It’s not the pond it might be, but it’s a pond


Speaking of ponds, as folks in West Tisbury are these days, while they consider what to do, if anything at all, with the Mill Pond, I have in mind a farm pond elsewhere in town. I discussed this pond and one of its residents several years ago in this space, so some of what follows will be familiar.

At the foot of a steep, grassy slope below the tiny house, the farm-raised ducklings trailed obediently behind their mother as she paddled from shore to shore. It was not much of a pond, more of a West Tisbury kettle hole scooped out of the marshy boundary between pastures. Because it was a farm, and because, as I say, it wasn’t much of a pond, you could deepen it, widen it, maintain it, and enjoy it, more or less as you saw fit.

It was hardly pristine. Waste from the cattle pens drained into it, as did water from the more extensive marshes north across the large field. A sheltering cluster of beetlebung trees, a few locust and black cherry, and one overhanging oak sheltered the western side. Grass ran to the water’s edge everywhere else around the circumference.

Nor was it the prettiest pond, nothing at all like the Mill Pond. Incidentally, the Mill Pond and others in the watershed from which it derives are now often called impoundments, a word that does not sparkle or smile or please the way pond does.

But, as for this pond I’m talking about, springs fed the nearby marshes, so the pond was never low, not even in the driest summers. But in the summer, algae bloomed thickly green across the surface so that swimming was out. In the winter, because it was low and protected all around, ice formed and hardened and thickened quickly. Winters without skating were rare.

Those ducklings, or the farm’s goslings for that matter, were lucky to get in one round trip behind their oblivious parents. One by one they disappeared. Seven today, six tomorrow, four next day. Mother kept pottering dimly out and about, apparently marveling at how fast kids grow up and get out of the house these days.

Snapping turtles got them. Small as it was, this pond and two others on the rocky, wet, unfruitful 90 acres suited snapping turtles. The turtles did not confine themselves to polishing off the farmyard small fry. When a calf — in the old days, there were loads of them romping across the pastures in the spring, weighing 90 or 110 pounds at birth, big-boned and all white — encountered a strolling turtle in a field, the youngster’s curiosity would often be rewarded with a chomped nose, or worse, a badly lacerated foreleg.

Countermeasures for snapping turtles included fishing for them with rotting meat as bait on a big stainless steel hook, hauling the hooked turtle out of the water, and chopping off its head with an axe or machete. Finding one in the field led to the same disposition, though a stick thrust in the direction of the turtle’s head was needed to get the neck to sufficiently extend.

Big Al, the venerable Felix Neck showtime snapping turtle that Gus Ben David featured in his demonstrations, was a distant relation of those gosling-gulping, calf-nipping nuisances that made farm life bloodier than it ought to have been.

This farm pond I’m talking about was not much of a pond, and neither was it a naturally occurring pond. Still, despite the brutality common in the neighborhood and the modestly unsanitary activities of the livestock, the Canada geese that shared the pastures, and — yes, one must admit it — the less than fastidious contributions of the nearby human population, it was a pond that pleased the eye.

Sometimes, man-made creations, unnatural as they are and in conflict as they may be with new views of how to restore the natural world to some earlier, more natural state of our choosing, add something valuable to the landscape and to our appreciation of it. Deciding what to do about what must be acknowledged is an unnatural impoundment, to use an unmusical term; it may be that finding the right solution is not the difficult thing. There are lots of solutions. It may be that asking the right question is — for instance, does this unnatural but pleasing and familiar man-made feature of the landscape suit us?