The Semi-Religious Experience of Walking the Stormwater Retention Pond

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4 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: CHN photo files

On the suburban development where I live there is a stormwater retention pond. It is ringed by a concrete path, a few benches, and black willow trees with their feet in the murky gray water. People from the nearby office park walk the pond during their lunch hour. The path has become a sort of contemplative labyrinth for me; my ritual, a semi-religious daily observance of urban nature. 

As a freelance writer, because I give myself an hour break for lunch, my walks tend to coincide with those of the office workers. We are all out there from 1-2 pm, M-F, and over time I’ve started to see familiar faces. I’ve even begun feeling comfortable enough to wave to them in a friendly way and make introductions. “Hi, I’m Elizabeth, I see you here walking all the time. What’s your name? Do you work around here?” For me, an introvert, this is a huge step toward building beloved community around an unloved space in the suburbs.

“Have you seen Walter, today?” I ask, and the stormwater retention walkers know that I am referring to a great blue heron with the long knock-kneed legs who reminds me of my grandfather, Walter. Walter makes his home on the pond.

“Last time I saw him, he was over by the water outflow culvert, catching bluegill,” says a woman who always wears a purple coat. Her name is Echo. She is a birder. When she’s not in the office.

“Walter has been the picture of stoicism, standing in the rain on one foot. He was miserable but going nowhere,” says Greg, who is a birder, too. At the office park he’s VP of something I didn’t quite catch when he told me. What I remembered about him is that he lent me his binoculars to look at the stormwater pond’s belted kingfisher.

“Ha,” I say. “‘Miserable but going nowhere.’ So relatable for the suburbs, right?”

I am prone to forget that there is Life here too. The wonderful Walt Whitman quote,
“Happiness, not in another place but this place … not for another hour, but this hour,” irritates me. I want Uncle Walt to be wrong. Like so many of us, I long, desperate for a golden age, a Shangri-La. But “What you seek is already here,” right?

*     *     *     *

The stormwater retention pond walkers and I share words like kingfisher, heron, and storm pulse, one of which recently filled the stormwater retention pond with overflow, stream-swept trash from all over Baltimore County. Everyone agreed that it was sad to see plastics on the pond’s surface. A used diaper. A Styrofoam cup from 7-11.

“Why hasn’t Styrofoam been outlawed,” someone asked.

No one mentioned organizing a cleanup. The pond didn’t belong to us—that’s how we felt about it then. It was just this depression in the earth in the suburbs that filled with water, built not for beauty but for use, to capture the rainwater that flows off the impervious surfaces off the office park and parking lot of a bank. That beauty and personal meaningfulness came later in mysterious ways.

We agreed that our little pond was scruffy, but an oasis. 

We admired the geese through Greg’s binoculars. I started keeping a diary on a pair of hooded mergansers, the female of which has a head of feathers like the Grumpy Cat meme Bad Hair Don’t Care, and I admire her ferocious attitude. I told my fellow stormwater retention pond walkers, “I’m going to call her St. Frances McDormand.” They know I can be counted on to say things like St. Frances McDormand.

I’m a familiar enough pond presence that my fellow walkers know when I’m not there, too. “I noticed you weren’t here during that cold snap of the cyclone bomb, Elizabeth. Are you a cold weenie? You missed seeing the geese trying to land on the ice. It was hilarious.” I admitted that I am a cold weenie.

The warm-up week after the bomb cyclone as I was walking the pond, admiring the smell of earth thawing, I noticed a couple I had not met before up ahead of me on the path who were scraping the concrete with garden hoes. They were ahead of me on the path is more than a physical description of their location. It seems spiritually important, even to a person such as me who does not like the word “spiritual,” although that’s changing, frankly, because of the stormwater pond.

The couple ahead of me was quite elderly and very industrious and wore matching windbreakers. Uniforms? Was it possible they were the landscaping crew hired by the large international bank that owned the pond land? I neared their clanging.  

“Are you the goose poop cleanup committee?” I asked. “Thank you so much,” I added, taking out my iPhone, eager to get on the Stormwater Retention Pond Meet Up Group, if there was one. “And who organized this clean up?” I continued.

The man said, “We just do this every once in a while. We like to walk here.” The woman leaned on her hoe. It was clear she wanted to get back to work—not gab with me.

“It’s easier to scoop when it’s fresh,” she said. I knew what she meant.

“I see,” I said. And I saw. Small mind versus large mind. Buddha mind. Christ mind. The angels of our better nature. Who cared who “owned” the pond?  THERE WAS NO COMMITTEE. They were beautifying it. They were doing the work, scraping the goose poop off the path. They were thinking of us.

Their impulse to selflessly care-take the pond made me feel bad about myself, and my small mind. I’d never even thought to offer up any kind of service. But today I am driving from the pond straight to Home Depot to get a garden tool for the purpose of tending with appreciation what little Eden there is in my life.

I still don’t feel that the pond belongs to me or anyone else. But perhaps my drive to Home Depot signals that I am beginning to belong to the pond. Watch out plastic. Be on alert Styrofoam. The pond has a new acolyte. My service of showing loving kindness is cleaning up after the geese.

  • Elizabeth Bastos

    Elizabeth Bastos is a freelance urban environmental writer mother-of-two in the Baltimore suburbs. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, McSweeney’s, and the Baltimore Sun. She is at work on her first book about the natural history of stormwater retention. 

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