Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Under the Surface

In these days just after the Autumn Equinox, I step out my back door into the last mortal exuberance of the garden. The late clematis is at the end of its three-week riot: thousands of small, scented white blossoms billowing over the fence, over my neighbour's garage, into the grape arbor of the yard next door. The corroded bronze Buddha sits on his small shelf just to the left of the garden gate, nearly obscured by the forsythia. What's left of the dicentra and ferns lie sprawled across the paving bricks in the corner nearest the steps from the deck. And day by day, the pond moves slowly but steadily toward dormancy.

The sunlight that sliced through its surface two months ago now barely grazes the far end. The floating plants--water lettuce, parrot feather--get leggier as they reach for light and slow down their relentless spread that from late June to early August needed thinning nearly every week. The goldfish, gluttons that they are, continue to guzzle anything I drop into the water for them with as much enthusiasm as ever, even though their metabolisms are slowing as the water temperature drops imperceptibly from morning to morning.

Down below, God knows what's going on. Fiteen years ago, I released half a dozen Japanese trap-door snails. An enterprising raccoon occasionally manages to fish one out and leaves the fragments of shell on the edging stones--sometimes along with a chaotic tangle of vegetation--as proof they're still going about their invertebrate business in the thickening layer of muck at the bottom and in the hoary film of algae that clings to the sides. I have no idea whether the current population of goldfish still includes any of the half-dozen ten-cent feeders that my ex and I turned loose in 1997. Some additions over the years have clearly contributed their genes to the mix.

I marvel at how little effort I have to invest in this more-or-less self-contained ecosystem the size of three or four bathtubs. I plug in a floating electric heater for the winter to keep enough of the surface free of ice that the fish--hibernating near the bottom except when the odd warm spell brings them churning sleepily up to the surface--don't suffocate by spring. In early May, an algae bloom turns the water an opaque emerald. A week or two later, the pond weeds begin to suck up enough free nitrogen for the algae to calm down and the water to clear again. By early summer, the seasonal floating plants and the water lily shade enough of the surface to regulate the water temperature. The marginal plants grow happily on a diet of fish shit, their roots functioning as a natural filtration system. I know what little I need to do to sustain these cycles. But I also know that my job is mostly just to get out of the way, and to give thanks.

It's all so long, so slow, and so resolutely under the surface. I'm directly aware only of the barest fraction of its life. And therein lies the lesson I continue to learn from it, more deeply with each year that it settles gradually into stasis and then wakes again the following spring into new life: that what happens fast and with obvious drama often just barely skims the surface, while something far more richly interconnected moves out of sight to its own rhythms.

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