Editor's note: This essay and photos by John Nichols were originally excerpted in the July 1992 issue of New Mexico Magazine from The Holiness of Water, a book that was planned to publish in 1993 as the third of a trilogy, which included The Sky's the Limit and Keep it Simple.
WHEN I WAS 5 and living in Montpelier, Vermont, I often visited a tiny pond in a meadow overlooking town. The Tadpole Pond. It had a few cattails, maybe a lily pad or two, lots of green algae. I was fascinated by the tadpoles, the dragonflies and darning needles, the water skeeters and other aquatic life. The pond was only 50 feet across, a mere saucer of water. But it teemed with life. And I loved the scale, which was just my size as a child…and has remained so ever since. I don’t know if that means I never grew up, or if I am simply a spirit who sees most clearly when infinity is contained in a grain of sand.
For many years I have been drawn to this small stock pond in the middle of a wide-open mesa. The shallow puddle of water fascinates me as much today as did that miniature Tadpole Pond in my youth. I love the isolation, the lack of trees and shadows and most vegetation. And especially I desire the scale. Such a small dab of water in the immense landscape is a potent metaphor, a wonderful tiny mirror that reflects the entire universe.
Usually this declivity holds no water. But then it rains. Next thing you know there’s a puddle. And a few cattle or ragtag horses trundle in to drink. A water truck might pump up the precious liquid to fill metal troughs in lambing camps a couple of miles away. But if you wander by at most times of the day, there’s not too much activity at the pond. Or at least not to the casual observer. But to me there’s always a feat of sensation and lively mood. Countless organisms that swim and fly and scamper and slither are drawn to the magic place.
Mud bordering the pond has many stories to tell. I see rabbit tracks, coyote paw prints and the hieroglyphics of little birds—homed larks, mostly. But sanderlings and killdeer have also been around. And avocets and phalaropes. If this pond holds water during the migration season, it draws in everything from hummingbirds to ibises, mallard ducks and goldeneye, and even geese upon occasion. If you sit real still at the edge of the water, nothing will be scared away.
Often the pond overflows in early springtime after the thaw. Three weeks later, the winds of April have almost emptied it out. Once I surprised a couple of antelope; they weren’t supposed to be here. I had not seen any for years.
Rattlesnakes come for the good hunting: Silky pocket mice and kangaroo rats abound. Last summer I almost stepped on a rattler, but nothing happened. I don’t much believe in karma, yet there’s a peace I always experience at this waterhole. I don’t feel like an intruder…and the snake was not disturbed.
On windy days the water froths like a furious tidbit of ocean. On quiet evenings it’s a placid as glass. If mosquitoes are being born it seems as if raindrops are falling on the pond. Nighthawks arrive, soundlessly gliding close to the surface, stoking up on bugs. Little bats flutter nervously back and forth. Doves land to drink prior to roosting.
I hear an owl. It is waiting for rabbits to emerge from the rock piles around the dam. Then, right before dark, coyotes make a brief racket. After that, hallowed silence reigns.
If you look closely, there is much activity in the water. Hundreds of tadpoles are metamorphosing furiously into spadefoot toads. Fairy shrimp zip all over the place. And clam shrimp, too, are hopping back and forth. The biggest predator is a guajalote, the newt stage of the tiger salamander.
Some of these critters wash down the arroyos. Others simple estivate in the dust for months, even year, until water arrives. As a kid I sent away for “sea monkeys”—remember them? They arrived in a packet like seeds; you sprinkled them in water and, presto! they came to life and began to swim—I watched, enthralled.
Same diff, out here at the stock pond…same kinds of creatures…same childlike delight.
I return to this puddle time and again. Always the experience is unique, there’s never the same mood twice. It can be so cold I almost freeze to death, or so windy I hear nothing but a howl. Rain, lightning, massive clouds, incredible sunsets—all is made special by the silvery coin of water, this temporary puddle. Bottom line, it is extra precious, of course, because it is so ephemeral.
A simple splash stands out. A rainbow ears added cachet when the pot of gold is desert moisture. Even an old bone in the muck is more important, or somehow made more relevant by proximity to the water. When the moon rises, I hold my breath.
In the end this is a spare and beautiful place where the mesa casts a spell. Always, the pond evaporates and disappears. Always, it comes again, so fragile, so absolutely eternal.
I am deeply moved by this small holiness of water.