Living in the Hudson Valley I'm often
confronted with too much glory. The Hudson River and Catskill Mountains,
with its waterfalls, crags and lakes, defy description. When I need
to feel grounded again, Thompson Pond in Pine Plains is a place
I escape to with my children. Featured in the American Museum of
Natural History, and a national natural landmark, this remarkable
place soothes my senses. But it is more than a place for respite.
This pond holds a story, one immediate, personal, and enduring:
a story of defiance.
drive to Thompson Pond with my son, heading west from Pine Plains
and marshes embrace the road to welcome me. Stissing Mountain emerges,
frozen against the sky ahead. The marshes are sunlit, with gilded
grasses that give way to breezes, while clouds dull patches of earth
as they drift by. I drive on and on the left of the road is a trailhead,
with signs from the Nature Conservancy pointing the way to the beginning
of a walk around the entire pond. This trail is a loop, a circle,
and a cycle. We start down the trail in the shadow of the vertical
rise of the mountain. Created over 350 million years ago, Geologists
say the mountain formed during ancient thrustings of the earth's
crust when the American and African tectonic plates collided.
I look up at the mountain and see imposing white pines dispersed
among cliffs and hardwoods. Along the side of the trail, rocks and
boulders, fallen from the top of this ancient ridge, clutter the
slope. At first, the sheltered path is dark, even in the winter
when no leaves block the sun. The mountain's steep shoulder shades
us with a protective coziness as we walk.
This is a story of cold melted snow, with water that teases
my eye through the trees to the left of the trail. Thompson Pond
and its two neighbors, Stissing and Twin Island Lakes, were born
during a glacial retreat 15,000 years ago. As glaciers recede quickly,
they leave pieces behind. These melt and form holes penetrating
below the water table. These are glacier kettles, sometimes lakes
and sometimes ponds can then become marshes and bogs like Thompson
Pond, and now a place for me to pause and ponder. Precious samples
of glacial remains, these are new creations not knowing what to
do next, just like me not knowing what to do next.
Typical bogs have a textbook story of progression, where vegetation
builds up instead of decomposing. Over time, the central watery
pool of a bog disappears as peat lays down layer upon layer. I was
afraid that as I learned more about the pond, I would discover it
was in the process of departing. I wasn't prepared for that.
I sat looking, watching and thinking. My mother had just died.
We buried her during a snowstorm in January. When I thought about
how much she had gone through over the last few years, I wondered
if she had tempted fate, surviving surgery for three brain aneurysms
twenty years earlier. I remember, at the age of eleven, I came home
from delivering papers one Saturday morning to find my father in
a panic. My mother was lying on the couch unconscious and struggling
to breathe. "Call an ambulance," I said to my father. She came back
and came through. Everyone she worked with called her the walking
miracle. She had defied death, amazing for someone who was always
afraid of needles. With her on my mind, I turn to Thompson Pond
Turning off the main trail, not far from the sign-in box, is
a path that drifts within reach of shore. On this path, before it
bends back, is an escape hatch for me from the ordinary world. This
is not Yosemite, it is sweeter, simpler, a place I've been to before,
while listening to a story. Here, in the summer, I see fern-covered
banks rise up about three feet, and although cattails and marsh
grass engulf the rest of the shore, the mats break for two narrow
channels leading to a snuggery of lily pads and mallard ducks. Beside
the water's edge, I see bog grass, tufted into mushroom pods, forming
a squishy footpath to a beaver's lodge, which lies right off shore.
To my right, dominating the scene, chewed hard wood branches and
small diameter logs, piled into a cone, form a pillar of industry.
I turn and to my left, I notice half a dozen trees that the beaver
haven't gotten to yet.
Around a beaver lodge, all trees are in danger. Not one has
a chance against a hungry beaver. They can cut down trees up to
three feet in diameter, and gird larger ones. As we walk down the
trail, I see the beavers are constructing a new lodge next to a
floating mat. Nearby, along the shore, they've chewed all trees
under a foot in diameter. Beavers cutting down trees; peat being
formed; woodpeckers pounding holes in trunks. Everything in a state
of jeopardy, yet moving ahead anyway.
Walking away from the pond, we visit a hemlock grove. Through tree
branches, we see wisps of blue water dotted with black clumps. We
hear hundreds of geese calling out to each other, and my son remarks
that most animals we see in the woods are quiet, but geese are so
loud. It's a place that is ordinary and elegantly simple, but surprisingly,
not that quiet. Birds are attracted to the unique ecology of area,
and in late winter, I see hawks and golden eagles hunting the mountain
face, mallard ducks swimming and feeding in the marshes, and swans
gracing the melted patches of water barely perceptible against the
A strong breeze blows down the mountain onto the pond sculpting
waves, and sweeping our hair back from our faces. We walk down the
path; it cuts through oak trees and a stand of fallen, white birch,
and we start to make our way around the south end of the pond. As
we turn, a view of the mountain opens up, and we see two peaks appear
behind the pond--Stissing mountain, a dip and then a small peak.
