Chapter VII. The Pond

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly

Fruit Fly

Fruit Fly (Tephritidae)

The pond, the delight of my early childhood, is still a sight whereof my old eyes never tire. What animation in that verdant world! On the warm mud of the edges, the frog's little tadpole basks and frisks in its black legions; down in the water, the orange-bellied newt steers his way slowly with the broad rudder of his flat tail; among the reeds are stationed the flotillas of the caddis worms, half protruding from their tubes, which are now a tiny bit of stick and again a turret of little shells.

In the deep places, the water beetle dives, carrying with him his reserves of breath: an air bubble at the tip of the wing cases and, under the chest, a film of gas that gleams like a silver breastplate; on the surface, the ballet of those shimmering pearls, the whirligigs, turns and twists about; hard by there skims the unsubmersible troop of the pond skaters, who glide along with side strokes similar to those which the cobbler makes when sewing.

Here are the water boatmen, who swim on their backs with two oars spread cross-wise, and the flat water scorpions; here, squalidly clad in mud, is the grub of the largest of our dragonflies, so curious because of its manner of progression: it fills its hinder parts, a yawning funnel, with water, spurts it out again and advances just so far as the recoil of its hydraulic cannon.

The mollusks abound, a peaceful tribe. At the bottom, the plump river snails discreetly raise their lid, opening ever so little the shutters of their dwelling; on the level of the water, in the glades of the aquatic garden, the pond snails — Physa, Limnaea and Planorbis — take the air. Dark leeches writhe upon their prey, a chunk of earthworm; thousands of tiny, reddish grubs, future mosquitoes, go spinning around and twist and curve like so many graceful dolphins.

Yes, a stagnant pool, though but a few feet wide, hatched by the sun, is an immense world, an inexhaustible mine of observation to the studious man and a marvel to the child who, tired of his paper boat, diverts his eyes and thoughts a little with what is happening in the water. Let me tell what I remember of my first pond, at a time when ideas began to dawn in my seven-year-old brain.

How shall a man earn his living in my poor native village, with its inclement weather and its niggardly soil? The owner of a few acres of grazing land rears sheep. In the best parts, he scrapes the soil with the swing plow; he flattens it into terraces banked by walls of broken stones. Pannierfuls of dung are carried up on donkey-back from the cowshed. Then, in due season, comes the excellent potato, which, boiled and served hot in a basket of plaited straw, is the chief stand-by in winter.

Should the crop exceed the needs of the household, the surplus goes to feed a pig, that precious beast, a treasure of bacon and ham. The ewes supply butter and curds; the garden boasts cabbages, turnips and even a few hives in a sheltered corner. With wealth like that one can look fate in the face.

But we, we have nothing, nothing but the little house inherited by my mother and its adjoining patch of garden. The meager resources of the family are coming to an end. It is time to see to it and that quickly. What is to be done? That is the stern question which father and mother sat debating one evening.

Hop-o'-my-Thumb, hiding under the woodcutter's stool, listened to his parents overcome by want. I also, pretending to sleep, with my elbows on the table, listen not to blood curdling designs, but to grand plans that set my heart rejoicing. This is how the matter stands: at the bottom of the village, near the church, at the spot where the water of the large roofed spring escapes from its underground weir and joins the brook in the valley, an enterprising man, back from the war, has set up a small tallow factory. He sells the scrapings of his pans, the burnt fat, reeking of candle grease, at a low price. He proclaims these wares to be excellent for fattening ducks.

„Suppose we bred some ducks,“ says mother. „They sell very well in town. Henri would mind them and take them down to the brook.“

„Very well, "says father“, let's breed some ducks. There may be difficulties in the way; but we'll have a try."

That night, I had dreams of paradise: I was with my ducklings, clad in their yellow suits; I took them to the pond, I watched them have their bath, I brought them back again, carrying the more tired ones in a basket.

A month or two after, the little birds of my dreams were a reality. There were twenty-four of them. They had been hatched by two hens, of whom one, the big, black one, was an inmate of the house, while the other was borrowed from a neighbor.

To bring them up, the former is sufficient, so careful is she of her adopted family. At first, everything goes perfectly: a tub with two fingers' depth of water serves as a pond. On sunny days, the ducklings bathe in it under the anxious eye of the hen.

A fortnight later, the tub is no longer enough. It contains neither cresses crammed with tiny shellfish nor worms and tadpoles, dainty morsels both. The time has come for dives and hunts amid the tangle of the water weeds; and for us the day of trouble has also come. True, the miller, down by the brook, has fine ducks, easy and cheap to bring up; the tallow smelter, who has extolled his burnt fat so loudly, has some as well, for he has the advantage of the waste water from the spring at the bottom of the village; but how are we, right up there, at the top, to procure aquatic sports for our broods? In summer, we have hardly water to drink!

