20 yards or so that separated us and pulled me back to a safe place – and I can’t remember her name. She is just Eric the Handsome’s sister. I wish I could thank her after almost 50 years of remembering this and tell her that I finally learned to swim. I did suffer the consequences of swallowing the pond water however, enduring an alimentary canal upheaval from one end to the other. But now I can say I know what drowning feels like.
Ponds, especially those with white waterlilies snaking above the surface so beautiful in their purity, are primordial stews slow-cooking under the summer sun. The pads of lilies cover the decay like a green blanket and the darkness of the water is a tea of rotting leaves, rushes and dead creatures. Ponds are the petri dish and septic system of nature, recycling all that falls to their murky depths. I know all that – so I no longer swim in ponds.