The Whiteness of the Weasel (Part 2)

 Photo credit: animals

Photo credit: animals

I have always hated killing animals, including rodents. This aversion has been a longtime city-dweller’s luxury and hypocritical besides: although I was completely vegetarian during my twenties and early thirties, I now eat meat once or twice per week.

Photo credit: "D.R." on

Photo credit: “D.R.” on

Rodents aren’t on the menu in our household, but during the 1960s and 70s, when I lived in Peru off and on for almost three years, I periodically sampled picante de cuy—spicy grilled guinea pig—which is standard fare in the indigenous cultures of the Andes. But I can also recall feeling deep sadness from the age of five and older when I found dead mice in the snap-traps that my parents had set in our family home. The sleek, glossy fur … The slim tails …  The tiny paws with those perfectly formed, finger-like claws …  The shiny, midnight-black eyes …  Killing these animals seemed an injustice.

2434After graduating from college in 1975, I shared a thin-walled, drafty little bungalow with my girlfriend at the time. Judith and I were avid yogis. One of the precepts we followed was ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence. In addition to being strict vegetarians, we expressed our commitment to ahimsic principles by avoiding any actions that might result in the death of another sentient being. Even flies venturing into our little house benefited from our pacific attitudes: we caught them in jars and released them outside. The notion of setting a spring trap to kill mice was unacceptable. How, then, could we cope with the vermin that raided our pantry, scattered droppings throughout the house, skittered across the floor at night, and at one point even scampered over us in our bed? The infestation was intolerable—but so was the notion of slaughtering the creatures that caused it. Nowadays it’s not difficult to purchase a non-lethal mousetrap, but no manufacturer had marketed anything of the sort back then. Even the Havahart company, well known for making traps designed to catch raccoons, squirrels, and other animals, produced nothing at the time small enough for catching mice. Undeterred, I purchased the smallest Havahart trap available, which was constructed of steel wires too widely spaced to constrain a mouse, and I used surgical sutures to stitch pieces of window screen around the whole device. Judith and I then proceeded to catch a shocking number of mice, sometimes two or three per day, sixteen to eighteen per week, which we deported to a park five or six blocks from our cottage. Problem solved; karma unsullied.

 Photo credit: Havahart

Photo credit: Havahart

The modus I employed decades later as a family man battling squirrels and mice in suburban New Jersey riffed on the earlier methodology. Squirrels proved to be manageable invaders—easy to catch, easy to deport to a nearby nature preserve. The result was a war of attrition, not of victory, but I prevailed against my foes. Attempting to spare mice through the use of nonlethal mousetraps, however, often produced frustrating outcomes. Tiny creatures don’t last long without food and water. More than once I found my quarry alive but debilitated inside the trap: terrified, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, fur spiky and damp with urine. Sometimes I would forget about the traps altogether, which led now and then to my discovering a dead mouse that had surely died a slow, painful death rather than a quick, painless one.

And the new critter—the snow-white rodent that suddenly appeared in our house on Hyland Hill? How, I wondered, should I respond to her arrival?

 Photo credit:

Photo credit:

A few days after spotting this invader in the garage, I learned from a little Internet research that I’d seen an ermine. This species, also known as the short-tailed weasel, is classified as Mustela erminea and, according to one guide I consulted, “is distinguished from the least weasel (Mustela nivalis) by its larger size and longer tail [and its] prominent black tip.” (Is there a most weasel, too?) Dark and two-toned in warm weather—sandy brown on the back and head, creamy tan on the chest and belly—the ermine’s fur turns pure white in winter. This snowy coat makes the animal’s large, round eyes even more striking than they would look otherwise. The species inhabits territory spanning most of the North American continent. “As with the least weasel, mouse-like rodents predominate in the stoat’s diet,” the guide’s author notes, using the British name for the same creature. “However, unlike the least weasel, which almost exclusively feeds on small voles, the stoat regularly preys on larger rodent species.” Was it possible, then, that because of the ermine’s dietary preferences, any effort I might make to trap and deport ours (I have already started to regard her as “ours”) would be counterproductive? Far from infesting the house, she might be a useful ally in holding down other rodents. Some members of the weasel family will even attack and kill rats. These aspects of the situation suggested that peaceful co-existence might serve both the human and mustelan species residing on our property. On the other hand, weasels burrowing through the walls could easily damage the expensive insulation that we’ve installed to keep the house warm in winter. How, then, should Edith and I cope with the dilemma we faced?

