Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Power of a Pond

Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden during his two-year stay in a tiny shack on the shores of the pond. It became a best-seller when his literary friends promoted it after his untimely death. As Thoreau gained a worldwide following for his environmental philosophy, the pond itself became a celebrity.

Now people are loving the pond to death. It receives 700,000 visitors a year, who come to worship Thoreau’s legacy, or just to swim in one of the few freshwater ponds near Boston.

Walden Pond today.

Due to neglect by authorities, along with heavy use, the shores of the pond became severely eroded. Erosion degraded the pond experience, made of mockery of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy, and harmed water quality.

A few years ago, State officials decided to renovate the shores with “bioengineering”--using sophisticated planting techniques to rebuild and the shoreline with living vegetation. Access to the shoreline from a trail around the pond was also strictly controlled with a waist-high wire fence and patrol by rangers. The restoration effort took years, costing millions of dollars.

Walden Pond continues to inspire people today, just as it did Thoreau. Despite the heavy visitation, one can still find quiet nooks to relax or touch the same vein of insight into nature that moved Thoreau.

Walden was the first pond to become an international celebrity. To a person who cares about Hawksnest Pond, Walden offers many lessons.

Ponds can make a splash in the world

The first is that a simple pond, backed by an idea and people who care, can make a difference in the world. With his writings, Thoreau did the hard work to breathe meaning into Walden. But the meaning of Hawksnest Pond to the world is still being shaped.

Perhaps it will never be more than just a secret, quiet place to swim for local residents. Or, maybe Hawksnest could be the birthplace of a new movement of local people--who create “communities of caring” around unique neighborhood resources. When people work together for something they care about, relationships and friendships are strengthened. The whole community—not just the pond, becomes a better place.

The opposite is also true. When you neglect and mistreat something like Hawksnest, you are setting an example for children. You are saying to them: “We’re using it up as fast as we can. We don’t care about your future at the pond.” You are saying to kids: “Freedom to toss bottles is more important than responsibility to safeguard a community park.” So if you tossed a bottle at Hawksnest, don’t expect your children to do their homework. You have already set an example with your actions that their future isn’t important.

Protect shorlines

The second lesson is that the shorelines of ponds are fragile. The shore of Hawksnest is even more fragile than Walden’s, because here the slopes are steeper and more sandy. Walden demonstrates that if erosion is allowed to proceed, it can be extremely costly to fix. At Hawksnest, a sandy spillway is about to form where a trail to the pond is becoming eroded.* Simply closing that trail now, or shoring it up, could save hundreds of thousands of dollars—the future cost of fixing runaway erosion.

Neglect means loss

The third lesson from Walden is that it takes some planning and effort to protect a pond. In today’s crowded world, you can’t continue to neglect a resource like Hawksnest, and expect it to be there for your children.

At Walden, there’s a large infrastructure and workforce to protect the pond. There are parking lots for hundreds of cars (filled to capacity the day I visited). There are gift shops and garages and rest rooms. There is even a stable for mounted rangers.

Meanwhile at Hawksnest, there isn’t even a port-a-potty—people just relieve themselves in the parking lot. The next storm washes the waste down the road towards the pond.

More than just a pond

A fourth lesson is that a pond is far more than just a place to swim or to party. Hawksnest protects and replenishes the drinking water of Harwich. The State makes yearly payments to Harwich (typically tens of thousands of dollars) to care for the area. A pond offers relaxation, exercise for health, a place to meet neighbors, and quiet inspiration. Many local tradesmen come to the pond after work to cool off and decompress.

Hawksnest State Park is an educational resource for schools. It encloses parts of three ponds, each at a different stage in progression from the “youth” to “old age” of ponds.

But as an open wound on the landscape, access points at Hawksnest provide a different education—a place
where boys 12-year-old boys learn to become outlaws on ATVs, where other children learn that there don’t have to be any rules--that the “environment” is just a place where you dump your garbage for free.

Large dogs run off-leash, scaring other visitors and digging into the vegetation that protects fragile banks by the beach.

A coin with two sides

If Thoreau were to return from the dead for a week, no doubt he’d revisit Walden Pond. But I don’t think he’d stay there long. Thoreau was familiar with Cape Cod. Quite likely, he’d come to Hawksnest Pond, where we have the best water quality in Harwich, and probably in all of Cape Cod.

Today, Hawksnest retains the qualities that Thoreau immortalized in his writings—even better than the original Walden Pond. Seven hundred thousand people go to Walden for what we have right here in Harwich.

Our duty is clear: Keep the secret, AND protect the fragile pond. Yes, protecting the pond might be a little inconvenient at times.

All things of great value—your home, your children, your love—are coins with two sides. Responsibility is on the other side of the coin. So it is with a simple pond.

#           #           #

*  Erosion: I’m talking about the west trail—the steep trail—that descends direct from the Round Cove Rd parking area. The lower portion is very steep, protected by many tree roots. When these roots become undermined and break, runaway erosion will begin and proceed swiftly. Filth from the parking area and dirty soil will spill into the pond. Eroding soil carries nutrients to the pond, which will promote the growth of toxic algae. We can stop it now with the cost of rope and a sign, or later at the cost of a hundred thousand dollars. If visitors insist on having a second pond trail, then we must reinforce it with wooden steps over the roots. Will you be part of the solution?

No comments:

Post a Comment