Wednesday 28 March 2012

At the Bottom of the Garden

... there used to be a pond. To give that name to what there is now would be insulting to all the garden ponds out there. We have what can only be described as a garden swamp.

It's too small to be self-sustaining: there are no fish or waterbirds to eat the plants, so left to its own devices it gets overgrown. I remember once we did clean it out thoroughly, or rather, my dad did, while us (then quite small) children lent assistance which was doubtless more enthusiastic than helpful. but since then it has been allowed to drift slowly into a state of ... indescribableness.

These days, about twice a year, when I'm home in the Easter and summer holidays, I decide to clear it out. i spend some time each day for a few days pulling out dead leaves and twigs and moss and grass and silt and excess pond plants and heaven only - and possibly not even heaven - knows what else and piling up what must be nearly my own bodyweight in assorted muck. The pond is around a metre and a half across, and no more than half a metre deep. The heaps I extract make no obvious difference to it.

Then I give up. I get fed up, or disgusted, or the weather turns, or other matters press. The back right corner is nearly inaccessible thanks to overgrown flowerbeds, and by now looks more like compost than water - with an inexplicable Christmas-tree bauble that certainly never belonged to us, but the other three-quarters is bounded by lawn, and it is from there that I remove a few cubic feet of rubbish twice a year. Invariably, when I next attempt the task, it is a worse state than when I started last time.

This week I've been having another go at the job and this time (as usual) I am determined to actually finish it, or at least make a noticeable difference.

There is more moss and grass growing in there than actual pond-plants. It is monstrously choked with dead leaves, mostly bits of the conifers that overlook it (they were recently trimmed, which may be why there's more than usual in the water). I found a lost golf-ball, which was at the same time invisible beneath the matted vegetation and supported by it.

The yellow-flowered plants - which I think are marsh marigolds, but I couldn't swear to it - that used to stand tall in the centre of the pond now spread throughout, their long stems horizontal, submerged, leafless, root-trailing and in many places indecently bleached shocking white from lack of light, ring the whole pond in a tangled mass, clogged by moss above and fine silt-gathering roots below. The whole thing is a solid mass, several inches thick and intertwined with everything in the pond.

The silt is incredible. I haven't yet dared to plunge my hands into the bottom, where unknown terrors lurk - decaying frogs spring to mind - but the stuff that clings to the roots of the plants is bad enough. It is exceptionally fine, and if I didn't know what it was the soft and silky feel would be quite pleasant. As I pull each handful to light, I see things in it that I would rather not. Some are crawling, some look like eggs, some are wholly unidentifiable. And to talk about the smell of that silt is to waste a perfectly good opportunity to use the word 'stench'.

We have a breeding colony of frogs, but this year I wondered if they'd all died, perhaps at the claws of Poppy or one of the many other cats that haunt our garden, or simply left in disgust, as we didn't appear to have any frogspawn this year. But the pond must just have been too choked up for it to be visible, because the latest crop of tadpoles are swimming around, newly-hatched, and I feel like a murderer. I try to avoid pulling them out with the filth, but I'm certain to kill some.

And when I decide to call it a day, I still have to clean myself up. The smell is always unwilling to let go of my hands, even after somewhat more diligent washing than a surgeon scrubbing in for theatre. Once I came down with a stomach bug the day after, and I doubt it's a coincidence. And tonight I had a disagreement with the cat - equal fault on both sides, I think - which resulted in my worst savaging yet (don't worry: still very superficial injuries, and from past experience my immune system is perfectly able to cope with whatever might be in Poppy's mouth) and I'm not sure I want my lacerated and punctured right arm anywhere near that muck, so this may possibly be it for this bout. I'll see. If you never hear from me again, assume I've died of septicaemia.

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