Country Notes

Pond life with Mum

Patrick Galbraith says water can be a great healer

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It’s likely that many decades from now, my memories will start to fade, but I suspect the morning I wandered down to my pond and found two teal feathers floating in the margins will linger longer than most. It was a cloudless September day, 18 months after the digging began, and it was the first sign of life on the water.

The construction of the pond hadn’t gone to plan. I’d saved up a little bit of money by writing features on everything from fishing to terriers for obscure magazines and I’d found a local guy with a small JCB who told me he could dig the whole thing out and divert the burn for a grand. A week later he rang to tell me it was done but the job had taken longer than anticipated and a grand had become three.

The consequences of losing these oases of life have been catastrophic

For days I was staring down the barrel of financial ruin until I struck a deal with my father, involving him paying the balance and me clearing the debt by splitting firewood. The rate for this arduous work had remained unchanged at £3 an hour since I was 12 years old, meaning I faced about 80 days at the chopping block.

Over the months that followed those first feathers, I sat out most evenings listening for the sibilant whisper of wings cutting through the breeze. At dusk, you hear ducks long before you see their silhouettes. As late summer turned to autumn, the soundscape changed. Skeins of geese drifted overhead, snipe began to screech in the blackness and, later, woodcock, just arrived from Scandinavia, would flit across the water, angular shadows cast by the moon.

Building a pond is to go against the flow. In 1880 there were 14 ponds per square mile in England and Wales but over the past century almost a million of them have gone. Many were drained and ploughed up, after the war, to help the nation farm its way out of rationing.

Others became redundant when small farms, with little ponds that had always been maintained for cattle to drink from, were subsumed by bigger grain-growing operations.

The consequences of losing these oases of life have been catastrophic. Almost two-thirds of all freshwater species, from the common frog to the great crested newt, rely on ponds, while their boggy banks support seed-rich weeds, which are essential if birds like the turtledove are to be saved in Britain.

The following summer, when I was down in London, my mother called to tell me she’d spent the afternoon chasing greylag goslings with a lorry driver. The young birds had wandered up the hill from their nest on an island in the middle of the pond and had narrowly avoided being hit after she jumped between them and the oncoming truck.

The driver leapt down out of his cab and took stock of the situation. He was on the clock, carting timber back and forth to a local sawmill, but the birds became his priority. “Not an obviously sentimental sort,” my mother said down the phone, “but when the goslings were back on the island he told me it was nice to know that some people still care about the  wildlife.”

As summer faded, about the same time those goslings flew the nest for the final time, my mother received unwelcome news. What she thought was a minor medical issue transpired to be bone marrow cancer and a stem cell transplant was the only possible chance of survival.

Eventually, a donor was found, the operation was carried out, and the long road to recovery began. In a fortnight’s time, it will be three years exactly since she was discharged from the cancer unit.

When I arrived home some days ago to fish for a couple of evenings, my mother told me happily that ten mallard ducklings on the pond this year “are getting quite big now” and the conversation turned to the wayward geese, all those years ago. I said I liked the idea of life sustained by the pond bringing some vitality to a bored lorry driver on his rounds.

She told me that while walking during lockdown, she’d been reflecting on lying in hospital where she would drift off, in her mind, back to the fields, “each gateway and every patch of reeds. I saw the greedy heron, a timid moorhen hiding her babies among the rushes, and the cheerful yellow flag irises”. In time, when she was home, these make-believe wanderings became real.

In spring, she recalls sitting up on the bank, watching the pond come to life with insects and birds, while coming back to life herself again.

Until we restore our lost ponds, Britain will be stuck at a muted ebb, robbed of colour and music. In a way, what the land has lost has become lost in us. Why not denounce your patio and flood your lawn? Or perhaps somewhere near you there are the ghostly overgrown remnants of a bit of wetland waiting to be turned back into a locus of life. Construct a pond and create a place of healing for nature and humans alike.

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