 Photo credit:

Photo credit:

Ice of the Month Club – Shipment #4

The bad news first: Hyland Hill is running out of ice. Spring creeps north, the days grow longer, the temperature soars each day into the 20’s. There’s still at least three feet of snow spread out on the meadow, but our house and our outbuildings have shed their great racks of icicles. Although the snow will linger for a few more weeks, the ice will soon be gone.

The good news: we still have one last selection to ship. Stockpiled a few weeks ago, this is an icy fringe that Edith and I found covering our raspberry patch one morning. Crystals had formed overnight, thousands of them, all somehow aligned so abundantly and evenly that they resemble an infinity of pure white thorns.

Farewell (and good riddance), winter. Welcome (and please hurry up!), spring.

IMG_2450 - Version 3

Ice of the Month Club – Shipment #1

Happy New Year!  Here’s hoping that 2015 brings happiness and good health to all of you.

I’m pleased to report that by visiting this blog, you are automatically enrolled in the Ice of the Month Club.  Each and every month all winter, you will receive a shipment of rare, exotic ice from Hyland Hill.  Even if you live in an unpleasantly temperate environment—our friends and family members in Los Angeles, Miami, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Nairobi immediately come to mind—you can now share in the bounty of ice that Edith and I harvest so easily here in Vermont.  (As I write this post, the temperature is 5 degrees above zero Fahrenheit.  Please restrain your envy.)

So, as an end-of-year treat, here is Shipment #1:

ice #1

This “lace” of crystals (approximately ten inches wide) was part of an icy curtain that hung from the sixteen-foot width of porch roof, then gradually thinned over a period of several days, then simply vanished.


Henry_David_ThoreauWalden Pond, the most famous small lake in the United States, rests among low hills just two miles south of Concord, Massachusetts. Walden is pretty enough in its own right but celebrated mostly as the site of Henry David Thoreau’s two-year residence (1845-47) in a rustic hut near the pond’s south shore. I’ve wanted to visit this place ever since I first read Thoreau’s iconic book, Walden, during my teens. Somehow I never got around to making the trip. My reasons were the usual suspects:  managing a career, raising a family, not having time to visit Boston. I also held off because I worried that the reality of Walden could never live up to my images from Walden. I’d read in magazine articles that the lake is now part of  Walden State Park—a “multi-purpose natural resource area”—which immediately conjured images of backed-up traffic, crowds of tourists, and no chance for even a moment’s peace.

Late this past winter, though, Edith and I took a chance and visited the pond. Our trip fell mid-week in late March. That time of year is still winter in Massachusetts, and this past winter has been harsh throughout the Northeast. Edith and I hoped that the time of year would work to our advantage: fewer people than usual would be visiting this shrine to the iconic philosopher, poet, and patron saint of America’s environmental movement. So, on a frigid, windy morning, we left Waltham, west of Boston, where Edith had been working with some executives, and we drove the short distance to Concord.

Walden shore #1

We arrived to find the lake still mostly frozen and the shore completely deserted. Enormous plates of ice—probably five or six inches thick—covered almost the entire surface of the water.

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Walden ice #1

Close to the shore itself, smaller slabs of ice floated close together, most of them still fitting like the pieces of a puzzle. The strangest aspect of this scene wasn’t visual but auditory: bizarre grunt- and groan-like noises reaching us from across the pond. These sounded almost as if some kind of huge lake-dwelling creature—a Loch Ness-like monster?!—were calling out from under the ice. As we listened, however, Edith figured out the source of these eerie groans. The large plates of ice, shoved by the wind, were bumping into one another. The impact of ice against ice created the beastly noises. But even as we moved on, we found it difficult not to imagine the pond as a living creature.

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Walden ice #2

The ice right along the shore was much more delicate . . . and silent.

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Walden shore #2

After a half-mile walk, we reached Thoreau’s Cove, the inlet in the pond’s shoreline where Henry fished, read, and pondered the universe.

