Goodbye to Walden Pond
I never read Walden. I probably never will because, from what I’ve heard, Thoreau didn’t write about real life, the struggle to survive against other creatures; hungry, cruel, desperate beings. Like us. Still, there is something to be learned from words, even when they reflect the author’s imagination rather than reality.
My wife wanted a townhouse, something on the university bus route near campus; a place where the kids could live while attending Louisiana State University. An investment. We looked at some run-down units and weren’t impressed. College housing was scarce in Baton Rouge back then, just five years ago, so we settled on a three-bedroom unit in a gated community. It needed some repairs. I was elected to move in six-months before the fall semester. There went my spring plans for traveling the country in my motorhome.
Our new townhouse’s patio faced the retention pond, the size of an Olympic pool, surrounded by a steep bank covered by weedy grass. A culvert connected the shallow reservoir to a labyrinth of ditches, canals, sloughs, creeks, bayous, lakes, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. A fountain accented the pond, running twenty-four hours a day. The fountain burbled when I went to bed, its steady cascade lulling me to sleep. It became the central point of my existence, the fountain of life, youth, dreams, disappointments, a microcosm of life. My world was centered on the unceasing flow of recirculated water. I shared this fascination, this dependence on its life-renewing sustenance, with other living beings, and that’s what this story is about.
Of course, I watched from my patio, safely behind the fake wrought iron fence separating me from the pond. Prison bars to me. Zoo bars to the young neighbors walking their dogs past me as if on parade. The old guy.
The turtles living in my Walden Pond were the first to catch my eye. Their heads protruded from the water like the periscopes of submerged submarines, ready to strike. They clawed their way out of the primordial waters to sunbathe for hours. In the warm spring sun, they copulated, and reproduced. Despite the indifferent mothers’ negligence, haphazardly dropping their gestating young among the pine mulch beneath the sparse, small trees, baby turtles appeared. No bigger than my palm, their offspring struggled against gravity to join their parents in the sun.
One morning, sunrise only a distant hope, I noticed something glistening on the grass, dimly lit by a streetlight. At first, I thought it was trash discarded by my adolescent neighbors. I investigated more closely, abandoning the safety of my patio to venture into the wilderness, following the path I’d memorized between the piles of dog feces left by young, unsocialized neighbors.
All kinds of fish—trout, catfish, bass, crappie, croaker—come to visit the pond, perhaps even copulate in the murky water, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves, and to die. A large one, perhaps nine inches long, had lunged for an insect near the bank, a feeding behavior they exhibited in the morning and evening, often landing several feet from the water’s edge, flopping around until gravity pulled them back to the dark water. Again and again. Having accomplished this feat, the unfortunate gymnast and been caught in the jaws of a waiting snake. I watched in fascination from fifty feet away, standing in the parking lot where I could see clearly, as the snake struggled to keep from sliding into the water on the steep embankment. The fish was suffocating but desperately fighting, its silvery body writhing spasmodically, far too large for the jaw whose fangs had snagged it. The two of them fought for several minutes, the assassin undulating, seeking a firm hold on the damp grass. No ground was gained or lost when the snake, realizing the futility of its effort, released its victim and withdrew into the shadows. Its prey lay dead two feet from the water’s edge.
Back in my refuge on the patio, I watched in horror as one of the denizens of the deep climbed slowly out of the dark water and pulled the assassin’s victim into the stillness of the pond. The largest of the turtles, watching the battle from the water’s safety, had come to claim the reward for its patience.
I finally escaped, taking my motorhome for a cross-country trip. Alas, my freedom was not to be long-lived. Dental implant surgery tied me to the fountain and the pond as surely as a chain. There was more for me to witness, to endure, to wish I had never seen.
When it rains in southern Louisiana, it rains, a lot. The pond fills up and is replenished with life. Immigrants arrive, eager for a bounty of food in the paradise they have stumbled across, lost. When the bayous, canals, and culverts dry up, the fish can’t return to their home waters. They are left confused and hungry, finding the pond to have no sustenance, they are easy prey for adolescent humans. Fishing is a popular form of torture, not that different from the snake’s method. Barbed hooks of steel sink into the soft flesh of hungry fish, snaring them like the fangs of a garden snake. Catch and release is the anthem of these would-be anglers because torture is more enjoyable when inflicted slowly. Keep the victim alive.
One hot summer, I watched the same hungry fish caught repeatedly by several fishermen; I couldn’t hold my tongue, when a young boy caught the fish who had been tortured at least a dozen times before, by college students with expensive fishing gear. I told the boy that the fish were like pets. He looked at me skeptically, retreated with his pole and hook, and returned fifteen minutes later. He ignored me, and I ignored him.
