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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Spontaneous Generation

  There was really nothing I could do. I just got to lie there and watch them die. I had just returned from my fishing misadventure (see In the Arms of a Man from Tuk) and was still at the crawling stage due to a herniated disc, so my options for personal intervention were pretty limited.
  As I lay face down on the flagstones peering into the water I watched a bizarre and disturbing scene. Fish that I had raised for eight years were swimming perfectly happy one minute and floating dead the next. I have been keeping fish since I was about twelve and part of the dues in fish education is learning first hand why they die. Over time you can evaluate fish behavior in a pond or aquarium in a similar way that a mechanic listens to an engine.  If they are breathing for air at the surface or facing into a corner doing the shimmy or rubbing themselves repeatedly against the rocks, they aren't just swimming around, they are telling you something.
 During the time that I had been fishing in the Northwest Territories, Ontario had been sweltering with high heat and humidity. This may have been a factor. On the other hand Jan had run the pond, circulating the water down the waterfalls and along its river, adding oxygen while its volume alone would make temperature changes somewhat gradual.
 All of the algae that had been blooming mysteriously cleared rapidly. This can happen naturally when the surface of the pond gets covered by enough lily pads thus blocking out excess sunlight.  In some  bodies of water you can get algae blooms that cause problems when they grow and then again when they die off causing a rapid loss of oxygen. Further, enough of this goo festering at the bottom can cause a deadly round of hydrogen sulfide. Interesting stuff but I doubt that was the problem.
  New pond/aquarium set ups are prone to problems related to the nitrogen cycle and the production of ammonia. Not the case here.
 Overfeeding can be a problem but we rarely feed our fish commercial food. They have enough planted material and a healthy insect population to keep them plump enough thank you.  
  Probably more to the point, our neighbours had been doing some heavy herbicide applications during the dry hot weather.The herbicides probably hadn't settled into the soil when the torrential rains hit and washed everything down into the pond which is well below surrounding yard levels.
  I have several water test kits but they were downstairs in the basement jumbled up in a bunch of junk and I wasn't about to crawl through the house, up and down stairways dragging the equipment with me like some kind of demented aquaculture rescue dog.
 The best that I could come up with was trying to do a partial water change. Lacking any quick access to a submersible sump pump I tried to use an all too small system that is designed for aquarium use.  It took forever and gummed up repeatedly but eventually I changed enough of the toxic water and replaced it with rain barrel water such that at least the pace of the deaths slowed markedly. By the end of the summer we had gone from just under 30 fish to a total of 4 including three that I had purchased in the "feeder" tank section of the pet store just to see if conditions had changed enough to allow for some decent chance of survival.
 Spontaneous Generation- The short hand definition here is that there was a belief that you really didn't need seeds or eggs or parents to start life, all you needed was something called "the wet" like a damp forest floor or a puddle or a compost bin  plus the sun and bingo you would sprout frogs or badgers or whatever. This has been a somewhat less than popular view since something called "Science" came along but I think that this new "Science" notion is probably wrong.
  In Ontario the autumn is called Fall for a reason. At some point all of those yellow, orange, and red leaves that adorn the post cards of Algonquin Park and lure the legions of "leaf peepers" to our province, fall to the ground and head towards our pond. I'm not sure that this is a phenomenon that is limited strictly to Ontario. I am quite of the mind that if you are standing in Fitzroy Park in Melbourne Aus  where you can see Capt Cook's boyhood home and a leaf gently wafts past your face, it is just beginning its journey to our pond.
 Normally I can somewhat keep up with what nature dumps by scooping out the day's contributions with a large net. Unfortunately this year just as Nature was letting loose her colourful bounty we were headed out of the driveway for Hilton Head South Carolina.
 The pilgrimage to South Carolina has become a new ritual, the draw being things like: warmer temperatures, sun rise/sun set walks along the ocean, sea shell gathering, good fishing, world class golf courses, herons, turtles, alligators, eagles, fried shrimp,whole flounder dishes, bicycling at low tide, walking to sea side bars, beautifully preserved historic communities, renting waterside mansions for a song, and more cheap wine and beer than you can shake a stick at. But after a while you've got to come back.
