Man has an innate tendency to gravitate towards nature. Somehow, the raw beauty of nature touches the very inner core of our being. A walk through the woods or sitting on a stream-side bench unfolds much more than what is in view. As 19th century writer Laura Ingalls Wilder had famously said, if you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere. She was the inspiration for the long running American television series Little House on the Prairie.
American philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) immortalised a large pond in Concord Mass, where he lived in a simple small cabin for two years and wrote his 1854 famous book Life in the Woods. Thoreau’s effort to minimise the creature comforts and take in the nature around him is something that poets and writers from all ages have written about.
William Wordsworth in Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey wrote:
“I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense of sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns and the round ocean, and the living air and the blue sky, and in the mind of man[…]”
I also live on a pond, but unlike Walden Pond, it is not located in the woods but in my backyard. It is small – very small – when compared to other similar collections of water. It was not created by the receding glaciers following the Ice Age, but by a magician by the name of Ralph Collins.
Our American homestead sits on two acres of land. When we moved into the house 46 years ago, the large backyard was a bit overwhelming. With a growing family of one girl, two boys and frequent visits from my family from Pakistan we decided to put in a swimming pool. For over 30 years, it was used extensively by everyone but me. Growing up in the old city of Peshawar, there were really no opportunities to jump into a stream or waterhole and learn how to stay afloat. Hence, I never learned how to swim.
Tired of the high cost of maintenance and marginal use, we decided to get rid of the pool. Getting rid of a pool (billiard) table is easy, getting rid of a swimming pool is not. It is said that a boat owner is most happy on two occasions: one when he gets the boat and the second when he gets rid of it. The same is true of pool owners.
A demolition crew armed with a small bulldozer, tons of dirt and sand and concrete filled the empty yawning space. When they left, there was no trace of the pool.
Enter Ralph Collins. I call him a magician because he can transform any bare, naked and lonesome patch of land into an enchanting landscape with flowing water and shrubbery. He is a big game hunter, having been to Namibia to claim some trophies. He is the kind of a person I find much in common.
He looks at a blank space and conjures up images in his mind that are as far removed from reality as humanly possible. He does that without a blueprint, map, or a rough and rudimentary sketch. To hire him is to take a leap – a high and long leap – of faith.
With a shovel, small excavator, wheelbarrow, a few other tools, and some helpers he went to work. In due course, various kinds of stones were delivered to accent the stream and the pond. In about three days he transformed the empty space into waterfalls and a meandering small stream that empties into a pond that he dug up next to a sitting area we call ‘hujra’ (Pashto for communal gathering place for men, but our hujra is open to all). He added lilies, ferns and reed plants to the pond and accented the stream with moss phlox that ever so slowly spreads and, in a few years, gives the stream a natural look as if nature has been working on it for centuries. These plants highlight and accent the contours of the stream.
I was surprised to see small, tiny plants growing between the rocks. They were brought there not by human hand but by nature. Somehow a solitary seed from a cottonwood tree rode the breeze and planted itself in a small crevice in a lava rock by the stream and started growing. Nearby, another tiny seed from a white mulberry tree found a hospitable spot by the stream and dropped roots. If allowed to grow they will, in few decades, become strong and tall and take over the stream and the pond. These saplings are not unlike people who are carried on the wings of destiny and are dropped in strange places where they take root and grow.
White water lilies are fascinating. Their broad round notched leaves break the monotony of the still surface of the pond. Every week or so the lilies surprise me by producing pink flowers of various shades and hues. The flowers, called white water roses, open only during the day. Their star-burst yellow interior invites the bees and other insects to come, land, take in nature’s bounty and leave. In late afternoon the petals slowly start to close and until next day the flower is just a conical bud poking its head from the water.
The lily flowers are just the opposite of the night-blooming jasmine (Raat ki Raani) that bloom only at night and scatter their intoxicating fragrance on the gentle shoulders of night breezes. True to its name raani or the night queen becomes a fragrant raani only at night.
Ralph Collins, while beautifying the stream and the pond with plants, also threw in a few plants of water lettuce. These are beautiful green plants that freely float in water and multiply faster than rabbits. Unless checked, they tend to take over and choke other plants.
While the waterfall feeds the stream and the stream empties into the pond, a re-circulation system keeps the water in motion and prevents water wastage.
Somehow the word got around in the woods that there was a pond and flowing water. Birds, insects, frogs, ducks, chipmunks and squirrels gleefully received the news and started visiting the stream and the pond. They come, stay for a while, and then take off. In the process they have helped create an intricate interdependent eco system.
Red-breasted robins, doves, and sparrows find it exciting to come, take a thorough bath in the stream, flap their wings to dry off and take to the air. Occasionally, mallard ducks and blue jays will grace the pond with their visits.
I am fascinated by the dragon flies that come every day, stay for hours, feast on mosquitoes and leave. They frolic in the breeze, chase each other and after a brief rest on a swaying leaf of reed plant take flight again. Occasionally this chasing each other results in a prolonged mid- air embrace until the male passes on its genes to the partner and then they separate and go their own merry ways.
Dragon flies are innocent and useful flying insects. They got a bad name because of their resemblance to the drones that the US flew over the mountains of Wazirstan. Children in Wazirstan, Pakistan, on hearing the whine of an approaching drone would yell, ”Here comes the pirpak and zanga” (Pashtu names of dragonfly). Sahibzada Riaz Noor, a poet extraordinaire, wrote a poignant poem on the kind of dragon fly that spews fire and destruction. Here is an excerpt:
How come the friendly coloured moth
Today only speaks and spews,
A language of fire
For me and you
Similar in sound yet so different, cruel
The dreaded fly
With its whir and whine
Bloodstained talons of a new eagle
We had not heard before
Occasionally, I see shimmering filament stretching from a tree to the stream. It is the work of spiders, no doubt. But what were they doing spinning strands with no traps for insects to get entangled? Maybe, I reasoned, the strand was not a trap but a way for the spider to enjoy herself by zip-lining from her perch in the tree to the stream for a drink or to walk on top of the water. Possibilities are infinite.
I can, however, see and observe only a tiny slice of the nature that surrounds me. As Shakespeare said in Antony and Cleopatra, “In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy, a little I can read.”
What a beautiful scene, etched out so effortlessly yet eloquently. It is a place we all dream of inhabiting; and through this poetic piece of narration, we did!