I’ve been thinking recently about ponds. Or about one pond in particular. Let me describe it for you. It’s a pond in a field – an agricultural field, mostly wheat from memory; I remember the stickiness of brushing my hands through the corn heads as I walked the footpath across it during summer.
The pond was situated maybe ten minutes’ walk from my home, when I was growing up. It was just there, in the middle of the field, with no stream leading into it, no stream from it; there in the same way that stands of trees, or small copses, would be there. The farmer, you feel, would have happily filled it in, or cut them down, but it, they, were somehow protected.
The pond was of a decent size – a bit bigger, let’s say, than the garden of our house – and was surrounded by vegetation, trees and shrubs, that grew where the tractors and combines couldn’t reach, and formed a protective barrier, so that, from a distance, it might have looked rather like one of those copses or stands of trees, equally marooned in the sea of wheat. The difference being that the trees marked only themselves, whereas the trees around the pond at once hid it from view, and marked it presence.
Yet was there anything particularly interesting about this pond? Not really. It had the odd moorhen or coot, and there were fish in it, certainly, for it had little platforms or jetties at a couple of points around it, where fishermen would take their spot for the day. It was not a destination. It was not there that I was going when I went for a walk, in the countryside, in my youth, with my family or on my own, but it was a way station, a point on the trajectory. I can visualise some of the rest of the walk, but it’s the pond that has stayed with me.
It was anything but picturesque, and all it showed, I suppose, is the balance that existed, at this particular time, and in this particular part of the country, between agriculture and environmental concerns. It stood out, and it stands out still.
And what, then, is a pond?
A pond is a strange thing. Compare it, for instance, to other watery elements in the landscape: a sea, an ocean, a river, a lake.
Compared to these, a pond is peculiarly unknowable. The sea, you might say, is unknowable, emphatically, even emblematically so. Epitome of the sublime, the sea stands, symbolically, for that which is beyond our ken, our grasp, our abilities: that which it would kill us for us to know. So much so, that it is a given: the sea is the example par excellence of Rumfeld’s “known unknown”.
A river, by contrast, is all too knowable. It is a geographical machine, its logic explicit and impeccable. Where the sea has tides and currents and undertows and waves – a system, if system it is, of unfathomable complexity that it approaches chaos – and where it answers, if to anyone, to the moon, a river answers merely to gravity. It demonstrates gravity. Gravity explains it.
A lake, at least, demands explanation, though it usually offers it, almost in the same breath. Lakes are big enough, and important enough, for us to have incorporated them into our human landscape. They have a job to do, socially, industrially, aesthetically.
If the sea is sublime, and a lake beautiful, then a pond can be, at best, pretty. Look at this pond, stuck there in its field, as it is stranded in the bare desert of my memory.
Is there anything more uncanny, more weird and in the end dangerous than something that is pretty, yet also unknowable?