Near the house, in a freestone recess, a scanty source trickles into a basin made in the rock. . Four or five families have, like ourselves, to draw their water there with copper pails. By the time that the schoolmaster's don­key has slaked her thirst and the neighbors have taken their provision for the day, the basin is dry. We have to wait for four-and-twenty hours for it to fill. No, this is not the hole in which the ducks would delight nor indeed in which they would be tolerated.

There remains the brook. To go down to it with the troop of ducklings is fraught with danger. On the way through the village, we might meet cats, bold ravishers of small poultry; some surly mongrel might frighten and scatter the little band; and it would be a hard puzzle to collect it in its entirety. We must avoid the traffic and take refuge in peaceful and sequestered spots.

On the hills, the path that climbs behind the chateau soon takes a sudden turn and widens into a small plain beside the meadows. It skirts a rocky slope whence trickles, level with the ground, a streamlet, forming a pond of some size. Here profound solitude reigns all day long. The ducklings will be well off; and the journey can be made in peace by a deserted footpath.

You, little man, shall take them to that delectable spot. What a day it was that marked my first appearance as a herdsman of ducks! Why must there be a jar to the even tenor of such joys? The too frequent encounter of my tender skin with the hard ground had given me a large and painful blister on the heel. Had I wanted to put on the shoes stowed away in the cupboard for Sundays and holidays, I could not. There was nothing for it but to go barefoot over the broken stones, dragging my leg and carrying high the injured heel.

Let us make a start, hobbling along, switch in hand, behind the ducks. They too, poor little things, have sensitive soles to their feet; they limp, they quack with fatigue. They would refuse to go any farther if I did not, from time to time, call a halt under the shelter of an ash.

We are there at last. The place could not be better for my birdlets; shallow, tepid water, interspersed with muddy knolls and green eyots. The diversions of the bath begin forthwith. The ducklings clap their beaks and rummage here, there and everywhere; they sift each mouthful, rejecting the clear water and retaining the good bits. In the deeper parts, they point their sterns into the air and stick their heads under water. They are happy; and it is a blessed thing to see them at work. We will let them be. It is my turn to enjoy the pond.

What is this? On the mud lie some loose, knotted, soot-colored cords. One could take them for threads of wool like those which you pull out of an old ravelly stocking. Can some shepherdess, knitting a black sock and finding her work turn out badly, have begun all over again and, in her impatience, have thrown down the wool with all the dropped stitches? It really looks like it.

I take up one of those cords in my hand. It is sticky and extremely slack; the thing slips through the fingers before they can catch hold of it. A few of the knots burst and shed their contents. What comes out is a black globule, the size of a pin's head, followed by a flat tail. I recognize, on a very small scale, a familiar object: the tadpole, the frog's baby. I have seen enough. Let us leave the knotted cords alone.

The next creatures please me better. They spin round on the surface of the water and their black backs gleam in the sun. If I lift a hand to seize them, that moment they disappear, I know not where. It's a pity: I should have much liked to see them closer and to make them wriggle in a little bowl which I should have put ready for them.

Let us look at the bottom of the water, pulling aside those bunches of green string whence beads of air are rising and gathering into foam. There is something of everything underneath. I see pretty shells with compact whorls, flat as beans; I notice little worms carrying tufts and feathers; I make out some with flabby fins constantly flapping on their backs. What are they all doing there? What are their names? I do not know. And I stare at them for ever so long, held by the incomprehensible mystery of the waters.

At the place where the pond dribbles into the adjoining field are some alder trees; and here I make a glorious find. It is a scarab — not a very large one, oh no! He is smaller than a cherry-stone, but of an unutterable blue. The angels in paradise must wear dresses of that color. I put the glorious one inside an empty snail-shell, which I plug up with a leaf. I shall admire that living jewel at my leisure, when I get back. Other distractions summon me away.

The spring that feeds the pond trickles from the rock, cold and clear. The water first collects into a cup, the size of the hollow of one's two hands, and then runs over in a stream. These falls call for a mill: that goes without saying. Two bits of straw, artistically crossed upon an axis, provide the machinery; some flat stones set on edge afford supports. It is a great success: the mill turns admirably. My triumph would be complete, could I but share it. For want of other playmates, I invite the ducks.

Everything palls in this poor world of ours, even a mill made of two straws. Let us think of something else: let us contrive a dam to hold back the waters and form a pool. There is no lack of stones for the brickwork. I pick the most suitable; I break the larger ones. And, while collecting these blocks, suddenly I forget all about the dam which I meant to build.

On one of the broken stones, in a cavity large enough for me to put my fist in, something gleams like glass. The hollow is lined with facets gathered in sixes which flash and glitter in the sun. I have seen something like this in church, on the great saints' days, when the light of the candles in the big chandelier kindles the stars in its hanging crystal.

