Saturday, February 12, 2011

Wet Memories of Ponds Gone By

Today I woke up and managed to get the dog walk in before the weather changed.  Three hours later, it is 5 degrees colder at 51, still raining, and windy.  The skies are grey and the wind is coming in off the front that is settling in.

Sunny Florida indeed.

It's winter and there's always tomorrow.  It will be cool and sunny at least.  It got me thinking that this is the kind of weather that we would have when I was growing up in Cherry Hill, NJ in April instead of Wilton Manors, FL at what is statistically the coldest week of the year.

Much to the parent's annoyance, it would be days like this that Pat and I would get on our jacket and our old clothes and go out to play in the yard.   In the rain, we'd have big puddles that would drain to the Cooper Creek behind the house.  We called it The Crick in the South Jersey accent of the day and it was a draw.  Just like any children of any era, they'd be drawn to the edges of the body of water and go searching, coming back covered with mud but happy with the latest adventure.

Over the years, we explored The Field until it became covered with baseball diamonds, and the gently descending prairie there of tall weeds.  In summer there were Blackberries to be picked and we could hide among the tall grasses until the afternoon wore down until dinner and the mosquitoes chased us away.

Toward the bottom of the field was a spring.  It was reliable and there was never a time that it had dried up.  Feeding The Crick, it was a source of entertainment for all the children of the little suburban neighborhood.  Winter it would freeze solid enough for us to go out with our shoes and skate across it.  One kid or another would be brave enough after testing it for strength, and that would be all it took, we'd all be out there sliding across with our smooth bottomed shoes until tired.  There were always one or more felled trees to use as a bench to rest, and many afternoons would be spent there sliding around until it thawed.

Once the Spring season finally arrived, the tadpoles would begin to hatch and that brought more entertainment.   We had the chance to watch the little things grow and catch them so we could see them closely.  What we would do with them was to look at them, marvel at the speckles on the tail that would be "eaten" away as they grew, look for legs to let us know that they were developing into a mature frog.  Our little pond full of tadpoles would become full of frogs that would be again caught and looked over.  We wondered whether that frog had been caught months before as a tadpole and if it remembered us.

The baseball fields got built and since they need a flat layer of ground, the big trucks came in and leveled the place so the little leagues could move in.  This was all before we realized how productive a marsh could be, nurturing the natural and the minds of children to find out the life cycles of the creatures within.  The fields got built and table flat, but they also left a bit of a cliff to climb.  We now had to get around the cyclone fence to get to The Pond and up to the table of land that was the parking lot that overlooked the left over bit of wetland.

What Man builds, Mother Nature will wear down.  Sometimes over long stretches of time, other times in an eye blink.  The fields were built in Spring, and by Summer, the edges which were not planted with any retaining grass, had silted up most of our precious pond.  By the time that the silting had stopped,  the wetlands were much more dry, the pond had shrunk to a sliver that was maybe a tenth of its former self

Over the years, we stopped going to The Pond.  It wasn't really enough area for us to skate, the kids who were all within a year or three of each other were now into their teens, and it ceased to be a draw.  I remember that our little group of children now would instead of hovering over the natural, went up to the hill that overlooked the little league fields and watch over it for a while like a bleacher.   This hill was the berm that was built up when the State of New Jersey built I-295 from Delaware to its then end at Moorestown, three or four miles North.  We knew that we were 32 miles from Delaware because the mile marker on the southbound side of The 295 was in our own little world, overlooking our homes and what was once the prairie.  We still could use the hill for sliding down it on sheets of cardboard as if they were toboggans, but the area just wasn't as fun now that it was a managed baseball park.

Luckily that kind of construction would be less likely.  A habitat that was left over would be called a Preserve and left to be natural.  The pond would be a protected area so that slivers of the endangered natural New Jersey would not be swallowed up.  The entire neighborhood was once a farm and that little area was left alone because it just wasn't dry enough to be farmed.  So when the homes were built there, fill was trucked in and we had a time where we could enjoy what was left for children to explore.

Even on the cold raw rainy days of April, New Jersey has a lot of land that were left as a preserve.  When I got too old to explore the pond, I started driving.  After a series of cars, I got my first Jeep and did what every Jeep driver tried to do, I went off road.  New Jersey is a beginner's paradise of off roading.  You don't have to go and destroy the natural habitat in New Jersey because the Pine Barrens are set aside for you to enjoy and are laced with fire trails.  There's a large network of abandoned roads, railroads and sugar sand fire trails to drive over and I was able to sate my needs for visiting the natural by not destroying the lands.

When ever I had someone from out of state make their predictably tired New Jersey Jokes, I would insist that those places that everyone cringes over are "Up North" and in the New York Suburbs "North of Exit 9" on the turnpike.  Next weekend, I'd drag them kicking and screaming out to The Pines where we'd invariably explore until we'd come across a "Cedar Water Creek" and marvel that there were fish, frogs and fowl in this place that was special and set aside from such things as a developer's plow and baseball diamonds.

The thing that is so special about the New Jersey Pine Barrens that was unintentional is that it is so accessible.  You could go off road in a Cadillac Sedan deVille if you wanted to in New Jersey, I know that because I took Mom's Caddy back there.  You didn't have to shred the land, someone already graded the roads and you could get in and see what it looked like before we got there simply by looking out the window and away from the trails.

Without major equipment you can't drive across the Everglades.  It's more heavily protected, but airboats go through it every day.  I can't imagine driving through the Everglades, but I have driven through the Pine Barrens to get home when the Atlantic City Expressway was jammed simply by getting off at one of the exits, driving through Hammonton to get to the custard stand and going That Way to Atsion Lake and through Medford home.  Each time I did that, I'd have another person with me saying they never knew how beautiful New Jersey could be.

It is all in the view.  Sometimes the best view is out the window of a Jeep Wrangler going up a trail at 30MPH.

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