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Thompson Pond in Late Winter: Reverence of the Ordinary

Kim Barke

A sanctuary of hope in a world full of destruction.

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.

I 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 for comfort.

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 snow-covered ice.

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.

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