"Pond" by Elizabeth Bernays

Elizabeth Bernays

Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia, then studied agricultural pests in developing countries. After serving as professor of entomology at the University of California Berkeley and Regents professor at the University of Arizona, she also obtained an MFA in creative writing. She has published twenty-five essays in a variety of literary journals and has won several awards including the X.J. Kennedy prize for nonfiction. 

Pond

The new trail camera photo showed the back view of a hog-nosed skunk on the black, icy pond, its tall, airy tail hiding the rest of its body, the round patch of skin of its anus highlighted in the flash. "A great shot of his arsehole," Sam said. I smiled, knowing that the placid picture hid the fact that the skunk would have been slipping on the ice. Had it been searching for food, or trying to drink? I remembered seeing a skunk in the moonlight once from the bedroom window, its soft, upright white tail like a ghost running over the gravel, and next morning I noticed a vague skunk smell when I opened the door.

Everything was beginning to seem slower than it used to, even as time ran faster, and I imagined how I would feel in the future, after age had taken away too much. I trailed slowly to my chair carrying a preview of an older self. Here was the comfortable chair with a view of the pond, ice melting and a goldfish gasping at the surface. I will become ever more addicted to this scene, its ever-changing light, reflections of the mesquite tree and blue salvia bushes on the water, the old branching yucca and spreading alligator juniper beyond, the parade of birds coming to drink, to peck seeds from bird feeders, or to eat the scattered seeds on the ground. I will spend all day in my chair I thought, reflecting on the past as I watch the life outside. I thought of the skunk in the photo from the night before, glad that Sam had suggested a trail camera in the first place. Coyotes, bobcats, foxes, bunnies, raccoons—nocturnal creatures I rarely see in the daytime, now in files on a computer. Here, by the window, I was ready again for the first birds of the day. I will be ready every day.

I tried to remember when I had got Seth to dig the pond. It was there last winter, so it was probably the summer before. Sam had wanted a pond near the house so she could photograph the birds from the window. Seth dug the hole and laid the plastic lining. I had helped to put a layer of concrete on top and settle plants around. I had tried water lilies and water hyacinth in the pond but they had fallen victim to dog antics, but then the floating salvinia had been successful, covering the water by the end of summer and keeping it cool. Now though, freezes had killed this too, and once again the water reflected the trees and sky. The water was brown, stained from the tannins of leaves that fell into the water in the fall, and from the dark sludge that had accumulated on the bottom. I didn't really mind that Sam had stopped doing photography because the pond had become my own special interest, my window to the wildlife and my place for private soliloquy. The pond had gradually been taking over my days, and after early morning tea I was, as usual, eager to take my place on the chair by the window. 

The morning was quiet. It was unusual that there were no birds. I knew that there was probably a reason and quite soon I saw the reason.  Seven javelinas were slouching on their tiny high heels towards the pond and the birdseeds. Two were half grown and were the same ones, I supposed, that had been the tiny twins in the fall. Two of the bigger javelinas came straight to the pond, while the others snuffled among the dry grass and gravel for seeds. One of them rubbed its rump against the shoulder of another; one put its head over the back of another. The young ones nuzzled one of the adults. They were a close-knit troupe. After just five minutes they began to wander off, two of the little ones staying for a last nibble, before running to catch up with the others and going over the edge of the mesa and out of sight.

I leaned back in my chair and looked up through the bare mesquite branches to the blue. No clouds except for a small halo over the summit of Mt Wrightson, which was just catching the first sunrays. It would be a fine day. I looked back to the smoothness of the pond with its perfect reflections and remembered the even more perfect reflections on Mirror Lake at Yosemite. How long ago was that? It must have been more than twenty years past because it was my first year in the United States. What a move that was! How strange and exciting to begin to learn a new culture, a new way of being.  I had been a rebel in my Australian youth but had learned to conform in England, to become socially conscientious.  Then, the New World: California. I was introduced to American writers. I remembered reading Philip Roth, who said that in Europe "nothing goes and everything matters," whereas in liberal America "everything goes and nothing matters."  And it was natural to become egotistical among people who Richard Rodriguez says, "have the confidence of an atomic bomb informing every gesture."  In my job I had to learn to look after myself first. I feel different now though. Career, and most of life, is behind me and I have no need to be egotistical or particularly confident. I am happy in just existing and being myself, to rest my eyes on the scene from the window, the creatures at the pond. I will spend my time here more as time passes.

The birds came. An unexpected goldfinch and a flock of house finches were first.  Some of them took baths, though it was the seed that kept them for twenty minutes or so. One very red male house finch however, took the longest bath. What a dandy I thought. Is he always like that? His coloring would make him very appealing to females come spring, but what is all this splashing about? Perhaps it is part of his confidence, his superiority.  A lazuli bunting flew to the seed feeder. A ladder-backed woodpecker attacked the suet block. But neither of them came down to the pond. Perhaps later, or did they have a different water source? I wondered how far these birds flew, where they spent their nights, where they went after their short spell of foraging here. I remembered feeding kookaburras on the verandah when I was a child in Queensland. They came at a specific time in the morning, took their ground beef chunks, laughed in the Eucalyptus tree nearby, and were gone until the next day. They must be able to determine time. But I know that most animals do that, even insects. Bees learn when certain flowers have a nectar flow and they go back to them at the right time.

