Beauty and Decay

When I get back from my morning walk, I usually walk around the backyard to see what’s blooming.

This morning, it was my water lily.

I planted it in the “deep” end of my pond on the first day of June, and here we are 7 weeks later, and it is now blooming. It was a new plant for me, so I didn’t know what to expect. I think it’s lovely and took a picture to share with the people who have been following along on this wildlife pond journey of mine on social media.

Water lilies produce bunches of leaves – that is one reason we water gardeners plant them. The profusion of leaves covers the water surface, giving the wildlife places to hide, creating shade and thus cooling the water. When I planted this lily, it had five leaves. Seven weeks later, it has dozens.

The leaves don’t last forever; inevitably, some of them are dying, even as more spring up, hydra-like, to replace them. In the bottom right corner of the picture from this morning is a leaf on its way out.

I played around with the framing for a moment, looking for the best angle for the picture. I debated putting my phone down, getting my secateurs, and clipping off the offending leaf.

But in the end, I left it. It doesn’t make it a better picture, but it does make it a more honest one.

There are entire books, courses, and even schools of thought around the decision of what an artist should or should not include in their depictions of reality. If you photograph a beautiful woman with a pimple on the end of her nose, do you include the pimple? It depends on the artist and what message they are trying to convey to their viewers.

If you want to highlight the beauty of the subject, perhaps you edit it out. If you want to convey stark reality, perhaps you leave it in. If you are selling the photo to the woman herself, you definitely edit it out. If the woman is your enemy, you leave it alone. It’s all curation, in the end.

But these days, we are all artists. We take dozens of pictures a week – some of us, dozens of pictures a day. And it is easier than ever to get other people to see the things we make. And for many of us, the subject we are making the decision about how to edit and curate for consumption is our very lives.

So, we learn how to angle our hips to look more “photogenic.” We crop the broom leaning against the wall out of the picture. We clone stamp the floor in the photo of our living room, editing out the lamp cord. We pick up the floor around the cat before we take the “candid” shot of them being cute. We take selfies from about six inches above eye level to minimize our jowls.

Again, these are artistic decisions, not moral ones. I don’t think you are a horrible person if you like how you look better when your leg is slightly bent.

But there is a thing sociologists talk about called our “peer group.” It means the people we surround ourselves with. And a whole lot of our happiness depends on our peer group.

If you make $30,000 a year, and all your friends make $45,000 a year, you will, by and large, be less happy than you would be if all your friends also made $30,000. We compare ourselves to others in our peer group. It’s unavoidable.

When our peer group consisted of people we see in our daily lives, the facade was more apparent. We saw the beautiful family at church, but we also saw the argument in the parking lot. But these days, we only see the staged photo of the family walking into the sanctuary in their Easter finery that was posted on Instagram.

A result of this, over time, is that we experience a type of dysphoria where we are convinced that everyone has a better life than we do. They don’t have stretch marks or a spouse that forgets to take out the trash or weeds in their flower beds or underwear with stains or saggy elastic. They don’t have arguments with their partners, unpaid bills, overdrafted accounts, or ever have to make decisions on whether to buy the cheap mayonnaise in the grocery store. Nope. Just us, in our pathetic, small, miserable lives.

So I left the dying leaf in the picture. Because decay always accompanies beauty, even when we can’t see it.

But there is another reason I left the dead leaf in the picture. One that is actually even, I think, more important. Because while decay always accompanies beauty, the inverse is also true: Beauty always accompanies decay.

In an abandoned building filled with rot and ruin, you can find bird nests and intricate spider webs that glisten in the morning dew. In overgrown fields, the wildflowers bloom. In the prison camps, strangers gave away their last scraps of food to people in worse shape than even they were.

This, also, is a decision. To seek to include the beauty in our depictions of reality. Because it is assuredly there. It is the opposite of curation, a sort of anti-curation, an idea that is so rare that we don’t actually have a word for it in English.

