Until recently, I didn't even come close to being what anyone would call a nature lover. If compelled by friends to go on a hike, I was apt to say, halfway up the trail, "Oh, good! Here comes another sign -- something to read!" My childhood is partly to blame. My family never hiked, much less camped. My father always said two years of sleeping on a cot in the Air Force in Kissimmee, Florida, had been enough outdoor life for him; my mother got her fresh air on tennis courts and golf courses. My own tendencies account for the rest. In my high-school biology class, a look at paramecia under a microscope did amaze me, but what impressed me more were the hairy edges of the magnified letter "e" I had clipped from a newspaper. In college, I read Thoreau and, afterwards, Annie Dillard, but neither inspired me to be a naturalist; instead, they inspired me to stay indoors and read more.
Behind my house here in Andover, Massachusetts, just across a common alley, there is a string of stores -- bridal salon, hair-stylist, portrait photographer -- not exactly purveyors of staples, but I find watching the activity they generate as necessary as bread. Above the stores are apartments-turned-condos and a lawyers' office. One night someone hurled a woman's wedding ring from a third-story window. A search for it ensued, extending into our back yard. Another night, a cross dresser cruised that alley, teetering in high-heels and trailing perfume. If I'm being honest, I must confess that I find these events much more interesting than any number of wood duck sightings. And yet with increasing frequency, in what began as fits of virtuousness but which now might more accurately be described as moments of continued curiosity, I walk out my front door and across the street to Hussey's Pond. Even if I do sometimes get bored by nature, I don't ever get bored by Hussey's.
I have a set of yard-sale binoculars, which I use to spy on the geese over there. On summer mornings, coming home from my dog walk, I witness them landing en masse, using their wonderfully rubbery-looking retractable black feet. Other times only one arrives, circa five a.m., while I'm still in bed, then proceeds to honk and honk. But whether it's to call the rest of the flock or to warn it away, I cannot tell you. Nor do I know if it's always the same lone honker (his or her job, perhaps?). I am truly sorry I cannot tell my neighbors apart. About once a summer, no spy glasses are needed, when they all attempt to cross the street to graze on my patch of front lawn. They're welcome to it. And a few of them usually do make it to my side, while most get discouraged or confused, despite the obliging drivers who invariably stop, amused. What has motivated this pilgrimage is something else I do not know. There is plenty of grass on the pond side. Another mystery, but one that seems right to be so, is the behavior of the ghostly blue heron who commutes between Hussey's and unknown points. I sometimes see it -- or what I presume to be it -- flying overhead while I'm driving on I-495. (My certainty that there's only one blue heron in the vicinity -- and that this is it -- is, of course, unprovable but unshakable, like an article of faith. A friend who lives on the opposite side of Andover and who also sees the heron, shares with me this faith.) I've stopped wondering why it's always alone. The other night at the pond, I was within ten feet of it and its long, silvery, serpentine neck as it waited for a fish along the shoreline, and I waited with it. Among other things, herons have more patience than I do; I gave up and went home before I witnessed it swallowing its supper.
Hussey's isn't big, as ponds go. A dozen strokes of a canoe paddle would take you the length of it. Counting the conservation land that abuts it, it's not quite four acres. (Walden Pond, by contrast, is sixty-two acres.) An 1852 map of the area doesn’t show Hussey’s; one from 1888 does. At some point between those two dates, Elijah Hussey dammed a brook to power his sawmill, and the pond was formed just below it. In the winter, Hussey hired workers to cut blocks of ice for sale to owners of icehouses. The maps show the pond’s lineage -- its family history, so to speak -- which links it to the Merrimack River by way of brooks and tributaries, some of them underground.
