Learning the Steps to Our Pond's Stately 'Dance'

Fronds of water milfoil dance with hand-sized bass, who glide out into the open, then startle and hurry back to the plant's waiting arms.

"What's all that gross stuff in your pond?" a visitor asked that first spring we lived on the parcel south of town. Guilt stirred. I didn't want to be accused of lackadaisical stewardship. When we bought the place, the pond was so clear of weeds it looked like a swimming pool. Now to the unschooled eye it raised specters of swamp monsters.

Pond scum (filamentous algae) is a primitive plant without leaves, stems, or roots. It floated on the surface, a gelatinous-looking mat. My husband and I tried to rake it off, but the pond was a kidney-shaped half-acre, so the task was formidable and one we quickly abandoned for some serious deck sitting.

The algae disappeared with the cold, but spring weather caused a re-growth that once again ebbed with summer, and we learned something about the seasons of algae on our pond.

In its place came a hearty stand of Sparganium eurycarpum (bur weed) ringing the shallows. Below water level, the plants looked attractive, their long grasslike leaves floating erect. But once they broke the surface, they drooped and looked spent.

We decided to resort to "mechanical controls," which means weed pulling. My husband and I pulled on knee-high rubber boots and waded in. The work was satisfying, so we got more ambitious and boarded an inflatable chair to get to deeper water. A sudden vision of us - two middle-aged people in shorts and knee boots balancing in rather compromised positions on an inflatable chair - got us tickled, and the raft tipped. I knew a few moments of alarm as I sank into the deep, my boots filling with water. My husband grabbed me and pulled me into the shallows.

So much for mechanical controls.

Weeds can be eradicated by chemical means if the pond doesn't have an outlet. But the water tumbled out of our pond at a surprising rate, journeyed into a creek, then a river, and into the drinking water of several communities. Not only would chemicals be dispersed too quickly to do anything to the bur weed, they would also find their way into a much broader environment, an unacceptable proposition, even if the EPA deemed the chemicals "safe."

AS summer drew to a close, the sparganium seemed to have won. So we sat on the deck and drank iced tea. Turtles sunned themselves on old stumps. A northern water snake patrolled for food. A heron stalked a fish in the shallows.

By the next spring, the bur-weed problem had taken care of itself. A few shoots appeared, but the rampant growth was gone. Instead came the water milfoil (Myriophyllum heterophyllum). Mechanical control was out of the question, because a broken-off fragment can become a new plant. Its fronds form an excellent spawning habitat for fish, and we spotted bass swimming in and out of the aquatic jungle.

In spite of its providing good potential fishing, the milfoil was too aggressive to love. We began praying for algae. "Maybe it would shade the milfoil and kill it," my husband said.

"Grass carp," the weed-control pamphlets from the state advised.

"Grass carp," the old-timers suggested. "They'll clean it right up."

Grass carp is the common name for the sterile Ctenopharyngodon idella, a fish that can weigh up to 100 pounds when fully grown. Our pond already had 18 monster-sized ones that cruised the perimeter in a long flotilla. So why weren't they doing their job?

"They quit eating when they get big," people told me. Something quits eating? But as I compared my son's appetite to my elderly mother's, I thought maybe there was truth to this.

Bullfrogs croon their love songs each night; whippoorwills sing their sad ballads. Katydids and crickets fill in the background chords. My husband and I sit on the deck and listen to the music.

By day the fish dance, the water striders skate and the dragonflies do an aerial ballet above the water, and I don't know what the carp are doing. Perhaps they will clear out the water milfoil, perhaps they won't. I'll wait and see. Waiting is part of the cycle of things, the pond has taught me. I'm trying to relax and watch it reinvent itself so I can learn its steps instead of trying to teach it mine.

I'm ready to dance.

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