In winter, I kill time waiting for spring by drawing tiny plots showing exactly where the asparagus should grow and pondering whether the wheelbarrow can navigate a 6-inch-wide path. But it's spring now, time to indulge my passion for grander schemes. If I were a lord in 18th-century Britain, I would start ordering the peasants to create a few miles of rolling lawn topped with a fanciful Grecian temple. But I'm no lord, and this is America. I don't yearn for rolling lawn; all I want is a body of water.
It's genetic. All my ancestors came across the ocean to America in steerage, and the relief they must have felt, struggling up from the smelly hold to the wide-open space visible from the deck, is in my blood. I like to look at a grand, wet vista.
My favorite watery visions are rooted in the boatyard where my father lived when I was a kid. Not a yacht club, but a working yard, littered with engine parts, with a red tombstone gas pump dispensing diesel on the splintered dock. Technically, that sight, viewed against a backdrop of rusting metal sheds and drifts of ragweed, is not the stuff of classic beauty. But the boatyard was a beautiful place to live, with a barefoot, watery ambience that informed my basic sense of what looks good. What it adds up to is this: When I look around at close range, I want to see things growing closely together, abundant. But, when I look farther out, I want to see what a sailor sees.
Now, to analyze the site. Surveying my 3 acres, I see my red tombstone gas pump -- it's outdoor art, okay? -- but it sits in a sea of wildflowers, nice in a Sound of Music way. What's missing is the nautical element.
The experts agree. All my gardening books suggest water after a fashion. "Even the sight of an oscillating lawn sprinkler," I read, "can be peaceful and restorative." Oh yeah? In my water-starved part of the world, that sight would be downright inflammatory.
Next, I run across the do-it-yourself pond-with-liner instructions. These pools can be beautiful, complete with mossy rocks and exotic water plants, but they're too exotic -- this is Colorado, not Bali -- and way too small. A "body of water" should be vast. Big enough for trout-breeding in summer, for ice hockey in winter. Big enough to attract waterfowl and cat tails, but not big enough to be scary. I once knew a Jack Russell terrier who had to wear a life preserver while swimming in his manmade lake in Illinois, lest he be sucked under by massive, ravenous catfish. Nope. Give me, instead, a few gorgeous carp swimming languidly around the pilings of an artfully sun-bleached dock where I could lounge in summer, eating sandwiches made from watercress grown on my own soggy shoreline and drinking strawberry daiquiris. Once the blender noise died down, I would be serenaded by frogs croaking at me from their lilypads.
You can build this sort of thing yourself, but not without your own backhoe. My own backhoe, regretfully, I cannot justify. So I turn to the yellow pages, where I find a guy known as Mr. Pond. He sounds disappointed when I tell him I don't want a waterfall, a wishing well, a Japanese meditation bridge, or a natural-looking Jacuzzi.
"I just want a whole lotta water," I clarify. "Big enough for ice-skating, watercress, rowboats, fish."
"Well, you'll need fish," he says gloomily. "Otherwise, algae will take over and stink up the whole county. And where's all this water gonna come from?"
"I don't know -- the sky? My well?"
"That must be some well."
"Where does the water usually come from?" I ask.
"A spring. Which you don't have. But I tell you what," he sighs. "I'll work you up an estimate."
That was two weeks ago. I have yet to hear back from Mr. Pond, but I've been busy budgeting anyway. I figure this project will cost almost as much as a top-of-the-line backhoe, but so what? It'll be worth every penny.
Robin Chotzinoff is the author of People with Dirty Hands (Harcourt Brace, 1997).
Article published on June 23, 2008.