He had been told the truth by his parents: “It’s a stupid fish and you can do anything you want to it.” At least that’s what I think he was told…maybe his loving father added, “Fuck that old man It ain’t his fuck’n pond.”
Every pond in southern Louisiana is visited by migrating birds, perhaps drawn by ubiquitous fountains shimmering in the sun. They stopped by for a quick snack, sometimes a filling meal, feeding on the smaller fish relaxing naively in the shallows. First came a young egret, delighted to have a private fishing preserve. The young bird feasted, only being harassed occasionally by an older competitor, but the youngling was persistent. Every day, morning and evening, it would drop by to enjoy the fountain with me; until a blue heron, with long legs, a sharp beak, and a bad attitude challenged it for use of the pond.
The newcomer wasn’t going to share its bounty with anyone, so it threatened the smaller egret until it left. My new companion was an experienced angler and soon depleted the pond of small fish, moving on to a new feeding ground. Another world to conquer.
High overhead, flights of geese and ducks flew in formation, not stopping at the pond, heading for the open wetlands a few miles from our house. The pond wasn’t worth the effort of landing and retaking flight. No energy to waste on exploration. In the spring and summer, squadrons of young hawks circled, learning how to kill from the air. The mockingbirds stopped singing and playing during these displays of aerial prowess.
Migrant bluebirds, cardinals, and other colorful species visited me now and then. They never stayed, not being interested in the pond. Too flighty to be drawn by the allure of something so permanent, so eternal as the fountain.
Clumps of water grass appeared in the same spots every summer, as if following a design dictated by nature. Four floating islands, barely anchored to the soft bottom, spread until the landscape maintenance crew removed them at the end of summer. The fish loved the grass for the insects it attracted. They leapt through it in a feeding frenzy. I imagine the mosquitos loved it too, for shielding their larvae from the incessant pounding of the fountain. One of the patches would drift around like a barge broken loose from its mooring, gently joining the others, circumnavigating the pond as the wind changed direction, always pressed to the edge by the fountain’s force.
No story of life on a pond would be complete without mentioning the year-round inhabitants hiding in the grass and trees. There are no real trees; only large shrubs trimmed to look like trees. Too open for nesting, the mockingbirds and sparrows chose the thick foliage of the bushes scattered around the neighborhood. But they came to play, flirt, dance, and copulate in front of my patio, perhaps because of the small trees that dumped flowers, berries, leaves, and pollen on my patio and in my face. Maybe they were showing off.
Where there are flowers, there are hummingbirds and bees. One warm spring day, I was having lunch when something hit my arm hard enough to spill food from my utensil. A strangely shaped, very-large bug was lying on the patio next to met, out of focus. It buzzed, shook itself, and flew to my prison bars, shaking rhythmically. Curious, I donned my reading glasses and took a closer look. The apparition was actually two large bees copulating. I didn’t know bees did it like that. They did it for a while, so I lost interest, my curiosity satisfied.
I must mention my closest companions on Walden pond. Small lizards, adults less than six inches long, are always with me during the warm months. I learned a lot about them, like that the males are bright green and expand white air sacks under their throats as sexual and threatening displays. The females are dark green but the same size. I know which is which because they like to have sex right in front of me, on my prison bars, but they don’t copulate in the rapid manner of the bees. They don’t seem to copulate at all but remain frozen in a close embrace for a long time. I don’t know how long because I get bored. The young lizards join me at the table, climbing, hunting for spiders, sometimes getting on me by mistake. They’re cute.
One spring day, after a heavy rain, the water level in the web of waterways honeycombing southern Louisiana rose higher than usual, allowing a monster to enter the pond, the water’s rippled surface disturbed by its progress. A stubby nose at its prow, two beady eyes following, the mass of its body submerged, the otter fed on the newly arrived fish. It cavorted, diving and whirling, its submerged movement marked by air bubbles breaking the water surface. Within five minutes, occasionally coming up for air, it left as silently as it had arrived. Sated no doubt on any fish it had found in the murky depths.
I’ll never forget the year of extreme weather, which I won’t blame on global warming because that winter was cold as hell. The summer was marked by a biblical deluge, not a tropical storm or hurricane, that flooded Baton Rouge but left my patio high and dry. The pond swelled to the top of the embankment, five feet above normal water level, but the fountain never stopped cascading. Indomitable. Eternal.