It is more an orientation than anything else – a decision made in advance, based on the sure knowledge that beauty always accompanies decay. Beauty is as pervasive to reality as gravity. When you know it’s there, you can find it. In the midst of all the pain is a glimmer of hope, of life, of persistent goodness that underlies all of creation, and that is an essential part of its being, as critical to its existence as hydrogen is to water.

And all we have to do is decide to look for it.

The Wildlife Pond

So, I’ve talked around it, and even talked about building it, but not specifically about the reasoning behind it – we now have a wildlife pond in our backyard.

I grew up in a place where ponds were large – a ¼ acre or more – and muddy and where one fished for catfish and where the cows drank. This is not that sort of pond.

Neither is it a koi pond, where exotic goldfish swim.

It is a pond designed for frogs. And dragonflies. And birds. It is, when all is said and done, a wildlife pond. No other project I have done has elicited so many comments and questions, so I will attempt to answer some of them here.

Why did I build a wildlife pond?

Amphibians are in trouble. Their habitat is in decline, and their populations are plummeting. So I decided to make them some habitat to go along with the habitat I am already building for birds. And speaking of birds – they are more drawn to water than they are to feeders, so that is a bonus. And since I’m building a habitat for all the animals that live on my property, of which I am one, the fact that I love moving water is not incidental to the decision.

There are a lot of resources out there if you want to build a fish pond in your backyard. There are a lot of resources if you want to build a fountain. But as I researched wildlife ponds, nearly every single thing I could find supposed you lived in the UK. Apparently, wildlife ponds are a big thing there. So I had to do a lot of translating as to climate and so on. This post is my attempt to explain how I did it, and my reasoning behind some of the decisions I made.

It’s six feet wide and ten feet long and is 4 inches deep at its shallowest point and 18 inches deep at its deepest. Much like a swimming pool, there is a shallow end and a deep end. Your pond needs to be deep enough so that in hot climates (like mine) the water will stay cool in the deep parts. If you had fish, it would need to be deeper, but I don’t have fish, nor do I plan to add them. But more on that later.

The shallow end is for birds – it slopes from zero to 4 inches deep, with rocks here and there in the shallow end for the birds to light on. The robins, doves, and finches use it daily for bathing. The slope is also important for frogs and other critters to get in and out of the water – like a beach of sorts. Almost all the frog spawn we get is in the shallow end.

I dug the whole pond in an afternoon after it had rained and the ground was soft. We have clay here, so it was a pain, but the hole held its shape. I don’t know how one manages in sandy soil. It’s important that the perimeter of the hole be level – this meant I took some of the soil I dug up and used it to build a berm on the low side.

After digging the hole and tamping it firm with a tamper, I put down pond liner underlayment and then a 45 mil EPDM liner. This was by far the most expensive part of the build. There are cheaper liners than EPDM, but it is the one that professionals use and is reliable and durable. It has a 50-year life expectancy, which is 20 years longer than mine at current rates, so we should be good.

Some places will tell you to use old carpet or sand as underlayment, but underlayment is cheap, and this is part you don’t want to get wrong. The underlayment protects the liner, and I don’t want to deal with punctures.

After the liner is in – a pain, and you can probably use another person’s help here – you just add water, and then the weight of the water will press the liner into the creases of the hole. You will want to get in the hole as it fills, so you can shift things around as it fills. What sort of water you use is a matter of choice – I used tap water from the hose, but if you do this, know you need to let it sit a few days to let the chlorine dissipate before you add plants or anything. Some people just let the rainwater fill the pond, which is probably best, but I would still fill it the first time with tap water to set the liner. You could then siphon the water out and let it fill with rainwater if that is important to you.

At this point, you want to take a break anyway. Let the chlorine dissipate, and let the liner get settled. You can use this time to order your plants and find a source for rocks.

When we lived in North Carolina, rocks were everywhere – for free. I planted an apple tree once and unearthed five or six bowling-ball-sized rocks in the process. But this land was once prairie, and any rocks here were transported here. So, I went to the expensive landscape rock place and looked at rocks that cost $700 a ton. Then I went to the place that sells gravel and bought limestone rip-rap for $45 a ton instead. I ended up using a ton and a half of limestone rocks, ranging in size from roughly an apple to two or three the size of a duffle bag.