The pond is on the northern edge of town, on a one-way street that isn't well-traveled, and there is no marked entrance to the adjoining conservation land, so it's understandable that many people living in Andover today can't name this pond, while many others don't even know it exists, even though it’s near one of the town’s busiest intersections. Haggett’s Pond is the one townspeople know best; at 250 acres, it’s our major water source. And yet just a few generations ago Hussey’s was a popular public swimming "hole." During the summer of 1936, according to an old newspaper clipping, over 4,500 children swam there under the supervision of Woodrow “Woody” Cowley, a lifeguard who was employed by the town. I once knew a man, now deceased, who was taught to swim by Crowley’s brother, Biddy, at Hussey’s. Jack went on to become a lifeguard there, and in 1948 he made alternate on the U.S. Olympic swimming team. “There used to be a wooden raft out in the middle,”Jack once told me, “and I can remember taking a running start down those cement piers" -- piers so overgrown with brush that I didn't notice them until he pointed them out. Jack, who moved to Pennsylvania years ago and used to return to Andover only for regular visits, also played hockey on Hussey's. Some years, the games began as early as Thanksgiving. He’d eat turkey dinner, then rush off to the pond. The games usually continued through March. Every school day, he said, “there’d be about three [simultaneous] games going on until dark." Then, in 1947, after a series of winter drownings, ice-skating was discouraged on Andover's ponds. In 1950, Phillips Academy, about two miles south of Hussey's, became the first prep school in the country to build an indoor skating rink, and granted ice time to the local citizenry. Swimming in ponds like Hussey's gradually grew less popular, too, not because of tragedy but because swimming pools started being built. Town records show that attendance at Andover’s ponds peaked in 1959. Sixteen-acre Pomp's Pond is Andover's only public pond that remains open and staffed today.
In the same postwar period, in my Connecticut hometown, ponds as places for public recreation were already starting to be passé. In 1952-53, Frank Franco’s Western Connecticut Builders, a construction company, built a ring of tract houses there, around a half-mile cul de sac, and put an unnamed, never-named pond of an acre or so into the middle of it. Our house was on the outer rim of that circular neighborhood, although it wasn't one of Franco's. It was built by my father, who worked for Franco as a carpenter. Recently, my father told me that each abutter owned a pie-shaped piece of the pond that converged with all the other pieces in the pond's center and that Franco owned the frontage everybody treated as communal. He also said, "When they dug that pond, they found dozens and dozens and dozens of golf-ball-sized turtle eggs." In creating a place where people might ostensibly enjoy a look at nature, Franco destroyed some. But that is an adult perspective; it's contemporary, too. At the time, the Franco name commanded my respect. Not only my father's bosses but the creator of a "man-made" pond, he was, to me, a god of sorts, or one of God's competitors.
Very little swimming occurred in that pond, and none of it was sanctioned by adults, who said it was polluted. Polluted. The word alone kept us girls out, although not the boys, who enjoyed pushing each other in. Our coastal town had three public beaches; otherwise, that pond might have been a more tempting swimming venue for everyone. Fishing was possible but unproductive. My friend Maureen and I fished there once, futilely, with bread balls, using safety pins for hooks. What self-respecting fish would fall for such a thing? Some ice-skating took place there, but parents preferred to take kids to the larger, town-owned pond in a public park, where the ice was tested, approved, and smoothed by plows, and its weak spots were noted with saw horses. The park pond also had official adult supervision, unlike my neighborhood pond, where we kids, in any season, were more or less on our own. That frontage, after all, was nobody's back yard. Rather, it was a free zone that turned pet dogs into fighters as each vied to claim the turf and from which boys couldn't be banished by somebody’s mother. A boy whom I’ll call Kenny was among the most persistently pugnacious. I can still see his face distorted by rage. Once, he tortured to death a snapping turtle. Kenny and his troubled family lived across from the Franco frontage but were otherwise unlucky and suffered multiple tragedies. Kenny was out of high school when he hanged himself in the garage.
Better to remember the Kutscher family, who lived almost next door to Kenny’s, but their own proximity to the pond, dangerous but attractive (isn't that always the way?), wasn't the only reason to envy them. It was also because an aunt of theirs had a pool.