Winter brought snow, a rarity in southern Louisiana. The first snowfall was two inches, the world bright white, reminding me of why I didn’t live in northern latitudes. The beauty didn’t last because my young neighbors appeared to construct snowmen. All they accomplished was destroying the luster, creating an urban landscape of tracks and mounds of snow. Bare, dormant, grass and dirt. The second snowfall was less, not worth the effort of ruining. After the shock of snow, another surprise arrived; a cold front brought arctic air to the Gulf Coast, and the surface of the pond froze. The fountain never stopped flowing, however, the only open water near its base. I worried about the turtles.
When I returned for the last time, the world had changed ominously. The fountain no longer ran all day and all night; someone had installed a timer, so it shut down at ten p.m. and turned on at seven a.m., destroying the eternal harmony of the pond, upsetting the balance of nature.
The silence in the morning was golden, except for the wail of a train horn in the distance and the noisy air conditioners turning on constantly. Having discovered quiet, I began to hate the fountain that had centered my life. I fled upstairs to escape its roar. There was no respite, so I started getting up earlier and earlier; a couple of hours of silence.
The turtles must have felt the same. Like me, they had grown accustomed to a few hours of silence and the return of the cascading water in the morning was no longer acceptable. They were also unhappy with other changes that had occurred because of the eternal fountain. The unceasing ripples had worked on the soft bank too long and the land capitulated, accepting defeat, and eroded. Now, instead of a gentle slope surrounding the water, they faced a scarp more than six inches in height before they could reach the warmth of the sun. Their world in turmoil, the denizens of the deep began migrating, not through the culvert that led indirectly to the ocean, but instead over land, across the cement parking lot. Their destination was the drainage ditch at the edge of the subdivision. I think the emigres made it because I didn’t see any squashed turtle shells. A few remained to wait for another dead fish to scavenge.
There is a peculiar kind of duck that is common along the Gulf coast: individuals who don’t want to fly north for the summer make their permanent home in ditches that are seldom dry. Dogs and cats don’t bother them, they reproduce and multiply, get fat on the bounty supplied by a warm climate and lots of rain.
Late this last summer, one of these ditch ducks was sitting on the grass next to the pond when I went to the patio to begin my morning ritual of drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and wondering when I would escape the fountain. To see a ditch duck in the pond was a rather surprising thing because they grow very fat and don’t fly, choosing to waddle everywhere. I don’t think it walked past the front gate or got through the fence enclosing the neighborhood. It remained three days, shuffling around, occasionally fleeing to the safety of the pond to escape a curious dog, flapping its wings futilely, fishing. It seemed to be on vacation.
The third morning after its arrival, the visitor shuffled to the parking lot, began flapping its wings furiously, stumbling forward, leaping in small bounds, and finally got off the ground. I watched in wonder as the strong wings fought to lift the corpulent body into the air. I grimaced in sympathy, directing my willpower to assist. It had less than six feet of altitude when it disappeared behind the building. It must have made it because I haven’t seen it since.
The egret and the blue heron had worked out an arrangement to share the meager provender of the pond. The egret dropped by during the day whereas the larger, bad-tempered waterfowl took the morning and evening shifts.
With the fountain silenced in the morning, the heron began perching on it, maybe to sleep. I don’t know because the gushing water didn’t cease until after I went to bed. Perhaps the bird waited in the shadows for the fountain to rest. At any rate, the silent predator was always present when I went outside at five a.m. A ghost.
In the dark, it searched the murky water, dove in sometimes, fishing from its pedestal. I wondered if it could tell time because it always disappeared before seven a.m., when the fountain roared into life.
This morning, there it was as usual, getting its breakfast, watching for danger. After dumping a stream of green goo on the grass, it retook its perch on the fountain. I checked the time on my phone: six-fifty-one. Six-fifty-two…
I waited. The fountain waited. The bird didn’t budge.
The fountain waited silently, preparing to spring its trap on the unsuspecting interloper, who had no business standing on it, taking advantage of its vulnerability.
I laughed along with the fountain when it burst into life, tossing the startled bird in the air.
The kids graduated college and, like the migrating birds, set off to begin new lives. I’ll be leaving soon as well, joining my wife on the other side of the world, my departure delayed by more home repairs.
I won’t miss the fountain, but I’ll always remember the time we spent together. It seemed like an eternity. I guess that every moment is a small piece of eternity, however, so let’s just say I spent an eternity with that fountain on my Walden pond.
I’ll let Henry David Thoreau finish the story:
“I learned this, at least…that if one…endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will…pass an invisible boundary…live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex…If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost…Now put the foundations under them.” (Walden, 323- 324)