There are lots of ways to edge a pond, but I like rocks, and since this was close to the house, I liked that rocks were clean and easy to do and that they would create hiding places for amphibians and the green anole lizards we have everywhere here.

Placing the rocks is more art than science: Trim the liner to about six inches beyond the hole’s edge, then place rocks around the inside of the hole against the walls, as if you are lining the hole with rocks. This creates pockets where tadpoles will hide. Then place rocks around the perimeter to mark the transition and to hold the liner in place. Big rocks first, then smaller ones, then finally get some bags of gravel to fill in the remaining spaces. My liner is invisible because it’s completely covered with rocks. This keeps the liner from getting UV damaged, keeps the pond cooler, and also looks much more natural.

Everyone asks about mosquitos since we don’t have fish, and we use a 3-part strategy to prevent them: We have moving water, we plant for dragonflies, and as a failsafe, we use mosquito dunks. Mosquitos need still water, so we bought a simple pump and spitter that turns all the water in the pond over once per hour. This also makes for lovely sounds and is visually interesting.

Dragonflies showed up on the second day, and have been here ever since. They eat tons of mosquitos. And dunks are floating cakes made of bacteria that kill mosquito larvae and nothing else – we replace them monthly and they cost pennies.

We don’t have fish because they eat amphibian eggs and they poop – a lot. The nitrogen in the poop causes all sorts of filtration problems. People who have koi ponds spend thousands of dollars and lots of time filtering the poop out of their ponds. And koi are not endangered, but frogs are. So no fish.

A wildlife pond needs plants – preferably native ones. You want 60% of the surface of the pond to be covered with plants. This is a goal – right now I have swampwort and watercress and rush and papyrus and Louisiana Iris and water lilies growing in the pond, and canna and daylilies growing on the edges. I have ordered some more plants – If there is a downside, it is that pond plants are hard to find in most nurseries. Had I planned ahead, I could have had the plants lined up in advance.

The plants provide shade, habitat for the wildlife, food for the wildlife, and also make it look nice, which is also important to me. A pond is a whole new ecosystem, and it all plays a role.

I built a small landing pad patio beside the pond, so I can sit next to it in the afternoon and watch the birds bathe and hear the soothing sounds of the water. At night, the frogs sing, and I have hundreds of tadpoles zipping about in the water. Lizards sun themselves on the rocks, and in the morning, I walk the edges, looking for frog eggs that were laid overnight. And watching the birds bathe is pure joy.

It’s my favorite addition to my garden, and I wish I had done it years ago. The total cost was around $800, and it took a month of nights and weekends to do, but I probably could have done the whole thing in 3 days with planning.

If you have any questions, put them in the comments and I will try to answer them.


Yesterday, I moved a ton and a half of rocks. By hand. Twice.

I loaded them in the truck. Unloaded them from the truck. Put them in a wheelbarrow, and moved them to the backyard. Then moved them into and around the new wildlife pond I’m building. I bet I touched each rock 5 times, at least.

I turn 50 next week, and I feel every single one of those years right now, and a few more on top of that.

Here’s a picture of some of them. The can of beans is for scale.

So, about this pond. It’s small – roughly 6×10. It varies from 4 to 16 inches in depth and is lined with an EPDM liner, and then covered with rocks on top of that. I have a water spitter that looks like a frog, and a small pump that stirs the water up to keep the mosquitos under control (Mosquitos only lay eggs in still water). Also, mosquito dunks are helpful, too.

But it takes rocks. Lots of rocks.

The shallow spots are for the birds – I have already seen 3 robins bathing there, just this weekend – and for the amphibians. At night I hear the frogs singing, and I already have frog spawn among the rocks. I still need more gravel around the edges, and then I need to finish landscaping around it, but it’s getting there. That is an in-progress picture, from earlier today.

Also, the homemade baffle I made for the bird feeder was thwarted by the squirrels. So I broke down and bought a baffle, which has worked well for 5 days now.

So, that’s really it on the half-acre this week. I’m beat and am ready to take some Tylenol and go to bed.