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Molnar: At the Pond

I once read a book called Watchers at the Pond by Franklin Russell. The author lived alone in a primitive cabin for a whole year observing a New England pond. His book is detailed and fascinating, his discipline admirable.

Having not much time and even less discipline, I decided to repeat the experiment in a single day. I would try to spend it silently observing life at the pond - without books, phone (except one stashed away for emergencies), camera, or even a watch to distract.

When I arrive at the wilderness lake soon after sunrise, it’s warm and breezy, with bright clouds sailing across a blue sky.

I paddle slowly around the clover-shaped lake for a couple of hours, stopping in shallow coves. A snake slides into the water and swims away, its head erect in the quiet air. Safe in the kayak, I look it straight in the eye, but it doesn’t look back. Dragonflies use me as a landing pad, turning my legs into a canvas of insect color. A fish jumps straight up and snags a copulating pair of them. Good for the fish, I think, and not a bad way for the insects to go either. I wait and wait by the beaver lodge, but either they’ve moved on or I can’t sit still long enough.

Hungry, I pull up to a flat rock, step out and slip in the mud. Now I have to drain and dry everything, a task that provides welcome relief from doing nothing. Being wet already, I decide to take a chilling swim. Another 20 minutes of activity - then a slow lunch.

And it’s still far from noon, according to the sun.

So I try to concentrate on just sitting and quieting the noise in my head, not planning, not questioning, not worrying. It works - for a while. But then I begin to wonder why the beavers have moved – and where - and why I can’t see any of the dozens of frogs that jump into the mud at my approach – and how long they can stay under. Then some darker clouds appear. Has the weather prediction changed?

The answers are all in that phone I am determined not to touch. It must have been easier for Russell back in 1960, before we became used to instant answers to life’s persistent questions, precisely the kind that my phone is designed to answer. Not now, I tell myself and focus on the painted turtles sunning on a log. They are perfectly still, together but alone. I am not alone. Technology and the addiction to data that it generates are intruding into the day. And like most of us, I’ve lost the talent for silent contemplation.

Still, when the sun sets earlier than I expect, I wish I could stay. I need more time, much more time, to relearn what we’ve lost. So next time, I decide, I’ll bring a tent.

Martha L. Molnar is a public relations and freelance writer who moved to Vermont in 2008. She was formerly a New York Times reporter.
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