The pond, the delight of my early childhood, is still a sight
whereof my old eyes never tire. What animation in that verdant
world! On the warm mud of the edges, the frog's little tadpole
basks and frisks in its black legions; down in the water, the
orange-bellied newt steers his way slowly with the broad rudder of
his flat tail; among the reeds are stationed the flotillas of the
caddis worms, half protruding from the
r tubes, which are now a
tiny bit of stick and again a turret of little shells.
In the deep places, the water beetle dives, carrying with him his
reserves of breath: an air bubble at the tip of the wing cases and,
under the chest, a film of gas that gleams like a silver
breastplate; on the surface, the ballet of those shimmering pearls,
the whirligigs, turns and twists about; hard by there skims the
unsubmersible troop of the pond skaters, who glide along with side
strokes similar to those which the cobbler makes when sewing.
Here are the water boatmen, who swim on their backs with two oars
spread cross-wise, and the flat water scorpions; here, squalidly
clad in mud, is the grub of the largest of our dragonflies, so
curious because of its manner of progression: it fills its hinder
parts, a yawning funnel, with water, spurts it out again and
advances just so far as the recoil of its hydraulic cannon.
The mollusks abound, a peaceful tribe. At the bottom, the plump
river snails discreetly raise their lid, opening ever so little the
shutters of their dwelling; on the level of the water, in the
glades of the aquatic garden, the pond snails--Physa, Limnaea and
Planorbis--take the air. Dark leeches writhe upon their prey, a
chunk of earthworm; thousands of tiny, reddish grubs, future
mosquitoes, go spinning around and twist and curve like so many
Yes, a stagnant pool, though but a few feet wide, hatched by the
sun, is an immense world, an inexhaustible mine of observation to
the studious man and a marvel to the child who, tired of his paper
boat, diverts his eyes and thoughts a little with what is happening
in the water. Let me tell what I remember of my first pond, at a
time when ideas began to dawn in my seven-year-old brain.
How shall a man earn his living in my poor native village, with its
inclement weather and its niggardly soil? The owner of a few acres
of grazing land rears sheep. In the best parts, he scrapes the
soil with the swing plow; he flattens it into terraces banked by
walls of broken stones. Pannierfuls of dung are carried up on
donkey-back from the cowshed. Then, in due season, comes the
excellent potato, which, boiled and served hot in a basket of
plaited straw, is the chief stand-by in winter.
Should the crop exceed the needs of the household, the surplus goes
to feed a pig, that precious beast, a treasure of bacon and ham.
The ewes supply butter and curds; the garden boasts cabbages,
turnips and even a few hives in a sheltered corner. With wealth
like that one can look fate in the face.
But we, we have nothing, nothing but the little house inherited by
my mother and its adjoining patch of garden. The meager resources
of the family are coming to an end. It is time to see to it and
that quickly. What is to be done? That is the stern question
which father and mother sat debating one evening.
Hop-o'-my-Thumb, hiding under the woodcutter's stool, listened to
his parents overcome by want. I also, pretending to sleep, with my
elbows on the table, listen not to blood curdling designs, but to
grand plans that set my heart rejoicing. This is how the matter
stands: at the bottom of the village, near the church, at the spot
where the water of the large roofed spring escapes from its
underground weir and joins the brook in the valley, an enterprising
man, back from the war, has set up a small tallow factory. He
sells the scrapings of his pans, the burnt fat, reeking of candle
grease, at a low price. He proclaims these wares to be excellent
for fattening ducks.
"Suppose we bred some ducks," says mother. "They sell very well in
town. Henri would mind them and take them down to the brook."
"Very well," says father, "let's breed some ducks. There may be
difficulties in the way; but we'll have a try."
That night, I had dreams of paradise: I was with my ducklings, clad
in their yellow suits; I took them to the pond, I watched them have
their bath, I brought them back again, carrying the more tired ones
in a basket.
A month or two after, the little birds of my dreams were a reality.
