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September, 2007

Mysteries of the Deep

by Valerie

Deep is relative. Yes, I'm talking about water, but not the ocean abyss or those bottomless lakes that inspire tales of mythical primordial monsters. How about a small creek or woodland pond? Not very extraordinary, but there is still that thin barrier between our familiar terrestrial environs and the alien world underwater, even if it is measured in inches rather than fathoms. Ever since I was a small child, the inhabitants of that related, but parallel, universe have fascinated me.

eggs of the gulf coast toad, in our backyard pond

Looking down into clear water is like peering into an untouchable setting, where we can watch but not participate. The most we can do is reach in a couple of feet with our hands and swirl it around, or use a stick to extend our influence a bit further. However, when we disturb the surface tension, our visual contact is greatly reduced, by ripples and their inevitable distortion. We've ruined the perfect window we had and must wait for things to settle back down.

pond snail, in the Hartman Prehistoric Garden

There are certainly ways in which we attempt to get more intimate with the aquatic habitat. One can go SCUBA diving or snorkeling, use a net or fishing equipment to bring the animals to the surface, or watch them behind the glass of an aquarium. All of these means certainly contribute to a better understanding and familiarity with our fellow beings on this planet. My favorite method of studying the submerged landscape, though, is perhaps the most basic: looking down into the water from the shoreline. The view is not vast, but it's possible to watch the minute creatures as they go about their everyday business of surviving. Even though it is only about two feet deep, our modest backyard pond provides quite a bit of entertainment in this way. And who can deny the allure of tide pools along the seashore, each filled with colorful and exotic little beasts?

The fact that many of the small creatures found in water are strange looking to us merely enhances the appeal of watching them. Miniscule crustaceans like daphnia and amphipods, hydras, water mites and planaria test the limit of our visual abilities. Crayfish, water scorpions, hellgrammites, and snails are larger but equally enthralling. It is easy to encounter creatures that we cannot even recognize because they have no similar terrestrial counterpart for comparison.

water scorpion, in a creek at Wild Connections
It is particularly intriguing that there are animals that freely move between the aquatic and the terrestrial worlds. Amphibians and many kinds of insects spend part of their life in each realm. Other animals move back and forth with ease, such as diving birds, otters, and water snakes. Water beetles and bugs can fly from one pond to another. There is a whole subset of the aquatic fauna that is unable to leave the water but permanently tied to the surface because they breathe air. That fine division from liquid to gas is the center of their personal universe. There is a 1955 lithograph by M. C. Escher that highlights this partition idea: an image of leaves floating on the water surface, with a fish below and the reflection of the trees above. It is aptly named "Three Worlds."

Just as it is pleasant to lie back and look up into the clouds, imagining how it would be to move about within the immense white hills and valleys, it is the same to stare down into the inverse, and watch the close, diminutive world in the water just beneath us. (The photos accompanying this essay were all taken looking down into the water.)

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