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HDT house site

The site of Thoreau’s hut lies about a hundred yards up the slope from the lake. Currently forested, this plot of land was open farmland back in the mid-19th Century, which is why Thoreau could raise the crops he writes about in his seventh chapter, “The Bean Field.”  He constructed the little house himself out of materials costing $28.12.  Now long gone, this shack provided him with the place to pursue his goals at Walden Pond:  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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EP at house replica

Later, following a leisurely walk back to the main beach, Edith and I visited a replica of Thoreau’s hut that The Thoreau Society has constructed near the parking lot. Inside we saw a wood stove, a firewood box, a cot, a desk, and two chairs. This spartan realm is where Henry pursued his studies, received occasional visitors, slept, ate, read, and wrote the first draft of Walden. The entire living space is about the size of a medium-sized utility shed.

Writing about the lake and its setting in his book, Thoreau states that “The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur.” True on all counts. Edith and I both felt delighted to be there—and, by sheer luck, to have the lake, the shore, and Thoreau’s old stomping grounds to ourselves for two chilly, windy, exhilarating hours.

Plop! (Part 2)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s
inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

––Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Last summer, the hottest ever recorded throughout the United States and a time of severe drought in most of the country, brings less drastic but still unpleasant hot weather to Vermont.  Edith and I find the heat tiresome despite knowing how much worse the situation is nearly everywhere else.  Late in August, however, the dry warmth gives me an idea.  Why not simply drain the pond and leave it empty for a while? water plants The algae would die in the dry heat.  That in turn would solve most of the problem––or would at least roll back the process of eutrophication.  When I cross paths with Jeff Moran again, I present this scenario for his input.  “Yeah, you could do that,” he states in his gravelly baritone.  He even offers an approach that would be simpler and cheaper than using the rented pump I’ve proposed for managing the task.  “Just put a one-inch hose into the pond, start a gravity feed, and siphon the water over the edge and down the hillside.”

That’s what I set out to do.  At the local hardware store I purchase three twenty-foot lengths of flexible plastic hose and some coupling devices to link the pieces.  My plan:  immerse the hose in the pond to fill it, drag one end up the bank, and throw that end over the down-hill side to get the water flowing.  In practice, the task isn’t quite so simple.  The pond’s shore is steep and slippery.  Just reaching the water’s edge is much trickier than I’ve expected.  I could easily slide into the pond and have trouble getting out.  Rather than risk a messy and potentially dangerous situation, I find a long branch, tie it to one end of the hose, throw the rest of the coil into the pond, and use the branch as a handle to dip the open end.  By repeatedly scooping water into the end, I plan to fill the hose until it sinks altogether.  hoseThen I’ll cap the open end with one hand, drag it up the hillside, fling it over the edge, and start the flow.  But this approach turns out to be far more difficult than I’ve expected.  Filling the hose is hard.  Dragging it up the slope lets most of the water drain back into the pond.
I never succeed in starting the flow.

After brooding over this initial fiasco,
I abandon the effort and go to bed.  An insight dawns as I fall asleep:  I’ll run a garden hose down to the pond.  Using it to fill the exhaust hose will be quick work.  How quick?  The next morning, all I have to do is pirate every length of every garden hose from every part of the property, purchase another hundred feet of hose from the local hardware store, connect all these separate segments, and run the assemblage downhill from the house to the pond.  Not so quick after all.  My initial experiments are promising, however; filling the siphon hose takes only about two or three minutes.  The problem is what happens next:  getting one end of the hose up and over the pond’s rim without letting the water inside it drain back into the pond.  Trying this on my own doesn’t work, so Edith and I attempt a two-person gambit.  She stands near the pond; I stand near the edge of the hillside.  Holding the hose to form a large U, we succeed in filling it.  Edith then throws her end of the hose into the pond at exactly the same moment that I throw my end over the hillside.  Water gushes out of the outlet and down the hill.   Eureka! . . . sort of.  After a minute or two, the flow diminishes to a trickle.  The trickle soon stops.  We try the sequence again.  No go.  We try yet again.  No go.

