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By the Pond

Hidden, fragile, life stirs near pond


I live 11 miles from the White House. And so do my neighboring foxes, rabbits, raccoons, snapping turtles, chipmunks, yard-invading deer and squirrels galore. Around our yard and especially where the land dips to a rainy-day creek bed, there are occasional snakes and constant insects, the latter in such diversity as to dazzle a minor tropical rain forest. Some months of the year a tropical rain forest is what damp Virginia does its temperate-zone best to imitate.

We have birds. To me, the prettiest -- and I know few of them by name -- are the darting ruby-throated hummingbird and the nervous tufted titmouse. The noisiest, the starlings, jays and crows. Most enjoyable: the self-conscious northern flicker, a ground-feeding red-splotched woodpecker forever looking around to see if it's being followed.

The neighborhood also has, where the rainy-day stream joins the real live Indian Run Creek, us and creation in microcosm: the pond.

Truly, for a half dozen reasons, the pond is the global environment today writ small. It exists, for example, in the shadow of one of the busiest interstate highways in the United States. Interstate 395 is a short parallel companion to I-95, the main East Coast north-south artery.

The pond is bounded on its north side by an office block where the corporate owners keep a nicely mowed lawn, bordering its edge with picnic tables for employees. Only recently closed was a nearby research center whose toxic products tainted surrounding ground water and wells.

The microcosm of ecological tension between humans is also played out in the pond's garbage -- empty soda cans, plastic containers, Clorox bleach and WD-40 disposables, an entire medical kit including scissors, a laceless left-foot sneaker, the wreck of a lawn chair. These are not necessarily left by the picnicking employees.

The pond is a catchment area for the upper reaches of Indian Run Creek and the detritus of the residences abutting it. Torrential rains rush the waters downstream to the pond. The creek runs along the pond's south side and, during these downpours, pond water spills over the pond's eastern lip to add to the swollen creek's waters.

Yet wildlife, for the most part, doesn't notice. The ducks swim past the empty 7-Up cans. A kingbird perches on the corner of a milk crate jutting out of the mud. In and around this pond, wildlife, even more numerous than that in the sizable bush- and tree-filled backyards of the houses to the immediate north and west, truly abounds. It may show itself if you stay still.

Beavers possibly, if the tooth marks on the gnawed-down saplings are a clue. The last beaver family was humanely trapped and moved to another area, but it looks as though they're back. Freshwater crawdads here are big enough to cook --if you can see them to catch them where they blend skillfully into the muddy banks.

What we do to the pond -- no nostalgic Walden this with the 18-wheelers thundering by all day long and all night long -- is what we are doing, and will increasingly do, to creation. Another 360 houses are soon to be built to the pond's immediate south. The pond, like Ma Earth, will have to contend with another 700 cars, another 600-plus children.

The all-pervading odor of Bounce will blow in from yet another direction. Worst of all, what liquids humanity leaks will make their way into the pond's and the creek's water in greater quantity.

There is awesome significance in that last statement. Every storm drain and creek, every rain-created stream and all the parking lot runoff in this region makes its way into the finest body of water on the U.S. East Coast -- the Chesapeake Bay. An accidentally spilled yellow plastic jug of antifreeze is only days away from adding to the Bay's mix. "Save the Bay," proclaim the license plates and bumper stickers. "Love your Mother," warn T-shirts with a Mother Earth emblem. But will we? Do we? Can we -- enough to keep a balance between human needs and creation's needs?

A quarter-century ago in Stockholm I interviewed the famed Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote the classic study of racism in the United States, An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1962). I asked him what over the subsequent decades had further surprised him about the United States.

And he remarked that decades ago in the United States there was a great deal of high-level conversation about land use and resource stewardship.

Yet on later trips, as the strip malls went up and the land was used for whatever its owner decided, he could see that "green zones" and "natural boundary areas" had all just been talk.

Mother Nature herself has dubious designs on the pond, too, and what are we to do about those? The dreaded kudzu vine aloft and voracious growth-killing bramble vines below threaten the native trees and bushes. Kudzu forms a light-defying canopy that, with the other vines, can strangle even mighty beeches, killing flora, altering fauna and thereby changing the landscape.

Does God want the landscape changed?

Do humans come first?

Have we too pretty a view of creation -- as a sort of Laura Ashley dress -- when in fact much of Nature wears a tough hide?

For sure, as Christians, in our desire to preserve what we like as well as to help creation at large, we're the ones who have to lead the argument for balance. We have to keep people in the ecological equation.

And in some circles that is not the popular path.

Environmentalism is becoming highly politicized and highly emotional. In the United States, the political right sees environmentalism as the new Marxism. The politically correct left's ideal is a depopulated wilderness.

The Christian has to make sense of God's having given Mr. and Mrs. Genesis dominion; and Mr. and Mrs. Genesis' descendants have to make sense of the natural disorder and correct what needs correcting. And not do what ought not to be done. Today's talk and tensions, and tomorrow's environmental woes and disasters, plus our stewardship now will be this occasional column's continuing themes. Often, the pond will be the starting point.

Meanwhile, the rain is falling on and around the pond in such a way that it's like sitting in with a celestial orchestra during rehearsal. The raindrops that hit the water are the violins. Those hitting the leaves are the woodwinds. Those drops banging against the plastic containers are the percussion section.

The ducks seem indifferent.

Does only the human wonder at it all?

Arthur Jones is NCR's editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997