We children, lying, in summer, on the straw of the threshing floor, have told one another stories of the treasures which a dragon guards underground. Those treasures now return to my mind: the names of precious stones ring out uncertainly but gloriously in my memory. I think of the king's crown, of the princesses' necklaces. In breaking stones, can I have found, but on a much richer scale, the thing that shines quite small in my mother's ring? I want more such.

The dragon of the subterranean treasures treats me generously. He gives me his diamonds in such quantities that soon I possess a heap of broken stones sparkling with magnificent clusters. He does more: he gives me his gold. The trickle of water from the rock falls on a bed of fine sand which it swirls into bubbles. If I bent over towards the light, I see something like gold filings whirling where the fall touches the bottom. Is it really the famous metal of which twenty-franc pieces, so rare with us at home, are made? One would think so, from the glitter.

I take a pinch of sand and place it in my palm. The brilliant particles are numerous, but so small that I have to pick them up with a straw moistened in my mouth. Let us drop this: they are too tiny and too bothersome to collect. The big, valuable lumps must be farther on, in the thickness of the rock. We'll come back later; we'll blast the mountain.

I break more stones. Oh, what a queer thing has just come loose, all in one piece! It is turned spiral-wise, like certain flat snails that come out of the cracks of old walls in rainy weather. With its gnarled sides, it looks like a little ram's horn. Shell or horn, it is very curious. How do things like that find their way into the stone?

Treasures and curiosities make my pockets bulge with pebbles. It is late and the little ducklings have had all they want to eat. Come along, youngsters, let's go home. My blistered heel is forgotten in my excitement. The walk back is a delight. A voice sings in my ear, an untranslatable voice, softer than any language and bewildering as a dream. It speaks to me for the first time of the mysteries of the pond; it glorifies the heavenly insect which I hear moving in the empty snail shell, its temporary cage; it whispers the secrets of the rock, the gold filings, the faceted jewels, the ram's horn turned to stone.

Poor simpleton, smother your joy! I arrive. My parents catch sight of my bulging pockets, with their disgraceful load of stones. The cloth has given way under the rough and heavy burden.

„You rascal!“ says father, at sight of the damage. „I send you to mind the ducks and you amuse yourself picking up stones, as though there weren't enough of them all round the house! Make haste and throw them away!“

Broken hearted, I obey. Diamonds, gold dust, petrified ram's horn, heavenly beetle are all flung on a rubbish heap outside the door.

Mother bewails her lot: „A nice thing, bringing up children to see them turn out so badly! You'll bring me to my grave. Green stuff I don't mind: it does for the rabbits. But stones, which ruin your pockets; poisonous animals, which'll sting your hand: what good are they to you, silly? There's no doubt about it: some one has thrown a spell over you!“

Yes, my poor mother, you were right, in your simplicity: a spell had been cast upon me; I admit it today. When it is hard enough to earn one's bit of bread, does not improving one's mind but render one more meet for suffering? Of what avail is the torment of learning to the derelicts of life?

A deal better off am I, at this late hour, dogged by poverty and knowing that the diamonds of the duck pool were rock crystal, the gold dust mica, the stone horn an Ammonite and the sky-blue beetle a Hoplia! We poor men would do better to mistrust the joys of knowledge: let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace, flee the temptations of the pond, mind our ducks and leave to others, more favored by fortune, the job of explaining the world's mechanism, if the spirit moves them.

And yet no! Alone among living creatures, man has the thirst for knowledge; he alone pries into the mysteries of things. The least among us will utter his whys and his wherefores, a fine pain unknown to the brute beast. If these questionings come from us with greater persistence, with a more imperious authority, if they divert us from the quest of lucre, life's only object in the eyes of most men, does it become us to complain? Let us be careful not to do so, for that would be denying the best of all our gifts.

Let us strive, on the contrary, within the measure of our capacity, to force a gleam of light from the vast unknown; let us examine and question and, here and there, wrest a few shreds of truth. We shall sink under the task; in the present ill ordered state of society, we shall end, perhaps, in the workhouse. Let us go ahead for all that: our consolation shall be that we have increased by one atom the general mass of knowledge, the incomparable treasure of mankind.

As this modest lot has fallen to me, I will return to the pond, notwithstanding the wise admonitions and the bitter tears which I once owed to it. I will return to the pond, but not to that of the small ducks, the pond aflower with illusions: those ponds do not occur twice in a lifetime. For luck like that, you must be in all the new glory of your first breeches and your first ideas.

Many another have I come upon since that distant time, ponds very much richer and, moreover, explored with the ripened eye of experience. Enthusiastically I searched them with the net, stirred up their mud, ransacked their trailing weeds. None in my memories comes up to the first, magnified in its delights and mortifications by the marvelous perspective of the years.