Plans A and B have now achieved the same result:  nothing.  The pond continues to fill from the spring and drain from the outlet.  A few minnows dart about near the shore.  Now and then a frog belches somewhere along the shore.  Dragonflies hover among the irises.

dragon fly 2

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Months pass.  Summer eases into autumn.  A book that Edith and I acquire—Tim Matson’s Earth Ponds:  The Country Pond Maker’s Guide to Building, Maintenance, and Restoration—confirms that our concern about eutrophication is valid and that attempting to slow the process will be worthwhile.  “Taking the water out of a pond can be an effective vegetation control method,” Matson writes in a chapter about controlling weeds.  “Algae and aquatic weeds cannot live without water, and when the pond is dried out, much of the vegetation dies.”  Even a partial drawdown can make a difference.  But Matson goes on to state that algae and weeds “are more effectively eradicated after complete drainage during both warm and cold weather.”  [1]

These comments inspire a further gambit.  Mid-November, during an unusual dry spell, I decide to roll out the artillery.  From a local rental joint I acquire an industrial-strength pump for the weekend before Thanksgiving. wacker It’s a Wacker Neuson—a gasoline-powered diaphragm pump that, in the words of the manufacturer, “can move anything that flows.”  Most often used for draining construction sites, this machine is probably underpowered for drawing down a pond, but running it for a few days seems a worthwhile experiment.  I tow it down the hillside in a little wagon hitched to our Husqvarna lawnmower.  I set it up with the twelve-foot “hard hose” immersed in the pond and the thirty-foot canvas outlet hose draped over the pond’s southern rim.  Starting the pump without difficulty, I watch with satisfaction as it begins to work.  The black rubber intake hose, immersed, jolts in the pond from the force of the pump’s suction.  The outlet hose quivers and pulses as water heads uphill and over the edge.  I walk up to the rim and see the nozzle gushing onto the slope.  Surely this device will make quick work of the task.

Six hours later, I can tell that my optimism has been foolish.  The surface of the pond has dropped by only five or six inches.  While it’s true that the circumference of the pond will gradually constrict, accelerating the decline in the water level, it’s also true that the process is taking much longer than I had expected.  I have a belated impulse to estimate the pond’s volume.autumn pond  I find some calculators on the Internet and quickly run the numbers.   The answer:  roughly half a million gallons.  An old pump like the Wacker Neuson can move about eighty gallons per minute.  Running twenty-four hours a day, the machine would take more than four days to eject half a million gallons.  But I can’t run the pump all day and night; limited daylight in November will give me only nine hours.  Sixteen days of pumping is more like what I’ll face.  The pump’s rental fee is forty-eight dollars per day.  This will be a ridiculous expense.  I conclude that the experiment has been worthwhile, but less to remove the water from the pond than to drain the delusions from my own mind.

Plans A, B, and C have now failed.  I resort to Plan D:  I give up.

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My mind is like the autumn moon,
As fresh and pure as a jade pond.
But nothing really compares with it –
Tell me, how can I explain?

—Han-shan (T’ang Era,
8th-9th century C.E.) [2]


Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Photo credit: “A Man with a Camera,”

 Timothy Egan comments on this Chan (Chinese Zen) poem:

The moon and pond each carry both general and Buddhist associations. . . .  The moon and pond form a polarity with the multivalent enlightenment message.  On one level, the bright round moon obviously alludes to the light of prajñā wisdom that dispels ignorance. . . .  The shining jade pond is a combination metaphor:  as the Awakening of Faith has it, still water is the enlightened mind, revealed when the wind (of ignorance) dies and the waves (modes of mind) cease . . . ; the water then becomes a bright mirror, reflecting things as they really are. . . . [2]

Does this commentary, or the poetry behind the commentary, or the sutras behind the poetry, suggest that I—or anyone else—will benefit more fully from meditating at a pond’s edge, or by meditating upon the pond itself, rather than by focusing on a less beautiful place?  Am I more likely to advance toward insight while meditating there than, say, near the compost heap . . . or in the basement?  Is a locus of beauty and calm inherently more spiritual than a plain, uninteresting place?  Is it possible, even, that the compost heap or the basement would be a better bet as I attempt to disengage from the senses during meditation?

