The shaman called Rolling Thunder always said that most people just didn’t appreciate how important timing is to everything. And he is right. But I believe he could have taken that sentiment just one step further: right time and right place. This past summer, I’ve had reason to ponder the importance of place to the success of things.
I keep two small ponds. One of them is by my garden in the upper part of our property, and it consists of an old claw-foot bathtub decorated with old logs, stones, and many pond plants. It sits just under an old crabapple tree, and I let all the blossoms and leaves fall into the tub over the course of the summer, creating a fine boggy bottom for frogs and fish.
My second pond, I refer to as “the lower pond.” It is set at the base of a stone embankment down near our back deck. About the size of maybe two bathtubs, this pond is one I dug into the ground and lined. I set beautiful stone slabs around the perimeter, and placed creek sand and stones in the pond bottom. There is a small stream coming off of a tiny bog I also hand-dug, and a fountain of water that pours from the bog to the pond. Five fish—three goldfish and two pond chubs—live in this lower pond, along with families of crawdads and a host of summer frogs…
Many summer days will find me sitting in my porch swing at the edge of the lower pond, book in hand, lunch waiting on the small table next to me. This pond has been in existence for three years now, during which time I’ve futzed endlessly with the filters, stone placement, plantings, leaf removal, and water flow.
At the bathtub pond, I have a small plastic chair where I sit while I do garden chores, like sorting greens, cleaning strawberries, or clipping up small sticks for mulch. The bathtub pond is only two years old. I don’t have any filters or waterfalls in it, I don’t remove any leaves, and there are no technical features I need to concern myself with. Stone placement and decoration are minimal, as there just isn’t much room to dabble in these considerations.
Each fall, I empty the bathtub pond before it freezes, and it sits in snow-white silence all winter. Come spring, frogs show up from everywhere as soon as I fill the bathtub. They sit in sentry duty along the rolled sides of the tub, launching into the water at the first sign of human commotion. By mid-summer, the frogs don’t bother to launch when I show up to sit near them.
During the winter months, I have a plastic tub I keep in a basement room under grow lights. The pond lilies and water hyacinths, pennyroyal and duckweed overwinter there, and I put them back out in the spring as soon as the weather permits.
The lower pond is a work of art. The bathtub pond is…well…a tub full of water. The lower pond requires all kinds of maintenance between the regular cleaning of filters, sifting of leaves, removal of dead plants, and fretting over the fish and frogs. Why I fret over the fish and frogs I’ll get to in a moment. The bathtub pond requires that I occasionally put a hose in it and add more water as needed. That’s it.
Neither pond is a natural thing. I decided I wanted a water feature, and I put them where I wanted. The locations were sited for aesthetics and proximity.
My dream for the lower pond was that it would be a place where dragonflies flitted ceaselessly, pond bugs skittered and rippled the pond surface with life, fish rose to the gnats and mosquitoes, and tree frogs sang from the rock wall. I imagined flowering lilies and irises, pond rushes swaying, and birds darting along the walking stones I placed so meaningfully around the pond’s edge.
My dream for the bathtub pond was that it could be a place for frogs to gather for the season, since the small ditch outside our house dries up early after the spring rains.
As you may have already guessed, the bathtub pond has exceeded all my expectations. The lower pond has achieved very few of them. And I have come to see that it is mostly all about place and placement. Not timing, but placement.
The lower pond is in deep shade. This is good so far as algae growth goes, but good for little else. Deep shade means that pond plants simply can’t grow. Actually, I have to grow all my plants in the bathtub pond, which is flooded with light, and then carry the extras down to the lower pond where they pretty much languish for the summer. None thrive. They just barely manage to hang on. Some turn yellow and give up the good fight. Around the perimeter of the pond, only certain plants have been able to make a go of it: wild strawberries (they grow but do not berry), hog peanut, one determined hosta, some clearweed, some mosses.
There are no insect visitors to the lower pond, save mosquitoes. No dragonflies, no water sliders or caddis flies. This is hard on the frogs that work to make a go if it in the lower pond. To my horror, I encountered several frogs over the past few summers who looked starved come fall. I call them my Darfur frogs.
