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It is late spring, and I am pulling pondweed. My mother likes to fish for bream and catfish, and the pondweed is her enemy. Her fishing line gets caught in it, and she says the fish feed on it, ignoring her bait. "That old pondweed will take the place," Mama says. All my life I've heard her issue this dire warning. She says it of willow trees, spiderwort, snakes, and Bermuda grass. "That old Bermudy" won't leave her flower beds alone.
The pondweed is lovely. If it were up to me, I'd just admire it and let the fish have it. But then, I'm spoiled and lazy and have betrayed my heritage as a farmer's daughter by leaving the land and going off to see the world. Mama said I always had my nose in a book. I didn't want to have to labor the way my parents did. But here I am, on a visit, wrestling with pondweed.
I'm working with a metal-toothed rake, with a yellow nylon rope tied to the handle to extend its reach. I stand on the pond bank, my Wal-Mart Wellingtons slopping and sucking mud. I fling the rake as far as I can, catch the pondweed, and then tug it loose. An island of it breaks off and comes floating toward me, snared by the rake. I haul it in and heave it onto the bank. The pondweed is a heavy mass of white, fat tendrils and a black tangle of wiry roots beneath the surface scattering of green leaves. Along with my rakeful of weed comes a treasure of snails, spiders, water striders, crawfish, worms, and insect larvae--a whole ecosystem, as in a tide pool. I haul out as much as I can lift-waterlogged, shiny leaves and masses of tendrils, some of them thick and white like skinned snakes. I rescue a crawfish. it wriggles back into its mudtunnel. As I work, the bank gets clogged with piles of weed. I am making progress. There is an unexpected satisfaction in the full range of athletic motion required for this job. I think about hard labor and wonder whether some of my fitness-minded friends with their rigid exercise routines could be talked into helping me out.
I've seen water lotus covering a lake, smothering it with plate-sized pads. Water lotus are giant lilies--double-story affairs that make gigantic seedpods resembling showerheads. Water lotus are a disaster if what you want is fish. Even without any lotus, this pond has seen disasters before-three fish kills: a fuel spill from the highway, warmwater runoff from a tobacco-warehouse fire, and a flood that washed the fish out into the creek.
In the early eighties, my father hired a backhoe to create the pond so that my mother could go fishing--her favorite pastime. He cut down a black-walnut tree so she could have a view of the pond across the field behind the house.
There used to be blackberries at the site of this quarter-acre pondbanks of berry bushes so enormous that we tunneled through them and made a maze. The blackberries were what we called tame. Back in the forties, my parents planted a dozen bushes to keep the fields from washing into the creek. The blackberries spread along all the borders. The berries were large and luscious, not like the small, seedy wild ones, but we never ate them with cream and sugar--only in pies or jam. Every July we picked berries and Mama sold gallons of them to high-toned ladies in the big fine houses in town. They made jelly. We got twentyfive cents for a quart of berries, a dollar a gallon. it took an hour to pick a gallon, and I could pick up to four gallons in a morning, before the sun got too hot, before I got chiggers implanted in the skin under my waistband. My fingers were full of thorn pricks and stayed purple all summer. The blackberries haven't disappeared, but they used to be more accessible, less weed-choked. They grew up and down all the creek banks, along the edges of all the fields, along the fencerows, along the lane. My father burned down masses of them before digging the pond.
The pond feeds into Kess Creek, which cuts across this farm-the place where I grew up, and where my mother still lives. The farm is fifty-three acres, cut into six fields, with two houses along the frontage. We are within sight of the railroad, which parallels U.S. Highway 45. We're on Sunnyside Road, a mile from downtown Mayfield, somewhere between Fancy Farm and Clear Springs, in Graves County. We are in far-western Kentucky, that toe tip of the state shaped by the curve of the great rivers--the Ohio meets the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, about thirty-five miles northwest of Mayfield. To the east, the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers (now swelled into TVA lakes) run parallel courses. Water forms this twenty-five-hundred-square-mile region into a peninsula. it's attached to the continent along the border with Tennessee. Historically and temperamentally, it looks to the South.
There aren't any big cities around, unless you count Paducah (pop. 26,853), twenty-six miles to the north. The farm is typical of this agricultural region. A lane cuts through the middle, from front to back, and two creeks divide it crosswise. The ground is rich, but it washes down the creeks. The creeks are clogged with trash, dumped there to prevent hard rains-gully-washers from carrying the place away. At one time this was a thriving dairy farm that sustained our growing family. It was home to my paternal grandparents, my parents, my two sisters, my brother, and me. There were at least eleven buildings along the front part of the farm, near the road: two houses, a barn, a stable, a corncrib, a smokehouse, two henhouses, a wash-house, a milk house, an outhouse. I even had a playhouse.
The gravel-and-mud county road ran in front. Sometimes the school bus couldn't get through the mud. Before the road was paved and fast cars started killing our dogs and cats, we would sit on my grandparents' porch and say "Who's that?" whenever anybody passed. My grandparents' house was a large, one-story building with a high gabled roof--a typical farmhouse. The other house, a small white wood-frame structure that my parents built when I was four, stood on a hill in the woods. When the road was paved, the roadbed was built up, so the house seemed to settle down to the level of the road. We still say the house is on a hill...