To all of these questions I can only answer:  I don’t know.  I do believe that attending to the pond is worthwhile in its own right.  Perceiving the pond as a locus of meditation inspires me to protect it, and perhaps some day the pond will return the favor.


*     *     *


[1] Matson, Tim.  Earth Ponds:  The Country Pond Maker’s Guide to Building, Maintenance, and Restoration, 3rd edition.  Woodstock, Vermont:  Countryman Press, 2012.

[2] Egan, Charles.  Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown:  Poems by Zen Monks of China. New York:  Columbia University Press, 2010.

Plop! (Part 1)

The property on Hyland Hill includes a little pond.   Forty or fifty feet in diameter, it’s located in a hollow halfway down the slope right where the meadow meets the woods.  A rivulet keeps it filled; an outlet notched into the opposite rim empties the overflow through a narrow trench and down the steep hillside.   Though man-made, the pond is so well landscaped that it looks completely natural.  The water and the setting are lovely in their own right, and this tiny ecosystem is congenial to wildlife that wouldn’t be present otherwise––minnows, peepers, dragonflies, and frogs.  The pond seems to have been present here forever.   Its presence out of sight from the house makes it feel separate and mysterious, a realm apart from both the meadow and the forest.

pond 01

There’s one other aspect of this place that draws me.  When Edith and I took the introductory ramble that first sparked our desire to purchase this property, I immediately perceived the pond as a splendid spot for a meditation shack.  I could go down there daily six months of the year to sit in stillness.  I could meditate in a quintessential Buddhist setting.  Of an evening, I could contemplate the moon.

Even during our first summer on Hyland Hill, however, we decide that the pond seems sick.  The water has grown turbid; the smell is heavy.  A few feet below the surface, wispy aquatic plants have bloomed in great profusion.  Wild irises mass along the far shore like tourists waiting on the dock for the Nantucket ferry. pond 03 Frogs are clearly thriving in that environment, but I see no signs of the trout and perch that Paul and Doris stocked during their years of ownership.  When autumn arrives, maple and ash leaves stream down from the nearby trees, float on the surface for a week, then sink out of sight.  I gradually begin to grasp what I’m witnessing.  These changes are all part of eutrophication, a natural sequence of changes that will gradually fill in, dry out, and convert the pond into just another part of the meadow.  The pond isn’t really sick at all; it’s just . . . changing.  From Edith’s and my standpoint, however––the standpoint of human beings intent on having an attractive pond on their property––the process amounts to a terminal disease.  It’s advancing rapidly.  By our second summer on Hyland Hill, the water has grown dense with aquatic plants and smells more and more fetid.

The issue quickly moves beyond diagnosis to treatment.  We consider the options.  Chemicals are one possibility.  Algaecides would quickly kill the bloom, but they would also sterilize the water, kill most other plants and many animals present, and potentially endanger people and creatures downstream of the outflow.  The state of Vermont has rightly banned this type of treatment.  What, then, are the alternatives?  I pose this question to Jeff Moran, the local excavation contractor who dug the pond for a previous owner back in the 1970’s.  “Well, you could always muck it out,” he tells me.  What would that involve?  “You’d pump out the pond and get an excavator down there to scrape out the plants.  Then you’d let the rain fill it up again.”  The cost?  “Oh, maybe a couple thousand dollars.”

Other projects immediately take precedence.  Edith and I have at least three dozen tasks on our list that have priority over spending $2,000 to upgrade the pond.

Yet the situation continues to deteriorate.  By late summer, the water has turned a hazy green-brown.   Worse, it looks less like water than like a vastly intricate mass of vegetation, soft and filigreed, with little more than a thin, flat, transparent surface encasing it.  To call this a dying place would be inaccurate.  It’s very much alive.  Mosquitoes, water striders, dragonflies, and other insects clearly thrive here.  Minnows dart about in the shallows.  Frogs reveal their presence by their calls—cut cut cut cut—and by plopping into the pond abruptly when I approach the cattails.  But these critters are clear signs of a transformation that we still hope to forestall and, if possible, to reverse.

pond 05

And so the question becomes: what should we do, and by what means, to preserve the pond?