Every summer the Kutschers' aunt had a pool party, and our family was invited -- a special occasion for me, since it was among the few times all season I could swim in coveted chlorine. Like ours, the aunt's neighborhood was newly build and had a pond in the middle of it. Unlike ours, hers was big enough for boating. At one of her parties, my father ventured down to the dock, and stepped onto a raft tied to it. Seizing the opportunity, some boys untied the ropes and began to swim with the raft, and my father. It was a joke -- good-natured Dad was laughing -- but I was terrified, certain he was going to fall into the water, where deadly snakes lived, I'd been told. Embarrassed for him, too, I had never seen him looking so vulnerable. In the end, only his shoes got wet, but the incident reinforced my feeling that ponds were perilous places. One really had best keep one's distance from any of them.
Despite the liabilities, legal risks now inevitably among the biggest of them, current creators of neighborhoods still include ponds in their plans -- for ponds remain symbols of a good life, if not the good life -- even though the one in the middle of my now late in-laws' Florida retirement community was state-of-the art for being strictly for show. The elderly residents of the place, in Palm Beach Gardens, would no sooner jump into their pond than into a bubbling cauldron. The builders of a short-lived phenomenon known as "Hussey's Pond Lane" didn't even build a pond; they merely usurped the name of the pond nearby. In fact, you could say they went one step further than the Florida builders: they used only the idea of a pond for their purposes, which I learned about only by chance. It happened this way. A couple of years ago, many Andoverites fought hard against the scheduled demolition of the old Joseph Poor house on my street, Poor Street -- in fact, within view of my house --and also against construction of a slew of condominiums on the Poor property. Poor's has the distinction of being among the oldest houses in Andover extant, built circa 1830, as well as a documented stop on the Underground Railway. Citizens did succeed in preventing the house’s destruction, and although they couldn't quash the condos altogether, they did reduce their number. One day, during construction activities, a truck driver, roaming the neighborhood, asked me the way to "Hussey's Pond Lane." Having never heard of it, I asked to look at his printed directions. That's when I realized the developers, apparently not fancying the idea of trying to sell half-a-million-dollar condos on a street named Poor, had rechristened their portion of it. I fumed about this for a few days, even mentioning it to a local reporter whose newspaper had covered the demolition controversy. "Check out the irony of that epilogue," I told him. But no story appeared, and in the end, the name never was entered into town records. The address of the condos is Poor Street, just like mine.
One could argue that, since the pond had its beginnings in commerce -- as have had so many artificial ponds that we erroneously consider to be unadulterated examples of good old American pastoralism -- I shouldn't have minded the builders of erstwhile "Hussey's Pond Lane" using it for their commercial interests. (Notably, Franco’s pond was originally made for commercial reasons, says my father. Franco needed its gravel to level parts of the neighborhood.) But I do mind; I may not be a bona fide nature lover, but I know enough to abhor its commodification.
Meanwhile, the name change was inadvertently prudent. The poor are always with us, but Hussey's may not be. It's shrinking. The purple loosestrife in a far corner inches forward, and the runoff from fertilized and automatically sprinkled lawns has made it very weedy. The pond that Jack Pidgeon remembered as deep is also becoming shallower. Standing at its edge, I can easily see its weedy bottom. At summer's height, a glance at Hussey's might well convince somebody that it's a meadow, not a pond. A neighbor once asked the town what might be done about it; he was directed to the state, and got lost in the phone tree. Even so, I think the message is clear: many of us have had ponds like Hussey's in our pasts; in the future, fewer of us will.