We stop in a spot covered in fluorescent green moss and see a redwing
blackbird balancing on a single reed as it sways in the breeze.
Out on the pond beyond the shore-hugging cattails and grasses are
little islands, or bog rafts, one round, one skinny. On one of these
bog rafts, I notice something that's grayish-blue. I look through
the binoculars and see that it's a great blue heron. Its white head
with black racing stripe and gray-blue body stand out against the
golden reeds. The heron has nested on a floating mat of cattails
and marsh grass that just a month ago might not have been there.
In the spring, as the water gets warmer, peat from the bottom of
the pond rises to the surface. Some of these bog rafts may be as
large as 400 square feet. They break loose from the bottom and come
up to the surface, as warm water increases the rate of decomposition,
and the resulting gases buoy the mats. Many of these mats will sink
again in the fall, but a few will remain at the surface, to defy
death and gradually develop mat vegetation.
My son asks me if the blue heron dreams when it sleeps at night.
I tell him that maybe it thinks about where it built its nest. Then
I think about the dream I had of my mother right after she died.
She was lying dead underwater. The water around her started getting
warmer and the lily pad roots holding her down are starting to disengage.
Bubbles rise up all around. Underneath they give it a lift as they
move from the center out to the side of her, to rise up under the
ice. The ice melts. The sun beats through the water and bubbles
of gas are moving more rapidly. They become larger and she begins
to move away from the peat bottom. Her fingers tug on the lily pad
roots, breaking away. Big bubbles lift her arms now and they sway
underwater. Smaller bubbles like champagne burst all around. Now
her legs are free and she's floating, moving toward the surface.
A rush of bubbles and she breaks the surface. The sun beats down
and streams of water flow off the edges of her face. She's brought
to shore by small waves that toss her onto the island and the blue
heron builds a nest around her.
My son runs off and I chase him down the trail. Near the length
of the pond's west side, we see a farm, with another mountain behind
it. I admire a large oak astride a stone wall with round-lobed hepatica,
small purple flowers with hairy stems, growing alongside. We walk
down a hill to the outlet. Here, swampy tufts now have moss on them,
so do fallen logs. It fees more humid, with no breeze for relief.
We see fresh beaver damage and skunk cabbage and then, when we look
up, we see a sign on a farm fence that says: Critical Area, Endangered
Species, DEC. What does this mean? We keep walking. But there are
many things here that are special. Red buds glow on trees in the
hummock swamp. We walk down log steps that someone has built into
a hill and we come to a narrow wooden bridge at the bottom that
crosses the swamp ahead. Moss and skunk cabbage fill in the spaces
among the maples. I think I like marshes with their open spaces
and grasses better. This place is too close, too hot. Then I see
two tiny lavender-blue moths fly by as we walk across the bridge.
They land on a shrub with bright, but small yellow flowers. The
delicacy of the pastel colors and of the moths themselves is a visual
treat against the inky black swamp water. I stop to get out my camera,
being careful not to drop it into the water. I aim and focus on
the moths, and just as I'm about to take the shot, a frog jumps
out of the water and startles the moths, or maybe it was me.
A month ago, all was the same color. Trees, ground, rocks and
sky, a brownish-gray absence of life contrasted only with the few
patches of snow and the brassy grasses of the marsh. Now, in early
spring, trees start to flower--red and yellow hints of color. I
wondered, what was it about this place that appealed to me? Why
do I keep coming back here? Why this place, so plain and out of
the way? I didn't dwell on the ecology, or the natural history when
I was there. I decided that it was the simplicity of the spot that
allowed me to reflect on the meditative aspects of nature. Maybe
I love Thompson Pond so much because it isn't conspicuous.
I'm following deer tracks with my eye as they cross the path,
so I'm startled by an old tree with gnarls coming at me like rheumatoid
hands. My mother tumbles back into my thoughts. Twenty years after
surviving her brain surgeries, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid
arthritis. Her joints were attacked by her immune system, a painful
battleground of a body. She fought back, even entering into a clinical
trial, and yet the hands that knit became knotty remnants of what
they once were.
