Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Spa Shrek, or the Zen of Digging Under Water

Shrek emerges from swamp

The pond reclamation project that I wrote about in September has continued on and off over the ensuing weeks. The ongoing drought and digging efforts of coypu and rabbits has seen its banks crumble further, and at least six trees have fallen into the water.

Some of the larger trees were already dead but hid this fact under garlands of ivy and epiphytes which made them increasingly top-heavy. When the soil around their base dried enough to lose the little adhesion they had to the ground, they invariably fell in the direction of least resistance, taking small saplings with them. One morning I found a cats-cradle of interlocking fallen trees which would require several hours’ labour to clean-up. Several birds’ nests have lost their perches and tumbled into the water – their builders will  have a lot of extra work to do for winter housing.

On inspection I found that a third agent had been at work: insects had turned the insides of some trees into porous chalky matter like the fake honeycomb in a Violet Crumble. It seemed that the only thing holding up several of them was the thick ivy stems around their bases. Once I chopped those stems, Gustav and I were able to haul each tree out of the pond without any mechanical assistance.

centre pond - before

Clad in wellington boots and partly dried muck-caked clothes I drop down into the water. With rake and shovel I begin scooping the decomposing leaf litter and grey mud onto the coypu-ravaged banks.

centre pond - after 
Gustav’s been concentrating on a section of bank at the end of the pond that’s sitting higher and drier than the centre. We’ve using some building rubble from the side of the road to backfill the steeper banks, and then cover it all wattle-and-daub style with layers of acacia and willow branches and leafy-mud.

Once you’re in the water, it’s not long before the effort of shovelling gunk onto the bank has made you sink waist-deep in mud. To move even one step I have to support myself with shovel and rake in each hand and then slowly twist my feet out. After a couple of rounds of this I’ve begun dropping long planks of wood along the pond bottom to help distribute my weight like a large snow-shoe. Still, trying to balance on these while shovelling mud up and throwing it above my shoulder height is not easy, but it has more virtue than trying to simulate upright yoga positions on a Wii balance board. When I want a break from shovelling, I either use the rake to scoop leaf matter and strands of willow twigs, or simply use my bare hands to dig up balls of mud and engage in some target practice, filling in small holes along the bank.

Twisting and digging through all this mud, mud, glorious mud is fun! It may be the best exercise program I’ve devised during my time on the farm, even better than wrestling vine-posts out of the ground. I generally work 3-4 hours without a break, stopping only because I’ve run out of time or light.  I then have a small problem in how to get out of the water without destroying the section of bank I’ve so laboriously rebuilt.

emptying boots #1
Once on dry land, the first priority is to get the boots off. If I have too much water in them a seal is formed around the middle of my foot and I can’t get it out without a lot of cursing. So now I lie on my back and thrust my feet in the air to allow the bulk of the water to drain out.
emptying boots #2It still takes  few minutes of cursing and cramping to get them off and then I strip off the outer clothes to wash myself off under a hose. The clothes are left hanging out over the tomato plants until next time. There’s no point in washing them when they’re going to get filthy as soon as I re-enter the pond.

The pond already looks fuller as the centre stretch of 20m or so is now back to its former width, no longer choked by fallen tree branches. I think I’ve shifted a couple of ton of mud and so the shallow water from the ends of the pond has drained back towards the now deeper sections.

I seemed to have timed the work well as a few days of rain have followed and the outdoor temperatures have dropped to more October-like levels.

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