“Watchers at the Pond” — This little known book is a true classic in Nature writing — as much a lesson on Nature as about writing. It chronicles a year in the lives of various creatures that live around a Canadian pond. No cougars or large mammals sully the story; it's all about the littler creatures — from microscopic amoeba, earthworms, ants and wasps to a red-tailed hawk. Franklin Russell writes in a simple luminous style that got me so caught up in the drama of life and death through changing seasons that it was un-put-downable.
We were staying at the newly-built treehouse overlooking the reservoir at Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, when I got hooked by Russell. I didn't want to go anywhere; just stay put and read. On one of those walks in the forest that I played truant, Rom suddenly encountered a sloth bear and ducked behind a bush. He said the bear was also startled, barked loudly and darted behind the same bush. After a moment, he slowly peered around, and found the bear doing the same! Eventually, both of them backed off slowly from each other.
Meanwhile, I was a nondescript little creature struggling beneath the ice, “no great relief came from the suffocation crisis since the ice sealed the pond firmly against its own banks”. Caught in this vortex of depleting oxygen, I came up for air when water “appeared in the pond at disparate points as tiny bubbles, which began reviving a few of the suffocating creatures”. Lost in this pond drama, I barely even registered Rom's close encounter.
Eventually, I did tear myself away long enough for a drive in a thunderstorm. As lightning cracked open the skies and rain came down in a flood, we found a bedraggled jungle rooster sheltering beneath one solitary, broad teak leaf. As the jeep ground through the mud, we came across a herd of elephants and stopped to watch. Another lightning bolt crashed and a squealing calf tried unsuccessfully to scramble under his mamma's belly — he was too big! I remember Russell's line: “The lightning burned through the air and created a huge vacuum, into which the vapor-packed air hurtled. As this air smashed into itself from all sides, it created an explosion that rocked the earth, and the concussion fled along the line of the lightning strike and ended with a crackle far beyond the marsh.”
There is little I can find about Franklin Russell online. The preface says he was a New Zealander working in Canada as a freelance writer, and that this book was the outcome of a suggestion made by the editor of MacLean's Magazine. Russell chose a park in Hamilton, Ontario to make observations for his assignment. He also visited other ponds in the swampy lowlands, surrounded by thick forests of oak, beech and hemlock. He spent days scrutinising microscopic life in a laboratory, and immersed himself researching in the library. The book is full of fascinating little details. “In one summer, the trees would release more water than was contained in the pond.” And his writing grabbed you with its poetry. “The pond had burst open like an expansive blossom and had seeded and died and was now settling and rotting back into itself.”
Brought up in a city, I was so far removed from life in the raw that I sought to find justice, cause and resolution to death. In reality it is “quick, bright, forgettable”, Russell writes. Death occurs because there was once life; something has to die to feed the living. The eternal dance of life and death drives not just plants and animals, but even stars.
This is an out-of-print treasure available on used book sites, although who would sell their copies is beyond my comprehension. Like some endangered species, there is a whole trove of such priceless books slowly fading from human memory.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary