Lament for two small ponds

When our children were still at home, we always looked at a couple of small ponds when driving by, checking especially for ducks: blue-winged teal and the not-so-common cinnamon teal. The ponds were part of a scruffy section – perhaps 10 acres – of a bigger field which had been a hayfield for many years. They were used by dairy calves and heifers for part of the summer.

This past Saturday when I drove past, they were gone. So were the poplar groves and the few spruce and pine that grew in this section of a large field.  Like all land-clearing operations, that small pasture now looks like a lunar landscape or war zone. Quite obviously, the landlord wanted to put this land into crop production.  Caterpillars, tractors, excavators: they had finished the rough clearing, but the rest of the job, “stumping,” levelling and rock picking, was yet to come.

The two little ponds were, as I said, gone, with their willow- and marsh-grass vegetation. Disappeared from the face of the earth.  I was looking at the scene and Temple Grandin’s comment about cattle death came to me, “Where do they go?” The teal would search in vain. The moose would not browse the willows. Warblers and vireos, garter snakes, toads, frogs and muskrats had no more home. Grain or forage or some other crop would provide food for ducks, geese, starlings and blackbirds when the crops were harvested, but the homes of the other animals are now gone, forever, it seems to me.

The same thing happened to quite a few of what I called my secret spots for hunting and trapping when I was a teenager in Wisconsin. Drainage ditches continue to be built to “straighten out” fields and remove marshland to provide bigger farm fields all over North American lands. Making the land fit for machinery seems to be an unstoppable force. In city parks, marshy edges of ponds are firmed up and planted to lawn because that’s what we think “park” means: scattered shade trees, lawn and accessible water so we can throw bread to pan-handling mallards or tame ducks. 

These thoughts discouraged me, but later on the same day as I noticed “our” two ponds’ demise, I read this comment from His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I: “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease by contaminating the earth’s water, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins.”

Be offended
My observations about the two little ponds are not retroactive. I am not talking in this column about the drainage schemes in the Netherlands over centuries, nor of the East Anglican dyking work done in the U.K. long ago. I am thinking primarily of us today  – our yards, parks, fields, forests and wetlands. Rather than blame past generations, I suggest we look at ourselves.

We use the phrase “stewards of the earth” quite freely.  As Steve Kenyon, a successful rancher from Busby, Alberta, says, “Stewards of the Land sounds warm and fuzzy, but I think that this ideal has been forgotten by many producers. Every time we drain a lowland, that water goes downhill to another lowland. What happens if everyone drains their lowlands? Is it any surprise that we are seeing more flooding nowadays?”

Quite bravely, I would say, Mr. Kenyon gives an exhortation to the readers of Canadian Cattlemen (Feb. 2016) – a publication of the powerful Canadian beef industry – “Now I know that I might offend some people with this article but I think a few more of us need to be offended. Production practices that destroy biodiversity offend nature. If we want to brag about being the ‘Stewards of the Land,’ then I think we need to actually be stewards of the land.”

Mr. Kenyon’s challenge is one that I face as a landowner. Perhaps I need to “be offended.” Our Lord, through the epistle of James, implores us to be doers of the word and not hearers only; I apply this to mean, let us be stewards of creation and not talkers only. Had Christian landowners  – farmers, city planners, residential property owners – heeded the scriptures we perhaps would be known as a society marked by biological diversity, healthy air and healthy water, with much less flooding in both rural and urban areas.

For now, I lament the loss of my secret marshes, now destroyed by draining and tiling near Cedar Grove, Wisconsin.  And I lament the loss of “our” two ponds in central British Columbia.

  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc

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