Friday, October 14, 2005

Fish Story

Two years ago, PH decided our front garden (just outside his office window) needed a "water feature." In his usual meticulous way, he researched ponds and waterfalls, getting several books out of the library, visiting our local garden center, and doing what amounted to meditation on the plan. He knew it was something I wanted, too, and asked me what I wanted. I told him this was an outdoor project and therefore his thing, and I trusted that he'd do something nice.

I though he'd build a little bitty pond, maybe with something burbling in it, in a corner of our yard.

He started digging, by hand, two years ago. Our front yard slopes down towards the house, and there is a flat area towards the garage. It was in the flat area that he commenced digging.

He dug.

He dug some more.

He dug still more.

Frankly, I didn't mind it, since PH doing manly labor with his shirt off is pretty appealing to behold. I wondered, though, how much more digging would be involved.

He dug all summer. What I though would be a bathtub-sized pond evolved into an eight-bathtub sized pond. Digging all that Virginia red clay was hard work. Stonemason helped for all of one day. I hid in the house. PH did it all himself, to a depth of two feet, to meet the needs of the fish we hoped to add to the pond (more on that later). The key question is not how he did it, but what he did with all that clay soil. What's the saying - "put it in a parcel and ship it fourth class book rate to Epping?" In lieu of getting a dumpster for it, he spread it as thinly and judiciously as possible through the rest of the yard. Just what we needed...more highly compactible soil amongst the perennials. Once he had finished digging the pond, he started trenching a meandering waterfall from the top of the slope down to the pond, with an auxiliary trench for the hose from the pump. He ran electricity from the garage to run the pump and biofilter. The waterfall had steps to make it splash more rhythmically. He lined the pond and the trench with rubber sheeting, then started laying some 3,000 pounds of slate to surround the pond and make the waterfall steps. He installed the pump and biofilter. He filled it with water, which had to be treated to overcome the vast quantities of chemicals that our county puts in, presumably to protect us from all possible ills. We went on a pilgrimage to the garden place where we got plants. some flowering, some aerating, some grasses. They had to be kept at a certain height, so various bricks and milk crates and such were placed in the pond to elevate the plants.

Last but not least, we got fish.

You can spend $10,000 for a single koi if you're a connoisseur.

We got five $3 goldfish.

This was a good thing, because the first batch of fish died within two weeks. We hadn't gotten the ecosystem of the pond quite right, because one by one they floated to the surface, looking like those little cartoon dead animals with x's instead of bright eyes. Ah well, only $15 lost.

We got another five goldfish. We did better this time: only four of them died. We had once again named them (Bubba, Spot, Whitey, Miss Fishy, and ...I can't remember. Their personalities weren't all that distinctive.)

So we replaced the four that died, this time not daring to name them.

We must have done something right, because they did well, growing and gobbling up the expensive TetraPond fish food that we now got in the large boxes.

Winter came. We knew from our reading (yes, I was now fully engaged in this adventure) that PH had dug deep enough so the fish could winter over - they needed at least 18 inch depth. We knew that once the water temperature got below 50 degrees F, they'd stop eating and go dormant. We purchased a little heater that bore a disturbing resemblance to those heater coils you can put into a mug of water to boil it in situ, and make your tea. This was supposed to keep a small part of the pond from freezing over, so the fish would get oxygen.

Sure enough, when it got cold enough, the fish became very still, floating near the bottom of the pond. They no longer came up to the surface like puppies when I went out to feed them.

I expected they wouldn't survive our cold winter. Despite following the directions in the books, I was sure they'd float to the top once the weather got warm enough. Little x's for eyes once again. Another $15 to be flushed (literally).

I was wrong.

One sunny spring day, I noticed they were swimming around again, nicely lively. A few weeks later I noticed little tiny things in the pond. The fish had spawned.

StrongOpinions was horrified. "The fish have been corrupted!" she cried. Well, not corrupted, but they clearly had had some fishy fun.

Eventually we counted well over twenty baby fish. The five parent fish were now as large as seven inches in length (not bad for $3 goldfish) and looked plump and healthy.

Herein lay the quandary: what to do with the babies? The books make it clear that a closed ecosystem like our pond can only support a certain number of inches of fish. We were well over the limit.

The thought of flushing the babies didn't just horrify our vegetarian daughter, it seemed to offend the nature of the work PH had put into the pond. What to do?

We called the garden center from whence the parent fish had come. They wouldn't take them, for fear of the introduction of some fish disease from our alien babies.

We finally got the idea to list them on craigslist, the populist local variant of ebay that operates in many major cities. Success! We had several inquiries from a variety of people in the area.

Two came this evening to get some fish.

This was an experience that is unique to this area. One was a Vietnamese man, Phan. The other was a woman who was either Iranian or Turkish- we never quite got her name.

The fish, being smart, figured out pretty quickly what was up. They hid, despite my offer of their favorite fish food. We tried wrangling the fish, with one of us at one end of the pond swishing one of the fishnets around to scare them down to the other end, where the other of us had the other net.

That didn't work.

Then PH took the plants and their various stands out of the pond, to give them less places to hide.

That didn't work.

Then PH got the idea of taking out the section of chicken wire we lay over the pond in the fall to catch the falling leaves. Phan had one of the nets. The Iranian lady had the other. Slowly, they managed to corral the fish to the end of the pond; we harvested twelve to go to their new homes. They were put into giant ziploc bags and didn't seem too stressed. Their kin in the pond didn't seem too mournful.

No one fell in the pond.

Somehow, this was not the scene we envisioned when we first talked about our tranquil, peaceful, little "water feature." This was much more fun.

Somehow, though, I feel a bit like when my first son went off to college...


Friday Mom said...

Great story.... What fun to have that pond.

reverendmother said...

I do love the term "water feature." Our yard features weeds and dead grass. Sweet story.