the path to fulfillment is paved, and bike-friendly

Non-fiction, 1/22/12

There is a pond four miles north of my house, abutting the Interurban Trail just outside the city limits of Kent. In fifteen leisurely minutes I transport myself to this pond via bicycle, empty jars in my pannier, binoculars hanging at my side. It is situated in front of an office-supply chain warehouse—a Staples “Fulfillment Center”—and, as designated by signs posted along its perimeter, it is considered “Sensitive Wetland Habitat” by the county. I park my bike next to a concrete pylon, grab the jars, and carefully, quietly walk up to the shore.

First I fill the jars with pond water, screw the lids tight, and set them down on the grass to pick up when I leave. (Precisely why I do this I will explain shortly.) Ringed by chest-high cattails and sedge, the pond’s shore affords me decent cover from anatine eyes, but I can tell from the nervous quacking that they’ve spotted me already. Out in the middle of the pond are maybe two dozen ducks in an eclectic mix of species: buffleheads, hooded and common mergansers, American widgeons, green-winged teals, Northern shovelers, gadwalls, pintails, common goldeneyes, and a solitary wood duck. Nary a mallard in sight. There are also coots, double-crested cormorants, and a horned grebe plying the tea-colored water; atop a sawed-off snag I see a great blue heron hunched over, brooding, pterodactyl-like. In another snag nearby a sharp-shinned hawk eyes me warily from its perch. Walking the pond’s perimeter, I accidently flush out two American bitterns hidden in the reeds, and the whip-snap of their frantic, labored wingstroke yanks my heart into my throat. They fly off, circle the pond, and alight in another patch of reeds. Once my nerves quiet, I hear the calls of red-wing blackbirds, song sparrows, bushtits, and of course the ubiquitous starlings. I also hear (and can see) the traffic roaring by on Highway 167 just west of the pond. In the fallow cabbage fields across the highway I spot, with my binoculars, seven tundra swans picking their way through the rows, their long necks and snowy plumage almost comically conspicuous against the dark earth.

I meander back along the shoreline and retrieve my jars of pond water. Held up to the light, one can observe within them teeming swarms of freshwater plankton: green algae, amoebae, rotifers, isopods, copepods, nematodes, flatworms, and much, much else. Broadly speaking, plankton can be divided into two groups, based on their energy-producing preferences: phytoplankton, which derive their energy mostly from the sun via photosynthesis, and zooplankton, which must consume other organisms for fuel. Some of the zooplankton species are immature forms of air-breathing adults, such as the larvae of mosquitoes, stoneflies, and water-dwelling beetles. These and other meroplankton (as they are collectively known) undergo some form of metamorphosis between their planktonic and adult lives. By contrast, the holoplankton spend the entirety of their existence underwater, planktonic to the end. Some of the plankters are very plant-like, some are decidedly animalistic, and many are a mélange of the two. Though their forms and functions are mind-bogglingly diverse and infinitely fascinating, I am taking them home with a rather mundane purpose in mind: to keep and rear as fish food.

The trio of three-spined sticklebacks residing in the tank above my dresser is insatiably planktivorous, and I kowtow to their needs. Scaleless fishes closely related to seahorses, sticklebacks are visually-oriented predators, and their huge eyes attest to this trait. On top of my refrigerator is a 2.5-gallon tank fitted with a light and an air stone, filled with whorls of green algae and kick-started with the jars of pond water. This is the “farm” from which I will periodically harvest the plankter crops to feed the fishies. Within days I witness the rise and fall of two dueling algae species, the emergence of snails and caddisfly larvae, and the proliferation of a tiny bean-shaped crustacean called an ostracod. So much change, in such a circumscribed space.

The plankton fulfill the fish’s dietary needs. Their growth and well-being, as well as that of the plankton, fulfills my desire to cultivate and nurture life, and to better understand the natural world I inhabit. The biking and the birding are fringe benefits, all a part of that age-old self-fulfilling prophecy: the pursuit of happiness. Fulfillment center, indeed.

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