There were twenty-four of them. They had been hatched by two hens,
of whom one, the big, black one, was an inmate of the house, while
the other was borrowed from a neighbor.
To bring them up, the former is sufficient, so careful is she of
her adopted family. At first, everything goes perfectly: a tub
with two fingers' depth of water serves as a pond. On sunny days,
the ducklings bathe in it under the anxious eye of the hen.
A fortnight later, the tub is no longer enough. It contains
neither cresses crammed with tiny shellfish nor worms and tadpoles,
dainty morsels both. The time has come for dives and hunts amid
the tangle of the water weeds; and for us the day of trouble has
also come. True, the miller, down by the brook, has fine ducks,
easy and cheap to bring up; the tallow smelter, who has extolled
his burnt fat so loudly, has some as well, for he has the advantage
of the waste water from the spring at the bottom of the village;
but how are we, right up there, at the top, to procure aquatic
sports for our broods? In summer, we have hardly water to drink!
Near the house, in a freestone recess, a scanty source trickles
into a basin made in the rock. . Four or five families have, like
ourselves, to draw their water there with copper pails. By the
time that the schoolmaster's donkey has slaked her thirst and the
neighbors have taken their provision for the day, the basin is dry.
We have to wait for four-and-twenty hours for it to fill. No, this
is not the hole in which the ducks would delight nor indeed in
which they would be tolerated.
There remains the brook. To go down to it with the troop of
ducklings is fraught with danger. On the way through the village,
we might meet cats, bold ravishers of small poultry; some surly
mongrel might frighten and scatter the little band; and it would be
a hard puzzle to collect it in its entirety. We must avoid the
traffic and take refuge in peaceful and sequestered spots.
On the hills, the path that climbs behind the chateau soon takes a
sudden turn and widens into a small plain beside the meadows. It
skirts a rocky slope whence trickles, level with the ground, a
streamlet, forming a pond of some size. Here profound solitude
reigns all day long. The ducklings will be well off; and the
journey can be made in peace by a deserted footpath.
You, little man, shall take them to that delectable spot. What a
day it was that marked my first appearance as a herdsman of ducks!
Why must there be a jar to the even tenor of such joys? The too
frequent encounter of my tender skin with the hard ground had given
me a large and painful blister on the heel. Had I wanted to put on
the shoes stowed away in the cupboard for Sundays and holidays, I
could not. There was nothing for it but to go barefoot over the
broken stones, dragging my leg and carrying high the injured heel.
Let us make a start, hobbling along, switch in hand, behind the
ducks. They too, poor little things, have sensitive soles to their
feet; they limp, they quack with fatigue. They would refuse to go
any farther if I did not, from time to time, call a halt under the
shelter of an ash.
We are there at last. The place could not be better for my
birdlets; shallow, tepid water, interspersed with muddy knolls and
green eyots. The diversions of the bath begin forthwith. The
ducklings clap their beaks and rummage here, there and everywhere;
they sift each mouthful, rejecting the clear water and retaining
the good bits. In the deeper parts, they point their sterns into
the air and stick their heads under water. They are happy; and it
is a blessed thing to see them at work. We will let them be. It
is my turn to enjoy the pond.
What is this? On the mud lie some loose, knotted, soot-colored
cords. One could take them for threads of wool like those which
you pull out of an old ravelly stocking. Can some shepherdess,
knitting a black sock and finding her work turn out badly, have
begun all over again and, in her impatience, have thrown down the
wool with all the dropped stitches? It really looks like it.
I take up one of those cords in my hand. It is sticky and
extremely slack; the thing slips through the fingers before they
can catch hold of it. A few of the knots burst and shed their
contents. What comes out is a black globule, the size of a pin's
head, followed by a flat tail. I recognize, on a very small scale,
a familiar object: the tadpole, the frog's baby. I have seen
enough. Let us leave the knotted cords alone.
