Chapter 5

The pond, the bog, and the waterfalls

Part I

Kieran Egan



The idea was that the soil I dug out for the pond would become the raised garden. And the height of the raised garden would be determined by the amount of soil dug out. There were two problems that quickly became apparent, and a few thousand others that emerged as the project went forward. The first problem was that the good top-soil&endash;&endash;compounded from millennia of flesh, fur and feces, as T. S. Eliot so nicely put it, and millennia of trees and underbrush in this rainforest climate&endash;&endash;that I was digging out and throwing inside the first bit of the wall of the to-be raised garden was then followed by the red-gold sandy soil, then the deeper gray clay, both of which went on top of the good soil. Ideally I should be able to lift the whole lot out in one scoop and deposit it right way up for the garden, with the good soil on top.

I began to try to remedy the problem by tossing the good top-soil to the left and the clay to the right, with the idea that I would somehow get the good soil on top of the clay when I started moving it around for the garden. I'm not sure how I imagined I was going to slide the clay under the topsoil on the left. But somehow, once I dug the soil out and deposited it on what was to be the raised garden, it seemed to expand in some mysterious way. After a while I had a decent sized hole in the ground but an indecent amount of soil on the garden. "Raised" began to look like a joke; sky-garden seemed more appropriate. Any waterfall from this height would probably stun the fish. I would clearly have to get someone in to cart off most of the clay. But the last mini-mountain was all clay, and my plan to deposit the good soil to the left began to seem silly as I was covering the whole area five or six feet deep. I could have made the pond smaller of course, but I had a responsibility to the fish, to give them a decent chunk of real estate to do their fishy things in.

This was one of the activities in which reading a book or two about digging out ponds might have helped. Having found some in the library, I saw that they all begin with the sensible suggestion that one should first plan precisely the area of the pond, marking it with a hose or something equally flexible that one can lay on the unsuspecting ground. I had just begun digging in what seemed roughly the middle of the proposed pond and then enlarged it into a shape that seemed pleasing. The books also recommend that one lay out two large tarpaulins. Onto the first, one tosses the good topsoil, which one excavates completely first, then when digging out the clay, one tosses that onto the other tarpaulin.


Too late.

Stones are perhaps the first necessity for a Japanese garden, but the second is water. We can so easily project our emotions into the movements of water. It can rage and lie silent, can be rippled by small or strong winds, can seem leaden and sluggish or light and joyful. A body of water offers endlessly varying mirrors of the world above it. Still water can reflect the moon and then can dissolve it when a fish jumps or a stone is thrown, and then compact it whole again from the flickering strip across moving ripples on the surface. It doubles the green of plants, and mysteriously increases light while casting a darkened reflection of the world above. As it moves, it creates a kind of music ideally tuned to the human soul, whether the movement is its lapping against rocks or its running over stones and falling into a pond.

The vague image that was guiding my digging was of quite a largish pond&emdash;given the space I had to work in. I imagined a low stone wall around its rim, and a stream with perhaps three garden-size waterfalls, that need pose no threat to Niagara, dribbling through the raised garden among evergreen plants. But even as I dug I knew that realizing this ideal would involve a nefarious and shameful case of dendricide.

The problem was the birch tree that grew from the condominium garden, a corner of which backed onto ours. The birch forked in two at about head-height, one fork leaning entirely over where the pond was to go. Its trunk had also burst through the old fence put up when the condominium was built, making it impossible for me to extend my new Japanese-style fence. This birch was a dirty old tree, oozing gallons of heavy, sticky sap in the spring, flinging down bits of twigs through the year, and depositing its considerable wealth of undistinguished leaves in the fall. There was no point putting in a pond while this loomed over the area it was to occupy. I had the legal right to take out the fork that rose a few feet and then took a semi-corkscrew twist over the fence to trespass in my garden. Removing that whole fork, though, seemed likely to kill the tree, so I assumed I should try to negotiate with the condominium people to take out the whole thing. I was prepared to pay for it if necessary, but hoped I might do a deal whereby they would pay half. The only possible ground for them feeling any obligation at all was the fact that the trunk was breaking down their own fence.

A little warily, I went round one afternoon and knocked on the door of Mr. O'Reardon, the chair of the tenants' council of the condominium. He, a little warily, began to amass his negotiating arguments as soon as he heard my request. His opening gambit was to tell me regretfully that they had already spent their budget for landscaping for the year. (This was May.) But he would come and see the problem. On the way we established that we had been born not far from each other in Ireland, and things were looking decidedly better by the time we reached the offending birch. He peered over the fence, and immediately agreed that he was witnessing an unforgivable trespass by the birch tree. And something must be done. He would put my request to the tenants' committee, and would be back in touch with me.

The digging went well for a while, apart from the alarming expansion of the soil once it came above ground. Digging feels like fulfillment of one of our evolutionary inheritances, and such fulfillments are always pleasurable. Digging deeper and deeper, I worried that I might be unable to stop at a sensible depth. Most of the books suggested that a couple of feet would be enough, but I was approaching three and still going happily. Perhaps it's the Irish genes, but I do greatly enjoy digging, moving earth around. It is such clean stuff, miraculously fertile, and with a strange ability to make itself at home wherever one throws it; within days it looks as though it had been there since the beginning of time. Those endorphins kicking in, perhaps.

Endorphins reminds me of a recent visit to Hong Kong, during which a colleague talked eloquently to our Chinese host about the effects of endorphins in the learning brain, making often hard learning its own reward by the pleasure the released endorphins delivered. Our host listened attentively for some time, and then diffidently asked, "Ah, about the dolphins...?" This was followed by my Welsh colleague discussing the importance of eloquence as a much neglected aim of education these days. Again out host listened intelligently and politely, after a while asking only, "Ah, about the elephants...?"