By midmorning there was a lot of bird activity round the pond.  Mourning doves and Gambel's quail were foraging for seeds on the ground, along with white crowned sparrows, chipping sparrows and a solitary black-throated sparrow.  From time to time a curve-billed thrasher came running out from the depths of the yucca to pick up a few seeds, run at the sparrows to chase them up to the feeder, run at the quail to make them move away, then rush back into shelter. So bossy and bad-tempered. Of course I have known people like that. Two of the doves came to the pond to drink. They stood side-by-side with their feet in the shallows and took sips at the same time; two sets of ripples spread out over the pond, the circles interrupting each other. They flew off when a green-tailed towhee decided to land too close. It drank briefly and returned to its curious digging dance, two feet dragging the soil back, then a small jump and both feet repeating the synchronized scratch. 

The busyness was soothing—the world of wildlife fulfilling its purpose. I have had my share of frantic activity and it is good to rest now, good to see the prime of life in other creatures. I thought about prime of life. What was my prime? I couldn't say that there was any real prime because everything had been full, exciting and busy from when I was twenty until just a couple of years ago.  The fifty years had been busy in different ways at different times, but somehow always full and fulfilling. The absorbing interest of biology. How could I have been so lucky? So many projects, interests, jobs, friends, countries. And now so much to remember.  I thought about my first job in entomology, my consuming interest in locust biology, finding answers to why grasshoppers eat certain plants, how they control how much they eat, the nuts and bolts of decision-making by insects. It seemed a lifetime away, and well, yes, it had become almost a lifetime in the past.

A breeze rippled the surface of the pond, breaking up the reflected branches. There was a gap in bird visitations and my mind drifted to other rippling surfaces. There was the Serpentine in Kensington Gardens, London, where, with Reg, I watched expanding ripples behind rented rowboats on Sunday afternoons. There was Lake Como on a blustery afternoon in Bellagio during an Italian holiday, where the ripples turned into small waves. There were multiple complex ripples in a reservoir in Patancheru where plastic elephant statues were thrown at the end of a Ganesha festival in India. There was the Niger River where lush green rice fields extended from the broad rippling river to the red sand hills of the Mali desert, and the work team set up radar equipment to monitor night flights of grasshoppers. So many ripples in so many countries. So many projects. Here, in a small pond in Patagonia, Arizona, the ripples came in bursts with the gusts of wind and then the reflections returned briefly in jagged patterns. The day became windy.

A white-tailed deer and her half-grown fawn came up from the valley below and nervously approached the pond on slender, delicate legs. They both drank deeply before scavenging for spilled seeds. The mother deer balanced on hind legs to reach up to a birdseed feeder where she extracted seeds with her tongue. It took several stretches before she abandoned the task and wandered off. The fawn followed, but then something scared them and they both ran off with white flags of tails held high. I wondered about the bucks. I saw them so rarely although just recently one fine fellow came by, yet didn't stop to have a drink.

Birds continued to come. They foraged for fallen seeds in the brown winter grass and they fed at the seed feeders. At intervals one would come to the pond. Sparrows of several species predominated, together with house finches. The variation in color of the male house finches was always noticeable: orange, pink, and red hues. Two years ago there was a yellow one. The color they display is dependent on the types of carotenoids in the food—different seed and berry types have different suites of carotenoids that get transferred to the feathers. In spring, when the drab females are choosing among the males, color will matter. Females prefer the brightest reds, which may adorn the strongest males; females need to be choosy to get the best genetic heritage for their offspring.

A Cooper's hawk landed out of nowhere right onto the edge of the pond and all the other birds were gone immediately. I often saw these hawks in the Alligator juniper or on a branch of a more distant mesquite, but this time it flew in from further away. It fluffed up its feathers and waded into the water before stopping to look all around. And then it squatted down and flapped the water, splashing itself and the rocks all around it. After a brief rest it repeated the action then stood on a tall rock to rest. It looked around, but apparently this was not a time to find food. On other days I see Cooper's hawks hunt doves here, often chasing them into my window so that a dove would fall to the ground, where Coopie picks it up and flies to the alligator juniper to pluck the feathers and eat the flesh. Feathers would often land in the pond and I sometimes picked them out to try and identify which bird species may have lost its life that day.

I thought about some of my research on predation. All the birds, lizards, spiders, wasps, bugs, ants—hundreds of species of predators that ate plant-feeding insects must have selected the caterpillars for their abilities to hide. Most of caterpillars are very choosy about finding the plant type that provides most protection. I believe that is why most species of caterpillars have just one or two host plant species. Hours and days watching insects in nature, elaborate experiments in greenhouses and laboratories, the thrill of looking at data. Students helping, students inspired to do their own experiments. I remembered telling my students, "Do what is interesting and exciting to you, and if you are as lucky as I am, you will get paid for doing what you enjoy." 