The next creatures please me better. They spin round on the
surface of the water and their black backs gleam in the sun. If I
lift a hand to seize them, that moment they disappear, I know not
where. It's a pity: I should have much liked to see them closer
and to make them wriggle in a little bowl which I should have put
ready for them.
Let us look at the bottom of the water, pulling aside those bunches
of green string whence beads of air are rising and gathering into
foam. There is something of everything underneath. I see pretty
shells with compact whorls, flat as beans; I notice little worms
carrying tufts and feathers; I make out some with flabby fins
constantly flapping on their backs. What are they all doing there?
What are their names? I do not know. And I stare at them for ever
so long, held by the incomprehensible mystery of the waters.
At the place where the pond dribbles into the adjoining field are
some alder trees; and here I make a glorious find. It is a scarab-
-not a very large one, oh no! He is smaller than a cherry-stone,
but of an unutterable blue. The angels in paradise must wear
dresses of that color. I put the glorious one inside an empty
snail-shell, which I plug up with a leaf. I shall admire that
living jewel at my leisure, when I get back. Other distractions
summon me away.
The spring that feeds the pond trickles from the rock, cold and
clear. The water first collects into a cup, the size of the hollow
of one's two hands, and then runs over in a stream. These falls
call for a mill: that goes without saying. Two bits of straw,
artistically crossed upon an axis, provide the machinery; some flat
stones set on edge afford supports. It is a great success: the
mill turns admirably. My triumph would be complete, could I but
share it. For want of other playmates, I invite the ducks.
Everything palls in this poor world of ours, even a mill made of
two straws. Let us think of something else: let us contrive a dam
to hold back the waters and form a pool. There is no lack of
stones for the brickwork. I pick the most suitable; I break the
larger ones. And, while collecting these blocks, suddenly I forget
all about the dam which I meant to build.
On one of the broken stones, in a cavity large enough for me to put
my fist in, something gleams like glass. The hollow is lined with
facets gathered in sixes which flash and glitter in the sun. I
have seen something like this in church, on the great saints' days,
when the light of the candles in the big chandelier kindles the
stars in its hanging crystal.
We children, lying, in summer, on the straw of the threshing floor,
have told one another stories of the treasures which a dragon
guards underground. Those treasures now return to my mind: the
names of precious stones ring out uncertainly but gloriously in my
memory. I think of the king's crown, of the princesses' necklaces.
In breaking stones, can I have found, but on a much richer scale,
the thing that shines quite small in my mother's ring? I want more
The dragon of the subterranean treasures treats me generously. He
gives me his diamonds in such quantities that soon I possess a heap
of broken stones sparkling with magnificent clusters. He does
more: he gives me his gold. The trickle of water from the rock
falls on a bed of fine sand which it swirls into bubbles. If I
bent over towards the light, I see something like gold filings
whirling where the fall touches the bottom. Is it really the
famous metal of which twenty-franc pieces, so rare with us at home,
are made? One would think so, from the glitter.
I take a pinch of sand and place it in my palm. The brilliant
particles are numerous, but so small that I have to pick them up
with a straw moistened in my mouth. Let us drop this: they are too
tiny and too bothersome to collect. The big, valuable lumps must
be farther on, in the thickness of the rock. We'll come back
later; we'll blast the mountain.
I break more stones. Oh, what a queer thing has just come loose,
all in one piece! It is turned spiral-wise, like certain flat
snails that come out of the cracks of old walls in rainy weather.
With its gnarled sides, it looks like a little ram's horn. Shell
or horn, it is very curious. How do things like that find their
way into the stone?
Treasures and curiosities make my pockets bulge with pebbles. It
is late and the little ducklings have had all they want to eat.
Come along, youngsters, let's go home. My blistered heel is
forgotten in my excitement.
The walk back is a delight. A voice sings in my ear, an
untranslatable voice, softer than any language and bewildering as a
dream. It speaks to me for the first time of the mysteries of the
pond; it glorifies the heavenly insect which I hear moving in the
empty snail shell, its temporary cage; it whispers the secrets of
the rock, the gold filings, the faceted jewels, the ram's horn
turned to stone.