Sorry. A couple of the books said that the deeper the pond, the less likely it was that it would become murky with algae, and also that the fish would have a happier time, especially in the winter.

Childhood stories lay down expectations the adult mind can't entirely escape, and each chink against a stone for a millisecond sparked images of pirates' casks, whose doubloons and strings of pearls might just about pay for this extravagance. Then I hit the rock. I had hit many rocks, of course, and kept digging around this one to lever it out with the spade. But it soon announced its boulder dimensions.

I dug and dug, and couldn't find a limit to it. Also it seemed to be lodged in hard gray clay that resisted the tip of the shovel, releasing reluctantly an egg-cupful at a time. Soon I was approaching five feet down around the stone. I had been thinking I was in Treasure Island, but it was turning out to be Moby Dick.

I gave up digging around Moby Rock after an hour or so, and after a couple of hours on other days. A number of people looked at it&endash;&endash;the electrician whom I had asked what I would need to do to get the tea-house and pond pump ready for his ministrations, the gardener who came to look at a tree that was diseased, suspiciously after his pruning of it, and various friends. I announced that I thought I would put soil back around the boulder and lay the liner over it. No, no! They were unanimous that it must come out. Think how magnificent the stone would look on the garden! And then they would wave and go away. All giving more or less fanciful suggestions for how I could get it out. Mattock and spade, and sore back and knees, finally released the rock from the long embrace of the clay. How long had it been there, held in that clay embrace? The last Ice Age&emdash;twelve thousand years? I must ask an expert.

And here's grandson Joshua, giving it a cautious examination. His examination, at least, didn't lead to suggestions about what I should do with it. He found the really interesting part was jumping off the edge and being caught by his father of grandfather, and then being hoisted onto the lip of the pond to leap in again&emdash;a habit we'll have to break him of before the water goes in.

Moby Rock began to become an obsession. How was I to get it out? I tried levering it with two-by-fours, but they cracked before it gave the slightest hint it might consider moving even an inch. When persuaded by a long metal bar to move an inch, it then settled back as soon as the bar was removed. Should I build a pulley over the excavation and hoist it out? One neighbor suggested I needed a Come-along. And indeed I did.

A Come-along is basically a couple of metal cables with a lever in the middle. You attach one cable to a tree, the other to the object you want to move, and, as you pull and release the lever, the tree and object are pulled closer together. In the expectation that the tree won't move, the rock should be pulled out of the pond towards the tree. And damn me if that isn't just what happened.

Mind you this didn't happen as quickly and easily as that. My friend Geoff came over with an enormous car-jack, which looked like the original. He assured me that it was a good thirty years old and in its time had raised cars out of ditches (which cars, it emerged from the dramatic telling, Geoff had earlier driven into the ditches). This is the same eloquent Welshman whose academic discourses in Hong Kong, mentioned above, had raise inquiries about dolphins and elephants. Here comes Moby Rock:

We attached the cables around the rock and around the tree and I began to lever slowly. It wasn't easy pushing and pulling the lever, but it wasn't very difficult either. With the first small pull, Moby Rock irritatedly shrugged itself a little, and with the second it reluctantly began to shift, and after a few more it was scraping itself out of its clay bed and rising onto the floor of the excavation. Geoff was behind it with the jack, taking pressure off the straining cables, though they seemed to me astonishingly able for the job.

As I levered, it began to saunter across the bottom of the pond-to-be and hardly slowed to climb up the three-foot wall of the pond towards the lawn. Now that it was in its stride, perhaps it might wander into the street, or kitchen! To see this monster scraping up the side of the pond as a result of my simple pulling and pushing was well nigh incredible. No wonder people make a fuss about the invention of the lever. Was it Galileo or Newton, or one of those people who knew a lot about how things moved, who said that with a good lever and fulcrum he could move the earth. I know what he meant.

And then it came out, scoring a chunk of earth from the lip of the pond, as it looked over the lawn and inspected us. A pale chunk of granite. We dragged it a few feet further towards the raised garden, and let it rest. It seemed like a troll, stuck for thousands of years, finally taking a slow arthritic crawl and climb, and now needing a few centuries to rest and catch its breath.

We had a beer.

How long, I wondered, would it rest here? Another twelve thousand years seemed excessively optimistic. When we sell or die, the house will come down, a new one will appear, whose owner may not want a Japanese garden at the back, and away Moby Rock would be swept&emdash;perhaps back into the drained pond where it might feel more at home. When the neighbor's house was crunched and carried away, the new owners wanted a new garden. A guy with a back-hoe came in&emdash;a veritable Mozart of back-hoers&emdash;and he set about flattening everything. At one point he hit a huge rock, bigger than Moby. He dealt with it in minutes; dragging it clear on the surface, then extending the back-hoe feet and settling them firmly in place, he scooped out a capacious hole beside the rock, raised the bucket beside it, and tapped it gently into the hole. He filled in the hole, covering the rock, and leveled the soil all around in minutes. No doubt these rocks are weary and irritated at being disturbed at this hectic modern pace every century or so. So Moby Rock might be pushed around before it has a chance to sprout a decent coat of lichen or moss. I should help it along with a pasting of yogurt.

(Go to Part II of The Pond, the Bog, and the Waterfalls. If you can't stanbd the suspense, this is what it led up to:




Go to Part II

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