To my greater horror, last spring when the lower pond cleared itself of it’s winter layer of ice, I found that all the frogs from the previous summer had died there. Eleven frogs. I knew each of them. That’s how much time I spend at that pond: Enough time to get to know by sight eleven different frogs. I pulled each body from the water with a shudder. My heart broke. I had created this space for them, and for some reason, the space was toxic.
The lower pond is filled with runoff from the stone retaining wall, rainfall, and the inflow from the sides of the pond. I wonder now if this water is tainted. Nature seems to be telling me that this was NOT the place for a pond. She is working against me here. She is saying no. I placed the pond where I wanted and she said, “Sorry, but I can’t make this work…”
In contrast, the bathtub pond is thriving. Plants grow so fast in its waters that they overgrow the sides. Frogs lay eggs there in thick, viscous, milky bunches and the pollywogs wiggle under the duckweed and bring a soft ripple to the water’s surface. Dragonflies scout its surface. Birds, squirrels, and wasps come to drink. The frogs that line the edges of the tub are fat, happy, and vocal. I do not fret or worry myself about conditions at the bathtub pond, as I do when sitting at the edge of my lower pond.
This lesson on place and placement is tugging at my mind these days. I am reflecting on its depth and importance. Many times in my life, as I’ve struggled and pushed and fretted to make something happen in my life—a job, a relationship, a home, a book project. When things didn’t come together, I blamed myself. Surely, I wasn’t trying hard enough, or wasn’t patient enough, or smart enough, or diligent enough. When things don’t come together, I go inside to a shame place, and feel defeated.
These failures—pond included—I take to be all about me. And suddenly a sweet epiphany rains down like a shower of fall-colored leaves over my shoulders: There is more than “me” at work in my life. How easily I forget—even after all the struggle to learn and relearn this—that I do nothing alone. Nature is with me. Spirit is with me.
Yet Nature and Spirit have “lives” and paths of their own, soul work of their own. Sometimes it feels as though the power of Nature and Spirit are in full force with me, and I achieve far more than I would ever believe I am capable of. Other times, well, things just don’t work out as I’d expected. I think that Nature and Spirit have plans that contradict my own, sometimes.
Place and timing belong to the realms of Nature and Spirit. As such, they are mysterious qualities and can’t be fully applied under human power alone. That is, I can be conscious of the need for right time and right place, but I can’t fully activate these forces when and where I want. Nature and Spirit have their hands in this brew, too.
My lower pond is failing. I can choose to struggle with this truth, and try to reverse the trend by the sheer force of my own will, muscle, and wallet, or I can simply admit—with no shame or self-blame—that Nature, for her own reasons, is just not colluding with me on this one.
My astrologer friend tells me, “Susan, don’t buck the flow of the river.” She has told me this for years. Sometimes, the timing just is not right. This time, the place is not right. Intuitively, my heart is telling me “Quit forcing things.”
Looking deeply at the full bundle of life experiences that I carry inside me, I see that nothing has ever gone well for me when I relied on force and will alone to carry me along. Swimming upstream has never been productive for me. Such efforts do not build up my interior muscle. They deplete me and leave me tired and depressed afterwards, and with little real success to show for it.
During those head-into-the-current times, I understand that I did not consider whether there might have been a better time or place for certain undertakings. I forgot—again and again—that it was not I alone, pushing to get it done, to make it happen. I forgot to consider my helpers, Nature and Spirit, in my plans. I forgot how to hear them when they said, “No. Not now, not here.”
The lower pond is ready for winter. Most likely, there are frogs sleeping among the stones and sand. Their fate is in Spirit’s hands. And the choice whether to keep, fill, or completely reimagine this pond come spring is in mine.
Thank you, Nature and Spirit, for giving me this precious lesson. Thank you for reminding me—again—that I am not alone. That you will help me when and where you can. That my successes and failures are not in my hands alone, but shared with you in joy and humility.
And please, keep the frogs in your loving hands this winter. Let them come back to life come spring, if it is your will.