Big lesson in the mud of a small ruined pond

Ishmael

 

There’s a tiny, flat-bottomed valley not far from where we live that beavers love to dam, and this year they outdid themselves. They raised the water level about a metre, until it was shin-deep over a trail that wanders around the foot of a bay at the north-eastern end of Lake Gananoque.

They flooded an area about two city blocks in size and, quite brazenly, built a lodge about a dozen metres from the trail.

When I walked down on the weekend, it was a magical place. Frogs were making such a clatter it sounded as if three hundred schoolboys were dragging sticks across the pickets of wooden fences. It was a strangely soothing, ratchety drone that floated in waves across the new pond.

Overhead, geese in formations of eighty and a hundred, were honking northward. While along the trail, velvety, chocolate brown Admiral butterflies were flitting, their wings trimmed in an ivory stripe bordered by muted, blue-grey spots.

Above  the water, blue-backed cerulean warblers were wheeling and darting, and along the shores of the pond, maple trees were in bloom — the early blossoms cranberry red and about the size of a pencil eraser. Those a little farther along, were the colour of wild columbine and about the size of a dime. And those at their peak, were a soft, robin’s breast orange and as large across as a quarter.

The hillsides were still draped in winter’s leftover russets, but the delicate pastels of the maples, with the fresh, snow-pea green of white pines sparkling in the sun, and the dusky pomegranate of sumac blossoms that had survived from the fall, united this tiny valley into a miniature world of beauty and new life.

A day later I went back. In the intervening time, a farmer had been in with his backhoe and had torn out the beaver dam. Most of what had been pond was now dry land. The beaver lodge stood high and dry, its underwater entrance gaping open. The newly emerged land was scrubby and desolate. And the frogs were silent.

The ratchety drone that I had heard is the sound frogs make when they are mating. In the mating process, the female lays her eggs and then the male fertilizes them. The draining of the pond not only ended the mating, it will have destroyed all the eggs stranded out of the water.

As if to underline  what this meant, a blue heron flew by. There will be few young frogs to feed upon here. A link in the food chain has been weakened.

I find it hard to blame the farmer. He was hired by a developer who owns land at the trail’s end. I find it difficult even to blame the developer. He simply wants four-wheel drives to be able travel the trail to his property.

But I wonder, why did it have to be one or the other? Pond or no pond? There are cheap and easy ways to control water levels. It’s possible to have both the pond and the road.

But that means wanting to find a solution. It means a whole different way of seeing things. And that reminded me of Daniel Quinn’s 1992 novel Ishmael ($17.95 in paperback, Bantam Books).

Ishmael is about a Socratic dialogue between a man and a gorilla, in which the gorilla is the teacher. That sounds a little ridiculous, but Quinn writes so skilfully that the book quickly becomes captivating. The kind you can’t put down.

As an outsider, what the gorilla sees is a cultural prison from which humans can’t escape because they’re « unable to find the bars of the cage.’’

The novel is an inquiry into what forms the prison bars. It’s a novel that, on the smallest of scales explains why it seems logical to destroy a pond. And on the largest of scales, why that logic is ruining the earth and dispossessing and endangering so many of its peoples.

It’s a book that, if you let it, will change the way you look at everything.

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