Monday, May 2, 2011

Fish in a Barrel

About a week ago Jer noticed movement in the last tiny patch of pond remaining. It measured no larger than 5 feet in diameter and maybe a few feet deep. This time last year the pond overflowed at the banks and spilled into the neighbor's forest. What a difference a drought makes.

The movement in the pond was strange since we haven't noticed anything there for months. As Jer walked closer he realized suddenly that the muddy puddle was swarming with life; some of it in its last throes but much of it thriving. Tiny perch flitted between enormous perch that were struggling, flipped on their sides, and hardly alive. A large catfish emerged momentarily before slipping beneath the wriggling mass of silver fish. A snake swam to the top before disappearing into the deep. All this time, for all these months, we've watched that water dwindle and retreat and scum over. It never occurred to us that the place was thick with life. He called me down from the front pasture to have a look at this fading ecosystem. The spot was tragic in its complexity and ephemeral existence. But then I noticed the footprints encircling the little puddle. Some were fresh but some clearly happened long ago and were dried permanently into the clay soil. Most of the prints were from birds and many came from the elusive heron.

It seemed unfair to leave them there, battling each other for a spot in the water. But knowing the birds had found an ample feeding ground was somehow gratifying. Each fish they take makes room for another fish and those that survive can grow larger and breed, until it's crowded and the birds come for a meal. What a beautiful little system; all of this occurring on a corner of the land for who-knows-how-long.

But, ultimately, the drought dictates the cycle. I visited the pond one week later and nothing was left. The puddle was gone completely; the earth already cracking where it had been the week before. All of those fish, the snake, the birds that fed there - just gone. As if they never existed. The weather we've had, this drought, the apocalyptic Southern storms - it's strange days in these parts.

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