I heard a splash. Moving closer, pushing aside the tall autumn grasses, I quietly watched the pond. There were ripples where something had disturbed the peaceful, glassy surface but I couldn’t imagine what had made caused them.
And then, there it was. About five inches long, slender and silver, a fish jumped up, wiggled in the air, and then dropped back out of sight.
I have walked this path countless times. I’d first discovered this small protected woods when I was still in my twenties. Having moved to a new town just a few weeks after my first child was born, I was on the look-out for new places to explore. With my daughter in a snuggly—the front-carrier most popular at that time—we’d wander the local parks, walk the malls, or trek along the riverfront. Together we’d take long drives into town or through the corn fields that bordered our neighborhood. She was born in the spring, so we watched the corn grow tall together that whole first summer.
It was a warm autumn day when I came across the little woods. I parked my car and stepped onto the paved path that led around the edge of the trees. Soon the pond, so full of life, appeared on my right behind the cattails. Unseen ducks called out nearby. An egret stood on the far edge of the pond, staring down into the water. I savored the idyllic scene, etching it into memory and revisiting it over and over, often without ever leaving my house.
All four of my children have come to know this place. They’ve gathered leaves and twigs, bits of cottonwood and walnut shells and created collages that hung in the kitchen or were given as gifts to a grandmother or aunt. And as they grew, our passages through the woods became less frequent and much quieter. In the last few years, I’ve been coming alone, more often than not.
Then came last year’s drought. Summer began a month ahead of schedule and lasted longer than ever before. We had less rain than at any other time since they’ve been keeping track of such things. When the heat finally broke, in mid-October, the pond was gone. Completely gone. Tall brown grass covered the low area where the pond should have been. I actually cried. I felt as if a part of me was gone.
The weather channel proclaimed that it would take ten years of above-average rain to bring the water tables back to normal. For all I know, they’re right. Maybe the water is still lower than it was. However, this year, a cold snowy spring gave way to a cool rainy summer. Despite the weather, I could have walked in the woods on many occasions, but I avoided it. The image of that first time—the egret standing at water’s edge—was so much more comforting that the thought of the barren, dry landscape I’d last seen.
Today, pleasant air was highlighted by sunshine and soft breezes. The only portent of oncoming winter—the date on the calendar—pushed me past my avoidance. I just couldn’t go a whole year without seeing the little woods.
As I drove, two images fought for position in my mind—a pond full of life and a dead, dry divot. I turned onto the narrow road leading into the woods and parked my car. Birds harmonized with the remaining rustling leaves and the soft sound of my footsteps on a path strewn with color.
I was watching the ground, avoiding the hard remnants of nutshells cast aside by squirrels and chipmunks, when I heard the splash. Looking up, I caught sight of a shiny surface between the tall grasses and cattails and my heart pounded with expectation. I pushed the grasses aside and gratitude surged inside me. The pond looked to be as big as ever.
And then, from the ripples, that shiny silver sliver jumped.
How could that be?
How could this place that was dry as death a year ago now be full of life again?
I sat on a bench and watched through a familiar clearing that had returned with the rest of the view, and I fell into a daydream as I tried to imagine how fish had found their way into the new waters. In my fantasy, I imagined a fish carrying fertile eggs. I saw them growing inside her but just before she could move the new life from her body, a bird swooped down and plucked up the fish swallowing her whole. The next day, the bird flew over an empty, lifeless pond and dropped the eggs—still viable—in with her waste.
A silly fantasy. I shook my head as I rose from the bench and headed into the shady woods for the rest of my walk. More likely, I told myself, an underground stream fed the pond and the fish made their way back as the waters rose. Still, within that fantasy I found a bit of significance.
We are all moving through our lives as if we are in control, and as if the surprising and sometimes catastrophic things that occur are random, arbitrary events.
A meal for the bird.
A tragedy for the fish.
New life for the little pond.
Maybe we’re all ripples in a pond. Maybe each one of us and everything we do is part of an exquisite panorama of life—a picture so enormous and so intricate we can’t even fathom its existence.