>Over the weekend, we celebrated a friend’s birthday by attending Symphony on the Prairie, the annual summer offerings of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, performed at Connor Prairie Farm, a living history museum. Like most summer outdoor symphony concerts, this series is mostly pops, with a little classical music. It is a very casual atmosphere, with picnic baskets, fireworks, and a few mosquitoes. My music purist spouse doesn’t care too much for outdoor concerts; he doesn’t like it that the crickets don’t pay attention to the conductor. Me? For an occasional summer evening, I find it a relaxing way to spend a few hours with friends.
In browsing through the program, before the lights went down (that’d be the sun), I found two quotes about summer, both that I have read previously, but was delighted to come across again:
“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” — Edith Wharton
“In summer, the song sings itself!” — William Carlos Williams
I complain too much in the summer about the heat. Where I live, if the temperature edges past 80-85, you can safely bet that the humidity will be over 90%. There is no such thing as ‘dry heat’ in the Midwest. Yet, the longer hours of daylight, the flowering gardens, even the occasional pesky mosquito, seem to inspire a slower pace. Despite the heat, I do like summer. “Summer afternoon” are two beautiful words, especially if they are lazy summer afternoons where all obligations are put aside for at least a little while so you can hear summer sing.
I picked up a book today that has languished on my bookshelf for about a year, Philip Gulley’s Porch Talk. It is a collection of essays by Gulley, a Quaker minister, who writes in a humorous, down home style. I first read Gulley for a book discussion group a few years ago, and was prepared to detest him. I was sure that it would be overly sentimental drivel at best, or worse: sermonizing. But, what I found is that while his Quaker philosophy infuses every page of his essays, his essays are not chances to preach, but opportunities to brighten up corners of the world, in spite of the darkness that may be there. Sometimes his essays are not those kinds of enlightening opportunities, but just a few pages that will make you laugh.
In “Pond Life”, Gulley writes about his desire to bring a little bit of the natural world to his yard by building a pond. As a pond owner, I could predict the direction this essay would take, so I began reading with a smile in place.
‘Let’s build a pond’, I suggested to Joan. ‘We could fill it with fish and water lilies and have a little waterfall and listen to the gurgle of water. It would be just like living beside a mountain stream.
We read a book about goldfish and koi and how not to kill them, then spent a tidy sum of money buying a dozen fish to stock our pond. We followed the book precisely, gradually acclimating the fish to our pond, fine-tuning the pH balance to provide the optimum environment. The third morning, Sam rushed in the house to share the happy news that our fish knew how to swim on their backs. The second bunch of fish lasted nearly a week before a wandering herd of raccoons eviscerated them. The fish that replaced them died of a gruesome fungus, and the batch after them was a midnight snack for a great blue heron — pp 29-30, Porch Talk: Stories of decency, common sense, and other endangered species, 2007
I remember our first fish. As I was trying to empty the bag of water & fish into the pond, I dropped it. One fish flew through the air and smacked its head on rock. The other flipped onto the driveway and was washed downhill by the accompanying water. Both survived for a few seasons, but, that first day, after the gentle sedative, placed in the water for the trip home, wore off, I’m sure they wondered what sort of partying they had done the night before. I still have a few of my original fish, although the koi, which had grown from about two inches to 12 after 4 years, went fins up during a particularly cold snowstorm last year. Looking in the pond the other day I noticed there there were some fry; two little gold guys flitting around between the rushes, trying to stay hidden and out of the way of the big fish while still grabbing at pieces of food floating on the water.
We’ve seen animal tracks on the ice in the winter, leading directly to the air hole in the ice. Blue herons live nearby and I’m sure that they and other fisher-birds have enjoyed sushi served from my pond. We’ve fought string algae by floating pantyhose filled with straw in the filters, rigged strange apparatus with netting to capture leaves in autumn, and have tried to figure out sources of leaks. Still, I find it pleasurable to sit on the porch, or near an open window, to hear the water gurgle down the stream into the pond. I’ve often thought that tinkering with the rocks lining the stream must be similar to maintaining a zen garden; each movement of rock alters not only the flow of the water, but the sound as the water cascades over the small waterfall. That sound fills the space around you and quiets a busy brain.
Gulley jokes about the work of maintaining a pond, but he also writes about the emotions that the pond evokes. His pond reminds him of summer days as a child spent near a pond with his best friend. But it also reminds him of the death of his friend and the possibilities that died with him.
Sometimes, while sitting by my pond, I think of Tim and our pond life. I think of the wife he never married, the children he never had, and it occurs to me that, although some things (houses, fields, lakes) diminish over time, other things (loss, grief, the heartbreak of lives cut short) do not. There is much good to recollect while seated by my pond, and much sorrow too, and sometimes they are one and the same. pp. 34.
Gulley writes about ponds, tooth fairies, life, death — even taxes. His essays are quick little bites of reflection. I think I’ll keep Porch Talk on my desk for awhile so that I can quickly sample an essay whenever I need a five-minute respite from workday worries. I think it may be similar to listening to my pond.