Bury a thousand fish after hacking a hole in the hard baked clay. But first came hours of sucking-mud imploring me to stay. I gathered every single fish from what once had been a large and thriving pond. My garden has moods but this was the worst. She seemed furious.
Nobody else wanted them and the buzzing of flies had been growing by the second. As had the smell.
Grim work with the garden whispering, "Should have dug it deeper, should have seen it coming, should have dug it deeper."
I had seen it. Far off in the distance, another two weeks perhaps. A dozen white spirits picking in the pools were a warning but I just bird-watched them. Then rudely woken by fish floating belly-up, too big, too dead, too many for the egrets.
I tried a hose pumping water through the air to re-oxygenate but was too late.
And all repeated the next day with our other large pond. Another five hundred fish now waiting for tree roots to find them. At least I managed to save a few. A dozen snakeheads hunted down in watery, oozy mud and moved to the trickling canal where they had a slim chance. The weakest one, however, met a different fate and is still the only fish we have eaten from our ponds.
The pre-burial pile was amazing. I knew we had fish but so many! And some too large even for a heron. We had never stocked, just let them arrive through the adjacent canal's connecting pipe.
A fifty-metre-long bowl, fish-full, life-full, now dried down to a hollow crust. Later I almost wanted to dig those fish back up for a more leisurely viewing.
For the next two months our pond was a dry patchwork of crazy-cracked mud. I dug some parts a little deeper by hand and found unhappy eels praying for rain. For some it was already too late.
A pond without water. It's skin rough but fragile, the corpse of the garden's heart in the shape of its own grave. There was an intimacy in seeing it naked like that. I didn't want to but once revealed I couldn't stop staring. A voyeur trespassing in a secret place.
No splashing silver barbs, no surface-slapping snakeheads, no plunging monitor lizards. The garden soundscape deprived of its liquid percussion. Walking its fifty metres, my boots crumbling it to dust, was a lesson in how things could end up. A warning, but a warning of what exactly I couldn't quite work out.
A dry year coinciding with maintainence of the irrigation system had pulled the plug that led to those two days of toil. I actually remember them fondly. Full days of new challenge with me for once forced to react rather than plan, plan, plan.
And a new perspective slowly seeps in. We don't even need those fish. We leave them to repopulate the over-fished canal and be part of the natural chain. Such a minor problem that loomed so large in my insulated world. Worrying about how to water a few young fruit trees and whether the kingfishers will go hungry. Nobody starved and I got some physically satisfying exercise.
It's more about the wildlife. My desire to offer a sanctuary in this constantly bashed about agricultural world where everything is cut, ploughed, burned, flooded, drained, cut, ploughed, burned, flooded, drained. Sanctuary doesn't work without permanence and I had failed to provide it.
The pond recovered remarkably quickly.
When it came, the return of water was glorious, of course. We heard it coming through rumour, then an increasing trickle in the canal, and finally a dark, spreading stain across our cooked mud. Fascinated I watched it creeping along the branching cracks. It took three days to look quenched. Near the inflow pipe was a constant muttering but I'm not sure if the watery complaints were directed at me.
Six months later it was full of life again and I felt smug. The pond back to normal. But the return of the garden's soundtrack was an illusion. Fooled by splashes, the deep water had buoyed my shallow understanding. It eventually dawned on me that what had returned was the common, resilient life fortunate enough to fit the vagaries of a human-dominated world. High numbers perhaps but fewer species for sure. Those more fragile beings that may have earlier gained a foot- or fin-hold in our pond have no where to come back from and won't be returning. Lots-of-life was disguising lots-of-loss.
The lovely splishing splashing background that accompanies my days now carries an undertone. Water whispering a warning. I am listening but still can't quite make out what it's saying.