Poor simpleton, smother your joy! I arrive. My parents catch sight
of my bulging pockets, with their disgraceful load of stones. The
cloth has given way under the rough and heavy burden.
"You rascal!" says father, at sight of the damage. "I send you to
mind the ducks and you amuse yourself picking up stones, as though
there weren't enough of them all round the house! Make haste and
throw them away!"
Broken hearted, I obey. Diamonds, gold dust, petrified ram's horn,
heavenly beetle are all flung on a rubbish heap outside the door.
Mother bewails her lot: "A nice thing, bringing up children to see
them turn out so badly! You'll bring me to my grave. Green stuff I
don't mind: it does for the rabbits. But stones, which ruin your
pockets; poisonous animals, which'll sting your hand: what good are
they to you, silly? There's no doubt about it: some one has thrown
a spell over you!"
Yes, my poor mother, you were right, in your simplicity: a spell
had been cast upon me; I admit it today. When it is hard enough to
earn one's bit of bread, does not improving one's mind but render
one more meet for suffering? Of what avail is the torment of
learning to the derelicts of life?
A deal better off am I, at this late hour, dogged by poverty and
knowing that the diamonds of the duck pool were rock crystal, the
gold dust mica, the stone horn an Ammonite and the sky-blue beetle
a Hoplia! We poor men would do better to mistrust the joys of
knowledge: let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace,
flee the temptations of the pond, mind our ducks and leave to
others, more favored by fortune, the job of explaining the world's
mechanism, if the spirit moves them.
And yet no! Alone among living creatures, man has the thirst for
knowledge; he alone pries into the mysteries of things. The least
among us will utter his whys and his wherefores, a fine pain
unknown to the brute beast. If these questionings come from us
with greater persistence, with a more imperious authority, if they
divert us from the quest of lucre, life's only object in the eyes
of most men, does it become us to complain? Let us be careful not
to do so, for that would be denying the best of all our gifts.
Let us strive, on the contrary, within the measure of our capacity,
to force a gleam of light from the vast unknown; let us examine and
question and, here and there, wrest a few shreds of truth. We
shall sink under the task; in the present ill ordered state of
society, we shall end, perhaps, in the workhouse. Let us go ahead
for all that: our consolation shall be that we have increased by
one atom the general mass of knowledge, the incomparable treasure
As this modest lot has fallen to me, I will return to the pond,
notwithstanding the wise admonitions and the bitter tears which I
once owed to it. I will return to the pond, but not to that of the
small ducks, the pond aflower with illusions: those ponds do not
occur twice in a lifetime. For luck like that, you must be in all
the new glory of your first breeches and your first ideas.
Many another have I come upon since that distant time, ponds very
much richer and, moreover, explored with the ripened eye of
experience. Enthusiastically I searched them with the net, stirred
up their mud, ransacked their trailing weeds. None in my memories
comes up to the first, magnified in its delights and mortifications
by the marvelous perspective of the years.
Nor would any of them suit my plans of today. Their world is too
vast. I should lose myself in their immensities, where life swarms
freely in the sun. Like the ocean, they are infinite in their
fruitfulness. And then any assiduous watching, undisturbed by
passers by, is an impossibility on the public way. What I want is
a pond on an extremely reduced scale, sparingly stocked in my own
fashion an artificial pond standing permanently on my study table.
A louis has been overlooked in a corner of the drawer. I can spend
it without seriously jeopardizing the domestic balance. Let me
make this gift to science, who, I fear, will be none too much
obliged to me. A gorgeous equipment may be all very well for
laboratories wherein the cells and fibers of the dead are consulted
at great expense; but such magnificence is of doubtful utility when
we have to study the actions of the living. It is the humble
makeshift, of no value, that stumbles on the secrets of life.
What did the best results of my studies of instinct cost me?