Cooper's hawk remained on the rock. It shook itself and looked around. I had a good view of its puffed up breast with fine, horizontal stripes of orange-brown and white. Perhaps it is waiting for some other birds to come to the water. It stayed over an hour before flying off, down into the valley below.  I remained fixated on the pond and although it was not a hot day, I saw a bee alight on the edge of the water. I assumed it was taking a drink because it wouldn't need to take water back to the hive for cooling. Perhaps with the lack of winter flowers to provide nectar, the bees still needed to get water.

In the silence of the afternoon I remembered the short poem written over 100 years ago in Ireland: 

Four ducks on a pond
A grass bank beyond 
A blue sky of spring 
White clouds on the wing 
What a little thing 
To remember for years
To remember with tears. 

I had forgotten the poet's name, but knew the verse from my adolescent years, and ever since, the little kernel of nostalgia had momentously spoken. I felt again the storm, yet the intensity was not what it had been.  I began to wonder if age reduced one's emotional involvement with everything. I thought how little I missed family and friends now, how much less I sought company.  I wondered if everything was beginning to shut down. Perhaps it was an adaptive thing, to reduce the ties and the feelings, to begin to prepare for an end. 

Although a few sparrows came and went, the afternoon remained quiet until a roadrunner raced into view. Sam was nearby and was the first to see it. "Look," she cried in excitement as it ran to the pond and stood still with its long tail swooping up and down, and its beady-eyed head turning this way and that. Quite suddenly, it jumped over the pond, dived into a salvia bush, and emerged with a sparrow in its beak. So quick to see. So quick to catch. I had never heard of such a thing and was thrilled to have seen it. "Cool, eh?" Sam said. The roadrunner went off running, with its prey in its beak and we never could be sure if the roadrunner had speared the sparrow with its long beak or caught it between its jaws. Last year there were two roadrunners, one adult and one half grown, and they spent a lot of time near the pond catching lizards and grasshoppers. Now though, there will be no lizards or grasshoppers. It is winter.

The afternoon wore on. Sam came and went. She was not one to sit and watch for long, but part of it was being younger, I decided. Contemplation is for old people.  I am healthy and strong but I know I look my 71 years, and was often amazed that Sam stayed with me, loved me, that we made love. I stayed in my chair, eyes on the pond. As the sun set and the scattered clouds turned red, a thrasher came running by, turning this way and that, as if looking for something to be bossy about. Then it flew into the yucca and made its long call. I could see its bright yellow eye as it stood there. This was a favorite thrasher place and in the spring two of them raised built a nest there and raised two young ones.

As dusk gathered, a cottontail rabbit hopped up over the edge of the mesa and to the edge of the pond. It bent down and took a long drink. I have a special feeling for cottontails after Sam and I had reared one. We found it by chance, a helpless newborn, its mother squashed on the road. We brought it home.  I searched on the web for the best way to keep it and we both loved the little thing. It turned out to be a female and it spent a lot of time in my pocket, so Sam decided to call her "Pocket." I had to insist that she had to be released into the wild when she was fully weaned, and Sam reluctantly knew that too, so Sam's leave taking of Pocket was long and loving. I too, gave the little bunny a kiss on its soft head. After Pocket was released into the wild she would come when called from out of the desert to get her treat of carrot, or bread, or her favorite cilantro, right from Sam's hand.  I thought back to all the times I held the tiny rabbit and how Sam and I had loved to watch her coming for food, right until the day she didn't come and we found evidence of predation by a bobcat—a little pile of uneaten intestines.

The photos from the trail camera were often of cottontails. They generally came to drink at night, but often they came before it was quite dark. I watched the bunny that had also caught the attention of my cat, Bowtie, who sat alert but motionless at the window. Together we saw the rabbit finish its drink and lope off into the night. 

I continued to sit on my chair by the window as the pond was hidden by darkness and other ponds were remembered. My childhood home in Brisbane, Australia. Father made a pond from an old concrete bath sunk into the ground, and my mother made gardens all around it. There were goldfish and a kingfisher made off with some of them. Forty years later I went back. The people who bought the place were still there and friendly, but the pond, gardens, shrubs, lawn, were all gone—replaced by jungle and garbage. I had the sharpest pains of nostalgia then, but they are gone now too. This pond will probably go when I am gone.  Nothing lasts. 

Another day. How quickly days pass now, racing towards the end, taking me into the unknown. I have no relatives here. Close friends have gone elsewhere. I am lucky to have Sam, our life together, our love. My life, my memories, my view of the pond from the window, all become more special as the number of days ahead steadily shrinks. But I am happy to have lived, to be part of the life of the world, to have had the joy of watching other animals, studying insects. I will be ready when the time comes. It may take years of further slowdown. It could be tomorrow.  I imagine though, that I will at least live to see another day, to see what animals the trail camera photographed during the night before.