I find myself returning to the same topics over and over again. For awhile, I thought that I was just too boring a person to keep thinking up lots of new, fresh ideas. But these days, I am kinder to myself and I believe that there are just a few basic things life really needs us to know: How to love, how to forgive, how to grieve, and how to listen. That’s my short list for today. I’ll probably add a few more things tomorrow. But probably a very few more things.
This afternoon, I’m returning yet again to the subject of listening. I’ve been a great talker all my life, and only in the last few years am I learning about the importance of listening. Nature has been my mentor in this, and she is a good teacher. Subtle, but exacting.
Our weather has been so unsettled here lately, swinging wildly up and down on the temperature scales. The maple trees don’t know what they are supposed to do, so ours just decided to forget the sap thing this year. They muttered about it for awhile and spit out a few quarts of sap here and there, but then our maple taps dried out like empty stream beds, and that was the end of our syrup making…
On one particularly balmy afternoon, I stood in the wispy rays of sunlight at the side of my small pond and decided to do some cleanup. I’d put the syrup tools away for the season, and needed to start a new project. Winter had coated the bottom of the pond with layers of leaf litter. The blackened leaves were all overlain with a fine coat of silt. Pond manuals tell you to never let this “mulm” stack up in your pond bottom. For one thing, it looks icky. For another, it can start off-gassing methane if it gets too thick. And who likes to inhale methane? No one and nothing, it seems.
In my pond’s infancy three years back, I had covered the pond bottom with beautifully colored rocks and stones. You would not know that anymore to look into the water. The only colorful thing in the pond now is the three goldfish. Each year in the spring, I pull out all the decayed leaves and dump them in the garden. Mostly, I get rid of the largest bulk of fallen leaves in the preceding fall. Then the winter ice comes and seals the pond, and I can sweep off the leaves all during the winter. But this year the pond never froze and the leaves just kept on settling down and in. By late February, there was a good inch-thick blanket of them.
I have a small, four-inch-square net with a fairly long handle, and I usually just roll up my sleeves and remove the gunk a netful at a time. I pulled up the first slime-load of the season and dumped it in a green plastic bucket next to me. My eye caught movement. Looking into the blackened leaf slime, I saw something equally black and slimy wiggling. My fingers searched the ooze and pulled out a polliwog with a body the size of a pea.
Now, I have never, ever managed to overwinter a polliwog. No matter how many are wagging about in the pond come fall, none are left to greet me come spring. I tossed the squirmy little pre-frog back into the pond and searched through the muck for more. Finding none, I stuck my net back down into the bottoms, and pulled up another muck load. Again, I found a wiggling wog. And there was something else, too. I thought it was a clump of small roots, but once I rinsed the pond-rot away, I found a sleeping crawdad in my palm. It was folded into a perfect jackknife with its legs wrapped around its tail. I stroked it gently, and an antenna wobbled just the tiniest bit. With a very big grin, I released the two pond citizens—the wiggler and the sleeper—back to the deep end of the pond.
Now, no one will ever accuse me of being a quick study. Lowering my net and wrist back into the pond, I was elbow deep before the giant “Duh-uh” hit me. I pulled my arm out, dripping water, and listened. Susan…put that stupid net away. What do you think is going on here? I put my net back into the water, this time just for education. I pulled up a netful of black. And a polliwog wiggled about. And it was the same for the next netful and the next and the next.
Evidently, while I thought ill of the pond muck, the residents of the pond had an entirely different experience of the blackened goo. What was yuck to me was a cozy winter home for them. In that dark, dank decay was a kind of sheltering bliss. I had spent the previous two winters vigorously cleaning away any kind of winter shelter for my pond babies. No wonder all my frogs had croaked—and not in a good way—the previous winter.
I put up the net and went back inside for a cup of coffee and a good sit by the fire. I wondered about all the things I did not know about ponds and pond bottoms and polliwog bliss and frog heaven. Instantly, I thought about sourdough bread. Stay with me here—I promise I’ll bring it back around.
On the bread blogs, there are many threads discussing ways of making the sourdough breads taste more sour. One team rallies behind the process of giving your dough a long (fifteen hours, maybe) cold rise in the fridge. That long cold development really makes the sour come through nice and tangy. The other team says no way. The secret to a truly sour loaf is to give your dough a really long (fifteen to eighteen hour) rise on your countertop, where it is nice and warm. The long cold rise, they say, just makes your bread absolutely tasteless.
I have my own ideas about this cold rise-hot rise debate. You see, many of us bread nuts create our own sourdough starters out of flour and the wild yeasts that play about in the air of our houses. Each wild yeast is utterly unique—a tiny growing fairy crafted out of the one-of-a-kind bacteria and flotsam and jetsam in your very own home. So it is no surprise to me that what works splendidly to craft a sour loaf in one home will not work worth a tinker’s damn in another home.
My pond is a very unique system itself, just like a home-made sourdough starter, crafted out of the heap of odd ideas and notions rolling around in my very own head. I might not like pond muck, and pond experts might not like it either, but neither they nor I have to live in the bottom of that pond all winter.
When we really listen deeply into our lives, we may get answers far afield of norm. And when we get those answers—and here’s the bitch—they may not be applicable at all should we encounter a near-exact same situation in the future. We have to listen and listen and listen because the answers shift with the winds, the tides, the yeasts, the scum, and the seasons. Next time you are fishing around with a net in the confounding goo of your own messy life, don’t be like me and keep humming and tossing the contents aside. Look. And listen. There might be some little cosmic wiggler trying desperately to get your attention.