Nor would any of them suit my plans of today. Their world is too vast. I should lose myself in their immensities, where life swarms freely in the sun. Like the ocean, they are infinite in their fruitfulness. And then any assiduous watching, undisturbed by passers by, is an impossibility on the public way. What I want is a pond on an extremely reduced scale, sparingly stocked in my own fashion an artificial pond standing permanently on my study table.

A louis has been overlooked in a corner of the drawer. I can spend it without seriously jeopardizing the domestic balance. Let me make this gift to science, who, I fear, will be none too much obliged to me. A gorgeous equipment may be all very well for laboratories wherein the cells and fibers of the dead are consulted at great expense; but such magnificence is of doubtful utility when we have to study the actions of the living. It is the humble makeshift, of no value, that stumbles on the secrets of life.

What did the best results of my studies of instinct cost me? Nothing but time and, above all, patience. My extravagant expenditure of twenty francs, therefore, will be a risky speculation if devoted to the purchase of an apparatus of study. It will bring me in nothing in the way of fresh views, of that I am convinced. However, let us try.

The blacksmith makes me the framework of a cage out of a few iron rods. The joiner, who is also a glazier on occasion — for, in my village, you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades if you would make both ends meet — sets the framework on a wooden base and supplies it with a movable board as a lid; he fixes thick panes of glass in the four sides. Behold the apparatus, complete, with a bottom of tarred sheet iron and a trap to let the water out.

The makers express themselves satisfied with their work, a singular novelty in their respective shops, where many an inquisitive caller has wondered what use I intend to make of my little glass trough. The thing creates a certain stir. Some insist that it is meant to hold my supplies of oil and to take the place of the receptacle in general use in our parts, the urn dug out of a block of stone. What would those utilitarians have thought of my crazy mind, had they known that my costly gear would merely serve to let me watch some wretched animals kicking about in the water!

Smith and glazier are content with their work. I myself am pleased. For all its rustic air, the apparatus does not lack elegance. It looks very well, standing on a little table in front of a window visited by the sun for the greater part of the day. Its holding capacity is some ten or eleven gallons. What shall we call it? An aquarium? No, that would be too pretentious and would, very unjustly, suggest the aquatic toy filled with rock work, waterfalls and goldfish beloved of the dwellers in suburbia. Let us preserve the gravity of serious things and not treat my learned trough as though it were a drawing room futility. We will call it the glass pond.

I furnish it with a heap of those limy incrustations wherewith certain springs in the neighborhood cover the dead clump of rushes. It is light, full of holes and gives a faint suggestion of a coral reef. Moreover, it is covered with a short, green, velvety moss, a downy sward of infinitesimal pond weed. I count on this modest vegetation to keep the water in a reasonably wholesome state, without driving me to frequent renewals which would disturb the work of my colonies. Sanitation and quiet are the first conditions of success. Now the stocked pond will not be long in filling itself with gases unfit to breathe, with putrid effluvia and other animal refuse; it will become a sink in which life will have killed life. Those dregs must disappear as soon as they are formed, must be burnt and purified; and from their oxidized ruins there must even rise a perfect life-giving gas, so that the water may retain an unchangeable store of the breathable element. The plant effects this purification in its sewage farm of green cells.

When the sun beats upon the glass pond, the work of the water weeds is a sight to behold. The green-carpeted reef is lit up with an infinity of scintillating points and assumes the appearance of a fairy lawn of velvet, studded with thousands of diamond pin's heads. From this exquisite jewelry pearls break loose continuously and are at once replaced by others in the generating casket; slowly they rise, like tiny globes of light. They spread on every side. It is a constant display of fireworks in the depths of the water.

Chemistry tells us that, thanks to its green matter and the stimulus of the sun's rays, the weeds decompose the carbonic acid gas wherewith the water is impregnated by the breathing of its inhabitants and the corruption of the organic refuse; it retains the carbon, which is wrought into fresh tissues; it exhales the oxygen in tiny bubbles. These partly dissolve in the water and partly reach the surface, where their froth supplies the atmosphere with an excess of breathable gas. The dissolved portion keeps the colonists of the pond alive and causes the unhealthy products to be oxidized and disappear.

Old hand though I be, I take an interest in this trite marvel of a bundle of weeds perpetuating hygienic principles in a stagnant pool; I look with a delighted eye upon the inexhaustible spray of spreading bubbles; I see in imagination the prehistoric times when seaweed, the first-born of plants, produced the first atmosphere for living things to breathe at the time when the silt of the continents was beginning to emerge. What I see before my eyes, between the glass panes of my trough, tells me the story of the planet surrounding itself with pure air.


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