Why do some people suffer more than others? I think I can find
answers in nature. Sometimes I see things that seem like perfect
metaphors and I wonder if it's all a big trick. I see two trees
that are rotting after being infested with an off-white fungus that
forms miniature sconce-shaped shelves all around and up and down
their length. All that's left of the trees are their trunks, the
tops fallen off and decomposed a long time ago. I don't see any
evidence of beaver damage around their bottoms, so something else
weakened them. How were they selected for death? Wood rot fungi
don't penetrate intact bark. Were these two trees hit by snow or
ice? Or did insects infest the bottom of their trunks? Something
weakened them for their fatal invasion. Just like the arthritis
weakened my mother for her final battle.
For a few years, my mother took steroids to fight the rheumatoid
inflammation wrecking her joints and lungs. These drugs blocked
her immune system, the very same force attacking her. This effect
was not without consequences, the steroids caused stress fractures
of the bones in her back and chronic infections. So, she decided
to set her immune system free, but by then it was too late. Mutated
cells, normally kept in check by her immune system factors, had
spread to her abdomen and lungs, and a tumor jutted out under the
skin of her abdomen like a third breast.
Everything seemed fragile to me. I worried about losing Thompson
Pond just like losing my mom. What if it really was a bog? In Ireland,
many of the original glacial lakes became bogs filled up with peat,
and people cut the peat out of the earth and burned it for fuel.
Peat is plant material that doesn't decay. In most bogs, the water
is too acidic for the reeds, cattails, and sphagnum moss that grow
there to decompose. If Thompson Pond were on a self-destructive
path, I wanted to know. I had one clue, because I'd read most bogs
don't have any significant inflows or outflows, and I knew that
Thompson Pond was the headwater for a significant contributor to
the Hudson River, the Wappinger's creek.
Maps showed that the creek emptied out on the far side of the
pond and we are near there now, looking over floating mats, across
the water at Stissing Mountain. I watch geese dive and stick their
white bottoms up. We come across another swamp with a bridge. The
water here is mucky, with green, slimy algae floating on top. We
see fiddleheads; covered in a yellow-orange membrane making them
look like cooked shrimp, and listen to frogs. Someone covered this
boardwalk with chicken wire and our feet grip onto it as we walk
across. As I pass a swamp tree that's fallen over, I feel a blast
of cold air from the exposed soil. I turn back to see if there's
some reason for it, but there's nothing obvious.
The trail leaves the swamp and moves alongside a barnyard.
A rusty barbed wire fence separates the black and red Angus cattle
from hikers. Looking at the mud the cattle are standing in, I wonder
about run-off getting into the pond, and then, just past the farm,
I see water rushing down two culverts into a stream. I realize that
this is the beginning of Wappinger's Creek.
The secret to Thompson Pond's survival is the movement of water.
Water leaving to Wappinger's Creek, and water coming in from underground
springs and small streams running down Stissing Mountain. Like our
bodies' circulatory system, which brings fresh oxygen and removes
toxins, stagnant water in a bog and stagnant blood in a body mean
death. Thompson Pond is defying the textbook version of bog succession.
If I found out that Thompson Pond was going to fill up with peat,
who would I complain to? Where would I protest?
We leave the last swampy area and return to marshes as we near
the road. On the right side of the trail is an old junk yard. Rusted
fence wire, barrels, bottles, and cans, foul the side of a hill.
Beyond that, I can see clear woods and rocks covered with green
moss. At the shore, birds chase each other through the reeds and
turkey vultures soar over the stands of white spruce. I feel a breeze
again as we near the end of the trail. It's a short walk along Lake
Road back to our car, and along the way, we look for pussy willows
among the cattails and find horsetail, looking strange in its early
spring attire: tan with black stripes, almost like asparagus.
Thompson Pond today is a sanctuary of hope in a world full
of destruction. There is a story here and I do believe it is one
of defiance. I'm happy about this, not only because I believe now
that Thompson Pond will be around for a while, but also because
I've always defined life itself as something that defies entropy.
Today, a delicate balance of chemistry and climate work together
to maintain the present pond conditions. Too much nutrient flow
or acid rain could easily perturb the pond and force it to transform
into a raised bog. Three kettle lakes that the glacier left, like
teardrops fallen behind by a defiant child, as he climbs stairs
to his bed. They have a resonance with their glacial creator, and
continue to approach the future on their own terms.
My son and I are like kettle lakes. We were left behind by our
ancestors, who have disappeared like the glaciers. We live on in
defiance. Thompson Pond with its fresh water, lets go of plants
through a cycle of renewal. It doesn't harbor them in tannic embalming
fluid like other bogs do, in a cycle of suicidal greed. My son and
I let go of my mother. We leave her spirit here with the blue heron
and keep her memory alive in this ordinary place. This place of
life and movement and water.