JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Addled and the forthcoming Float (Ashland Creek Press, February 2013). Float, set in coastal New England, involves the fishing industry, conceptual art, jellyfish, marital woes, and plastics in the ocean.
Folklore has it that Niles Pond was once in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the closest body of fresh water to the ocean, but I can’t verify it. No matter. Not only does it seem true, but as with other Guinness records, such as the heaviest weight lifted by tongue (27.5 lbs.), it also seems impossible. Yet there it is. This 38 acre pond is separated from the salty Atlantic by a causeway just wide enough for a footpath. There is Niles on one side, neatly defined and calm, and on the other, the pounding surf of Brace Cove. To stand between the two is to feel washed in conflicting emotions. I walk this route with Daisy, my fuzzy mutt who believes herself to be a famed hunter of ducks and likes to splash into the dark pond up to her sternum to stir them up.
Niles is named after the farmer who once owned Eastern Point, the small spit of Gloucester land where I live. Of the many unique features of the intertwined land and waterscapes here, Niles is nature’s odd duck. It is a Massachusetts Great Pond, meaning that it is like a Common, where citizens have the right to graze their sheep, except this Common is made of water. Instead of grazing, it is reserved for hunting, fishing, ice-making, and recreation. Duck hunting is no longer feasible because of all the homes built up along the shore, and fishing is also a moot point because the perch have been eaten by the snapping turtles. As for ice, Cape Pond Ice (“the coolest guys in town”) churns it out for the fishing boats these days. That leaves recreation. I’ve never seen anyone but Daisy swim in the pond, what with those snappers, but there are skaters when there is ice. There was no ice last winter, speaking of breaking records, but that is a topic for another time. The point is, Niles is left mostly in the hands of wildlife, as nature intended.
Phragmites at Niles
But what does nature intend? Does it intend for the pond to be choked by phragmites, the feathery reed that is prowling along the perimeter? In geologic time, Niles was once part of the ocean, an extension of Brace Cove. Over the years, rocks rolled to shore, sand accumulated, and the dune got higher until one day it was shut off from the sea. A natural spring bubbled up and slowly replaced the salt water with fresh. In the 1830’s, sensing that the ocean might want to stake a claim again, Farmer Niles reinforced the 400-foot dune with granite to preserve the pond for ice-cutting and “ornament.” It remains a prime resting place for migratory seabirds, and a source of fresh water for the stealthy mammals of the land, including fisher cats and raccoons. At any given time, grebes, cormorants, and ducks float on the surface, while herons and egrets stand around on one leg pretending to be reeds. The mute swans are probably a human introduction, but they are hardly mute. They hiss and snort and otherwise act aggressively because people feed them, which confuses wild animals and makes them testy. That, and the fact that the turtles pull their cygnets from below and eat them. But the phragmites are more aggressive than either swan or snapper.
According to Fish and Wildlife, non-native phragmites appeared in coastal ports in the eastern United States in the 19th century, probably as seeds clinging to the hulls of ships. Maybe humankind’s natural purpose on earth is to help immobile species move around the globe. It is hard to figure out where we fit in, but in this aspect, we’ve succeeded. The rapid spread of phragmites in the 20thcentury is attributed to habitat disturbance and eutrophication. Raise your hand if you know what that is. It’s over fertilization from the nitrates from lawn fertilizers and phosphates in laundry detergent seeping into the pond. Phragmites are usually an indicator of a wetlands system out of balance. Well, aren’t we all?
Daisy on the path
Niles Pond wants to grow up to be Niles Marsh. Humans want it to stay a pond, as, I’m sure, do those migratory seabirds. A group of residents is working to have the phragmites dredged. But they’re tenacious plants, with stolons like bullwhips. The upside of this tenacity is that they might hold the earth in place when the Atlantic comes calling for the pond. But, again, that is a topic for another time.
Mallards and Cormorants
Daisy and I do not think of all this when we walk. Her mind is on ducks, mine on “ornament.” It’s particularly hard getting out of the house this time of year. I have to leave unfinished work behind in order to beat the early-setting sun, but Daisy and I need the exercise and the mental cleansing. When we get to the causeway, she scrambles down the steep bank of Farmer Niles’ stones in search of her ducks, while I, shedding myself of the day’s challenges, walk that narrow path between internal calm and unleashed energy.
Sunset at Niles
Reblogged from Newfound, the online journal about place for which JoeAnn is a monthly contributor.