Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eco-systems: birds, fish, grief, magic

Pavlov's Cat has recently written a beautiful post about scattering the lint from her clothes dryer around the garden so that birds can use it as a soft lining for their nests. Apart from my feeling the way about her clothes dryer that some people feel about my dishwasher (and of course, I use it several times a week, instead of just when it is raining), this is a lovely notion; and her comments box indicates that others are similarly taken with this idea of co-existence.

My own feelings have come under some pressure in this regard recently, on several fronts, as I have been thinking about back yard ecosystems. Our own back garden was re-built with a series of ponds, stone walls and benches last year, and by the time I was recovering from surgery, the plants were settling in, the goldfish were breeding and learning to eat from my hand, and we had started to marvel at the difference made by these small bodies of water in the garden. Over the course of spring and early summer we progressively scooped out fallen quince, pear, and dogwood blossom, then elm tree seeds and jacaranda flowers from the ponds. I entertained my visitors in my "folly", a stone pergola with a wrought-iron cupola, and encouraged the stephanotis plants to race each other in climbing up and around their concrete columns. The garden was also the place where I taught myself, in a very rudimentary way, to meditate; even if this involved nothing more elaborate than sitting still and doing nothing.

When the eastern tree frog we called Herbert (von Karajan) came to live among the violets, we congratulated ourselves on having built something that might complement the indigenous plant environment, in the heart of the city. (We live on a busy thoroughfare, complete with trams running past the front door; but we can also cross a side street and be on the Merri Creek.) Paul then built a special swampy frog pond, in hopes of attracting more frogs. The garden, then, is an eclectic mixture of the "natural" environment, with more than a hint of gothic folly in its architecture and sculpture.

We were a little concerned about the fish and Mima, my fifteen-year-old cat, but she is more interested in following me around the garden, making nests in the mulch, and drinking the fish-flavoured pond water than risking getting her paws wet by going fishing. Since our neighbour's great-niece, partner and three-year-old daughter have moved in with him next door, we've also had to put a lock on the gate between the two back gardens: the human eco-system around us has also undergone a major shift, and we are conscious that small children and ponds, even shallow ones, are a dangerous combination. But the real sign of change in the relationship of people, water and animals has been the birds. We've always had thrushes, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, lorrikeets, miners and odd kookaburra perching in the elm-trees, a very odd sight indeed. And it's always seemed like a kind of blessing, when they fly into and through our trees.

Even when the garden-builders reported seeing a kookaburra swoop down and lift a goldfish out of the little trough under the tap, I was more thrilled by the oddity than scared for the fish. Then a few weeks ago I saw a lovely grey heron, standing awkwardly on its spindly yellow legs, up on the roof of the house, watching the pond, and watching me watching it, but not venturing any closer. And one day last week Paul saw a cormorant flying in and around the garden. He chased it off several times, and was concerned, but I was still blithely confident that the fish would be able to hide away, and was pleased at this sign that the garden was becoming such a rich eco-system.

Then one morning last week I came back from my walk along the creek and went into the garden to walk around with the Mimacat, and was horrified to see empty ponds, with not a single fish in sight. It seemed that cormorant or heron had come in and fished out the ponds completely; and I was overwhelmed by desolation and the destruction of it, and sympathetic horror for the experience of being a fish with a large bird swimming around and picking off the family members, one by one. Our little eco-system seemed no system at all, if the birds could be so comprehensive in their fishing. A few hours later, I went out again in disbelief, but saw one small shubunkin swimming quietly. Then an hour later, one or two more; and by the end of the day, most of the larger goldfish, two-thirds of the silver perch and all the rainbow fish had re-emerged. It seems they had been fast enough to take cover under the rocks and plants, and smart enough to stay there for most of the day. It was like a magical visitation. The destruction had seemed so comprehensive that all I could do was wish, against all hope, the fish were back. And there they were: the big comets Merlin and Charlotte (I like to think these are the breeding pair), and the two black ones Beadle and Bugelow, though the majestic black and gold one I called King Olaf Tryggvason (around the time Joel was doing a school project on his "ancestors") seems to have been amongst the casualties.

It's been a chastening event, all round. We are now thinking about putting tightly strung wires around and across the ponds: these catch any breath of wind and vibrate in a bird-deterring way. I know that cats and birds, and cats and frogs, and dogs and lizards are equally difficult combinations in the domestic garden. "Nature red in tooth and claw", my mother would say; and this was well before David Attenborugh showed us just how red Nature could be. But weirdly, the fact that the bird did not fish the pond out completely suggests that this *is* a functioning system: the bird hasn't exhausted the food supply, and has left enough fish to make it worth a return visit. Just let me get those wires strung across the water first.

7 comments:

J J Cohen said...

I think you learned to meditate very well: not so much in your garden, but about your garden.

Love those animal names .. especially Olaf Tryggvason!

Pavlov's Cat said...

An old friend of mine whose surname is Broderick once had a whole standup routine based on his alleged Viking ancestor, Broad Eric.

I didn't know you felt like that about clothes dryers! I promise I only use it when I have to, which of course last winter meant hardly at all, as you know. (Besides, I think recycling the lint is a form of carbon credits, n'est-ce pas?)

Stephanie Trigg said...

Thanks, kids.

oh well... about the clothes dryer. Who of us can say they are totally consistent in their domestic policies on greenhouse emissions? And I've always had a garden that can take a clothes line or a clothes horse, so that makes it easier.

And there's nothing "alleged" about King Olaf, of course; he's famous for converting Iceland to Christianity with his sword in 1000. Whether he's a direct ancestor seems a little uncertain, though.

Nonsequitania said...

I specially like your choice of frog name. Surely the great man would approve!

Converting to Christianity with the sword: human nature, also red in tooth and claw... But what a great swashbuckling character.

White wires (more visible) might help stop your cat from getting stuck and/or horribly injured. Even plain wire can cause some nightmarish friction-burnt wounds.

Gory comments, but I did love your post. You can almost see the cloud patterns drifting across it...

Carl said...

Often a Heron decoy will work to scare away birds, including other Herons! I have used this method (with realistic hreon decoys) amongst other methods for years to keep predatory birds out of my customers ponds.

Carl; Veggie Pond Filters

Mel said...

Hi Stephanie,

I was delighted to see you mention Olaf Tryggvason, as recently I rediscovered a CD that my high school produced to mark its 120th anniversary. We performed Grieg's "Landerkennung" - do you know this piece? It goes something like:

And it was Olaf Tryggvason
Sailing o'er the North Sea wide
Bearing the hope to found a kingdom
O'er on the other side...

Stephanie Trigg said...

I like the idea of a heron decoy... The fish seem to be learning how to make themselves scarce. We see a bird; and then we don't see fish for a day or two. But we found some more babies the other day, so something's still happening in the water. The man at the fish shop suggested making it hard for a cormorant to land: they're not like jump jets, he said, and need a running strip.

Good old Olaf: a coloniser to the very end. I'm going to check out that Grieg piece. Nice to see you online, Mel.