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stories - issue #5

Becoming pond

Words by Sol Polo
Photography by Thomas Broadhead

The pond is a microcosm of a bigger ecosystem, reminding us that the water that constitutes us inextricably connects us to the whole of the natural world.

We rarely ask ourselves where our bodily waters come from, and where they go, perhaps because, if we dared, our comfortable categories for what is human and what is a body might crumble.

It was in the summer that I found myself visiting OmVed Gardens, in north London, UK. Positioned on a gently descending slope, the once-derelict tarmacked land has blossomed into a nourishing urban oasis - proving the theory that we can restore nature, and that nature, in turn, can restore us. One of OmVed’s latest developments was the addition of a large pond. Situated in the lowest part of the gardens, so that it can gather excess rainwater from OmVed’s greenhouse and the rest of the gardens, it quickly began to fill with the summer storms. It was the beginning of July and just as the UK was about to emerge from the first wave of the pandemic, the pond was also emerging from the ground with a promise of restoration.

Following the water, a series of plants that love damp, wet soil surrounded the basins with a crown of new life: ferns, sedges, marsh-marigold, arrowhead, water forget-me-not, purple loosestrife, water mint, sweet flag, bistort, meadowsweet, cuckooflower, water buttercup and holy rope. Koi carp were also introduced.

Water, plants, fish: little by little, every element enabled more life to follow. Dragonflies and birds came to bathe. By the end of the summer, the plants were so lush around the pond that it felt as though it had been there forever.

Building a pond can be seen as a tiny action but, on closer inspection, it creates a whole series of beneficial effects: gathering excess water from the site, becoming a home for new species and a haven of calm for visitors, making the ecosystem more diverse and the environment more resilient.

As the writer and academic Astrida Neimanis notes, we are all bodies of water and water is an element that intimately connects us to the environment. Our origins are in water and our bodies are two-thirds constituted by it. Water’s defining presence, both in the blue planet and in ourselves, is often overlooked, but it reveals what Neimanis calls hydro-commons: the idea that water runs across nature and binds it. Seeing yourself and the nature that surrounds you reflected in the waters of the pond helps you see the pond from a perspective of mutuality rather than difference.

Water takes many shapes: it can be as visible as a waterfall and as invisible as the particles in the air we breathe. Water exists in different measures and forms. As bodies of water ourselves, drinking, urinating, sweating or crying sustain us but also connect us to other bodies, to other worlds beyond this body. Like the pond, as Neimanis reminds us, our watery bodies are in a constant process of intake, transformation, and exchange.

An act of creation: Being able to witness the making and emergence of the pond has been as magical as seeing a seed develop into a fruit-bearing plant.

‘‘Building a pond can be seen as a tiny action but, on closer inspection, it creates a whole series of beneficial effects, making the ecosystem more diverse and the environment more resilient.’’

This transcorporeality of water exposes the entangled nature of the planet. Philosopher Emanuele Coccia expresses it this way: “Being in the world means experiencing transcendental immersion. To inhale is to allow the world to come intous-theworldisinus-andtoexhaleisto project ourselves into the world that we are.”

It is estimated that human cells make up only 43% of the body’s total cell count, significantly outnumbered by bacterial cells. If we think of our bodies as a hybrid assemblage of matters, we might be able to say that we have never been only human, nor an autonomous, specific body - our bodies are full of other bodies. Through water, we are always becoming part of something else, and something else is always becoming a part of us, and this comes with responsibilities.

Like the pond, we are water entities, and following the trace of water in our own bodies may help us see that we are part of a bigger body, and that our health depends on the health of our environment, for better or worse. Caring for water, becoming pond, river, sea, rain, or tap water, means caring for all the lives that water traverses, both human and nonhuman.

The hole was excavated and a pump system, designed to keep the water levelled, oxygenated and circulating, was installed.

In her quest to define a less anthropocentric position to address the inequalities and the systems of oppression that are destroying our world, Neimanis proposes a new ontology: hydrofeminism, encompassing a feminist and ecological perspective. In her book Hydrofeminism: Or, on Becoming a Body of Water, she writes: “Not only does water connect us, gestate us, sustain us - more than this, water disturbs the very categories that ground the domains of social, political, philosophical, and environmental thought, and those of feminist theory and practice as well.” Through water we can explain and define the world more accurately. We can learn so much from it, about nature and our place in nature.

Aquatic ecosystems are among the most unique, biodiverse, and sensitive systems in the world but, according to the UN-backed Global Wetland Outlook, the world has lost 35% of its natural wetlands since 1970, seeing a decline in 81% of inland wetland species populations and 36% of coastal and marine species. This makes any action to restore these ecosystems critical.

The outer skin of the pond, made of clay, was carefully layered and sculpted by a digger operated with the precision of an artisan’s hand.

‘‘The pond enables the becoming of other bodies by providing food and protection to the wildlife and plants it supports.’’

To avoid water draining into the soil, the surface was then covered with a natural clay pond liner.

By providing a habitat for a huge variety of uncommon and rare species, the pond, as small as it may be, is a complete ecosystem that can help reduce species vulnerability and build resilience, especially in cities, where natural habitats have been scrapped, polluted, or redirected for profit. The pond enables the becoming of other bodies by providing food and protection to the wildlife and plants it supports. Fish nibble on the plants and algae. The fish produce waste that is broken down and absorbed as nutrients by the plants. The plants provide a natural filter for the water, restraining the growth of the algae. The pond stores excess water, helping to prevent floods, and helps thirsty animals by providing them with fresh water, which can become hard to find, particularly in urban areas.

Once the pond was filled, a selection of plants that thrive in damp soil were planted in a green line around the edges. The freshwater helped them grow and they now provide a wet habitat for wildlife.

Like the plants and algae, we too live in symbiosis with water, so we should support this element as much as it supports us. We not only interact with water on a daily basis, but water is the major component of all our body parts. Biochemists at the University of Illinois, US, writing in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1945, estimated that water constitutes 73% of the brain, spine chord and nerve trunks; 83% of the lungs; 79% of the muscles; 79% of the kidneys; 64% of the skin; and 31% of the human skeleton.

This symbiosis manifests in the magnetic effects of the pond. The calm and reflecting waters amplify our perception of nature and ourselves, and naturally draw us in. We see an image of ourselves merging with our surroundings, bringing us closer to the faraway sky, as we magically float among a mix of clouds, tree branches, waterlilies and fallen leaves. We are already some way to becoming pond.

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