  The November return meant a beat the clock scramble to get ready for winter: drain and cover the rain barrels, paint and caulk around windows, clean and cover the barbecue, have the winter tires put on, last wash and wax for the cars, replace the furnace filters and the humidifier pads, turn off the outside taps and drain the lines, empty all flower pots and store in the garage, drain the gas in the lawn mower, change the oil in the snow thrower, trim trees, bushes and ornamental grasses before the last day for yard waste pick up, reset the controls on the furnace and floor heaters and humidifier and air ventilator, rake the leaves to the curb, AND muck out the pond. By contrast, when we lived in Australia, winter was the day when we thought that maybe we shouldn't wear shorts and perhaps look for that sweater that we brought,, worries, be right mate.
  All that was really needed here was the movie creature to go with this black lagoon. Leaves had displaced most of the water and what water there was had been dyed black by leaf tannins. Nothing else was visible - no water lilies no fish - just a cold dark undrinkable tea.
  Louis lent me his rescued from the thrift store submersible pump. A real beauty - lots of power and a long cord so that you could just toss it  right into the bottom of the pond. The hose attached to this pump was of uncertain parentage and vintage. What was for sure was that it had been patched a number of times and it looked like some of the patches may have worked themselves loose over the years. The only way to know for sure was going to be to set it up and plug it in.
 Now I should have known better than to straddle the hose while the pump powered up and the black sludge from the bottom of the pond began to serge through the line but I was too engrossed in watching the hose go from flat to full round under pressure. Neither Louis nor some funniest home video show could have better planned to have the largest split in the hose appear right between my legs.  Several seasons worth of rotted leaves and liquefied fish poop shot up and covered me from crotch to glasses to hat in an instant. By the time I got over to pull out the plug, the lawn had become a black swamp and I look like I had just been tarred.
  Now every Canadian is supposed to have ample supplies of duct tape on hand, in fact I think that it may actually be a law but I was out of this and any other heavy duty, wide tape. All I had was some thin electrical tape and there was  no use trying to see if I was really making repairs if the pressure was off and the hose was flat. So it was another good bathing in goo as I wrapped around and around and around with my little spool of tape as the hose continued to spew under pressure. At some point you can only get so wet but I'm not sure if this applies to filth.
  As the water drained I had Gord spray all of the algae off of the rocks in the pond while I climbed down in it, scooping out clots of leaves and chunks of overgrown plants.The fish would show themselves in due time, after all they were steadily running out of room.
 The pond is sloped in terrace fashion and the bottom of the bottom is quite small, just about enough to place your booted feet in and not much more. I carefully began scooping out the remaining small puddle of water with a plastic cup and only then did a flash of colour emerge from the blackness. It was cornered in no time but there was only the one. I continued with my plastic cup until there was nothing left on the bottom but the dry pond liner. No more fish. No more water in the pond, just rocks and rubber liner. It was now mid day, the light was good, everything that there was to see could be seen. Fine, one lone fish occupied a bucket along with a handful or two of large snails.
  Filling the pond is a surprisingly slow process. The diameter of a garden hose is smaller than the sump pump's and there is no need for heavy pressure. This more leisurely pace makes you appreciate just how much water you are using so that when the water bill comes you will have had time to prepare for the shock.
  When the water reached the top I put on the fountain, chucked Mr Lonely and the snails back into the pond and headed up for a shower and a beer.
   The sun sets pretty early here in November so by the time I got cleaned up and back out on the deck, beer in hand to properly  survey  and contemplate my handiwork, it was already getting dark. The beam from the pond light set on a terrace near the bottom of the pond confirmed what the fading rays of the sun were eluding to. There were two fish in the pond! Impossible!
  The next morning as I had had coffee and was confirming the miracle of the second fish with Jan, we now counted three. The three count held for two days and then there were four. They even had the exact same colour patterns of the original fish.
  I made a point of not checking  today.  Who knows what creatures are being generated in that "wet"? With all of this Spontaneous Generation going on in the pond I'm a bit afraid to look.  Ken