The Goldfish in the Pond


©2019 C. Henry Martens

I was visiting a pond in the middle of nowhere, a small pool of water in the Nevada desert. It was cool and inviting, the banks shaded under the burning summer sun.

There was evidence of feral horse activity all around the watering hole, dragonflies zoomed around above it, and looking into the depths, I could discern all kinds of life. Little black beetles scurried about on the bottom carrying minuscule silvery air bubbles underneath their bodies. Reddish, hair-like plants rose from the muddy depths. Tiny fish swarmed and scattered.

The ecosystem worked. It worked without any human being interfering or improving or redesigning it.

Not long after I visited this perfect little world, I returned to find someone had released a few small goldfish into the pond.

I was interested. I decided I would return a couple of times a year to see what the effects would be.

The unnatural fish grew, and bred… and soon the vegetation and wildlife surrounding and in the pond changed. The area became dirtier, dingy, and drab. The green bulrushes became yellowed and translucent, weak and falling over instead of standing up tall and green. The red, hairy plants on the bottom disappeared, and so did the water bugs.

One day, I found a dead horse halfway in the water.

Apparently, the pond was dying and killing everything around it in its death throes.

On a winter visit, I found the goldfish stationary under the thin skim of ice on the pond. They almost seemed to be in a state of torpor. There were fewer than I remembered and only larger ones. I got out my 22 rifle and shot as many of the fish as I could find. I didn’t expect any kind of success clearing the pond of the invaders. I was just hopeful that I could give the pond some temporary relief.

About six months later the pond seemed cleaner. The water wasn’t as cloudy, and the plants were starting to green, looking healthier.

Two years later, the water source had recovered. At least it looked like that to me. Even the beetles could be seen scurrying around, intent on their business.

The lesson I took away from this is that the earth is designed by evolution to be a working system. That a human being can ruin it unintentionally and by small actions. That the consequences for ignorance can be devastating and have far greater effects than to the immediate vicinity of the action taken. And that when the earth is allowed to return to its natural cycles, it can heal and cleanse itself.

We humans have made some serious mistakes by thinking we can do better than nature. We would all benefit by taking the time to pay attention to how nature works and work with it instead of improving on it.

Nature is successful because it has evolved to work.

Think about how evolution works. Evolution doesn’t clear cut entire continents of forests. It doesn’t build dams in every river so large that fish can’t swim upstream. Evolution works slowly. It uses single genetic anomalies to affect great change over enormous periods of time. Changes so slow and small that if there is some kind of problem with the anomaly, it has time to die out without even being noticed.

Evolution is a long-term thinker.

This is one of the greatest truths I know, that we would all be better off taking a cue from evolution by considering slowly and deliberately… and making changes in the same way as natural change.

Our ego-driven expectations of being able to wreak our desires on the earth, as though entitled to manifest destiny, is why the earth is presently abused and threatened.

Humans jump to conclusions and act on them before they get the facts… Hell, before they even have time to think of the context and logic in what they act on. We make mistakes as a result.

A couple of decades ago, I heard someone claim that cows emit methane and that they are a huge contributor to global warming. Now, I know cattle emit methane. I’ve been around enough cattle to understand this. But something about the pronouncement sounded fishy. It just didn’t sound logical to think that cattle were contributing to a problem that bison a couple of hundred years ago were NOT contributing to. I mean… bison emit methane, right? So how can cattle, which largely replaced bison and other species decimated by humans, be a problem by doing the same thing bison did before there was global warming? The claim just didn’t make sense.

It turns out after a couple of decades that we now know cattle provide a net benefit to combat global warming.

The natural system, the evolved system, consisted of huge herds of migrating ungulates, bison, moving around on the prairies making the grasslands healthier. The earth works because natural systems work, because the only way these natural systems survive is to evolve in ways that benefit… not harm.

Now we have recently found out that grasslands provide a greater net benefit than forests in sequestrating carbon and greenhouse gasses.

Trees are great… but any kind of green space is better than any non-green space.

Humans have for a long time had the idea that they have a right to some kind of manifest destiny. The idea that no matter what we do, humans are entitled and will be protected by… God? That people can’t do anything wrong. But there are a lot of examples of wrong thinking in how humans treat the planet. Short-term thinking with long-term unintended consequences.

As mentioned, we’ve built dams that killed off salmon populations by preventing their annual runs. We’ve prevented forest fires in the undergrowth that resulted in more intense conflagrations as foliage built up and eventually the canopy became threatened. We grow trees in rows, plantations to harvest palm oil, and the orangutans are disappearing because they have no habitat.

Again, there has been a frenzy about cattle emitting methane… yet large herbivores have been part of the natural world since oxygen breathers evolved. And the newest science has confirmed that cattle are essential to healthy grasslands, and the natural cycles involved in migratory herds are a net benefit in combating global warming. But people are still advocating against cattle… the very system that improves air quality for all of us.

We have a long way to go. Mainly because we get sudden ideas and act on them before we think about the realities involved.

The world works because slow change eliminates detrimental effects and encourages beneficial effects.

We would do well to take a lesson.

It seems that we are all too ready, willing, and able to be the goldfish in the pond.

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3 thoughts on “The Goldfish in the Pond

  1. “. . . any kind of green space is better than any non-green space.”

    Wholeheartedly agree! I am all for setting aside monstrous tracts of land and sea where humans would only be permitted with absolutely minimal technological support and with severe restrictions on behavior. Tracts of land where plants and animals (large and small) have free reign. Where vast numbers of bison, cattle, elephants, zebras, dolphins, whales, salmon, giraffes and worms can mold the landscape and seascape (and the air) into an environment that is truly a celebration of life – all life, not just humans.

    And speaking of cattle and green space: On the rare occasion I eat beef, it is always free-range and grass fed. Most cattle raised for human consumption spend entirely too much time (i.e., any) in feedlots where there is precious little green stuff and they are eating corn (GMO so it can be soaked in herbicides) instead of the grasses and grains that evolution designed them for.

    1. Richard, I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve often wondered why these kinds of reserves have not been created, especially in oceans. Surely those that fish for a living understand the benefits.

  2. The earth has finite resources. When man over populates the earth and uses resources faster than nature can clean and provide we have survival problems. 4 billion people on the planet of 7 billion live on less than $4 a day and they all want a middle class lifestyle. What do you think will happen to earth as they use the resources to attain that life style?

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