Nothing but time and, above all, patience. My extravagant
expenditure of twenty francs, therefore, will be a risky
speculation if devoted to the purchase of an apparatus of study.
It will bring me in nothing in the way of fresh views, of that I am
convinced. However, let us try.
The blacksmith makes me the framework of a cage out of a few iron
rods. The joiner, who is also a glazier on occasion--for, in my
village, you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades if you would make both
ends meet--sets the framework on a wooden base and supplies it with
a movable board as a lid; he fixes thick panes of glass in the four
sides. Behold the apparatus, complete, with a bottom of tarred
sheet iron and a trap to let the water out.
The makers express themselves satisfied with their work, a singular
novelty in their respective shops, where many an inquisitive caller
has wondered what use I intend to make of my little glass trough.
The thing creates a certain stir. Some insist that it is meant to
hold my supplies of oil and to take the place of the receptacle in
general use in our parts, the urn dug out of a block of stone.
What would those utilitarians have thought of my crazy mind, had
they known that my costly gear would merely serve to let me watch
some wretched animals kicking about in the water!
Smith and glazier are content with their work. I myself am
pleased. For all its rustic air, the apparatus does not lack
elegance. It looks very well, standing on a little table in front
of a window visited by the sun for the greater part of the day.
Its holding capacity is some ten or eleven gallons. What shall we
call it? An aquarium? No, that would be too pretentious and
would, very unjustly, suggest the aquatic toy filled with rock
work, waterfalls and goldfish beloved of the dwellers in suburbia.
Let us preserve the gravity of serious things and not treat my
learned trough as though it were a drawing room futility. We will
call it the glass pond.
I furnish it with a heap of those limy incrustations wherewith
certain springs in the neighborhood cover the dead clump of rushes.
It is light, full of holes and gives a faint suggestion of a coral
reef. Moreover, it is covered with a short, green, velvety moss, a
downy sward of infinitesimal pond weed. I count on this modest
vegetation to keep the water in a reasonably wholesome state,
without driving me to frequent renewals which would disturb the
work of my colonies. Sanitation and quiet are the first conditions
of success. Now the stocked pond will not be long in filling
itself with gases unfit to breathe, with putrid effluvia and other
animal refuse; it will become a sink in which life will have killed
life. Those dregs must disappear as soon as they are formed, must
be burnt and purified; and from their oxidized ruins there must
even rise a perfect life-giving gas, so that the water may retain
an unchangeable store of the breathable element. The plant effects
this purification in its sewage farm of green cells.
When the sun beats upon the glass pond, the work of the water weeds
is a sight to behold. The green-carpeted reef is lit up with an
infinity of scintillating points and assumes the appearance of a
fairy lawn of velvet, studded with thousands of diamond pin's
heads. From this exquisite jewelry pearls break loose continuously
and are at once replaced by others in the generating casket; slowly
they rise, like tiny globes of light. They spread on every side.
It is a constant display of fireworks in the depths of the water.
Chemistry tells us that, thanks to its green matter and the
stimulus of the sun's rays, the weeds decompose the carbonic acid
gas wherewith the water is impregnated by the breathing of its
inhabitants and the corruption of the organic refuse; it retains
the carbon, which is wrought into fresh tissues; it exhales the
oxygen in tiny bubbles. These partly dissolve in the water and
partly reach the surface, where their froth supplies the atmosphere
with an excess of breathable gas. The dissolved portion keeps the
colonists of the pond alive and causes the unhealthy products to be
oxidized and disappear.
Old hand though I be, I take an interest in this trite marvel of a
bundle of weeds perpetuating hygienic principles in a stagnant
pool; I look with a delighted eye upon the inexhaustible spray of
spreading bubbles; I see in imagination the prehistoric times when
seaweed, the first-born of plants, produced the first atmosphere
for living things to breathe at the time when the silt of the
continents was beginning to emerge. What I see before my eyes,
between the glass panes of my trough, tells me the story of the
planet surrounding itself with pure air.