What alarms me even more, however, is that Andover no longer seems sure what to do with Hussey's Pond, so no wonder others feel free to make whatever use of it they like. A sign stands in the grassy strip in front of Hussey’s: "Reserved for Children 12 and Under. By Order of the Board of Selectmen." It has been there for at least two decades, but I haven’t received a satisfactory reason why it was posted in the first place. A former town selectman told me the town wanted a fishing place for children only. It was that simple. Some other people have said the law was meant to discourage loiterers. I do occasionally find empty, one-shot liquor bottles at Hussey’s, but a hang-out it is not, and if it were to become one, stronger deterrents than that sign would be required. I think the sign's true, perhaps unacknowledged, purpose is to give Hussey's itself a purpose again. The sign's effectiveness is debatable. A few parents bring their sons (rarely daughters) to play at fishing, but they don't stay long, even though there must be fish to catch: otherwise, one might wonder what the heron's waiting for. Only once have I seen a hockey game on Hussey's. A frigid day, in a series of them, brought out a dozen men and boys from somewhere. The conditions haven't been quite as right since; anyway, those players looked too good to wait for the weather. They must make good use of an indoor rink somewhere. (Phillips Academy now has two and offers skating hours to the paying public.) People walking dogs are at the pond more regularly than anybody. (As my dog ages and can’t go very far, I am one.) Sometimes, heeding a second prominent sign posting, they scoop, sometimes not. Goose droppings are more formidable hazards anyway.
One morning town workers mowed the grass at Hussey's, as they do every couple of weeks in season. One of them rode the sit-down mower while another used an edger. A third stood staring at the water, smoking a cigarette. Since he looked to be well into his sixties, I wondered if he was remembering boyhood swims and skates. Eight minutes later, the trio had put the equipment back on the truck and driven away. None of them seemed fazed by a new structure that has gone up, unsanctioned by any town official. Paul, a dweller in the condos behind me, had taken it upon himself to put in a raised flower-bed. It was not a small project. For two weekends he hammered railroad ties into the night. Without measuring I would guess that the bed is six feet by twenty. Two truckloads of soil were required to fill it. Paul built a bench, too, and placed it at the edge of the pond. I have tried it out. A little hard, backless, it's not for lengthy sits. What I think it does best is reinforce the idea that Hussey's seems mostly just for looking at these days, almost like a picture of nature, rather than nature itself.
That's how I treat it, too. I look and look, and like any great painting, it's always offering me more. And yet I am frustrated by its remoteness from me. How ego-bruising it is that I am not in this picture. The heron flies off if I startle it. The geese waddle in the opposite direction and into the water when I approach. The ducks don't even venture to my side of the pond; they stay in the far corner with the loosestrife. "My" pond, which is how I sometimes think of it, isn't mine at all. It never even was Hussey's.
I used to have two recurring fantasies, neither of which would have been difficult to make real. One was to borrow a canoe from friends and paddle around in that pond -- a part of the picture at last. This I finally did. The pond was even shallower than I had imagined. The canoe trip was a short, smelly, disappointing ride, but what did make it worth the effort was seeing my house from the pond’s other side. That sure gave me a new perspective -- the view from behind the looking glass. I felt small, and my house looked small, while the pond seemed very big.
The other fantasy I’ve had and not yet acted on is to sketch the pond and some of the things I've been seeing in and around it. If I can't always literally be in the picture, I can at least create one. But somehow I know that, even if I do this, I still won't feel what I want to feel about nature.
Once, on Cape Cod, at the edge of another pond -- Nine Mile Pond, which is so big it doubles as a lake, called Lake Wequaquet -- it happened that I saw a frog, having been eaten by a snake, come back to life, and I liked the feeling that gave me. This is how it was. I lifted up one end of a canoe, getting ready to put it into the water, and there beneath it I saw a snake, and the snake saw me, and in fright opened its mouth, angling that hinge so wide I though it was turning itself inside out. Instead, it was regurgitating the frog it had just eaten. The frog toppled out, reprieved, resurrected, and stood stunned but still breathing, then hopped back into the lake and swam away. Of course, the snake wouldn't have good things to say about the incident. And what was it to me but an opportunity to feel God-like, intervening where I had no business? Though it takes me down a peg to admit it, my business is with the humans -- the ring-hurling, cross-dressing humans. The pond, any pond, really is better off without me.
|53 Poor Street, on a late afternoon in October.|
|Hussey's Pond, covered with a fine, green scum.|