My little boat is a poky, squat, plastic affair, but it sits high -- helpful in shallow water -- and it is stable. It is dark green, to blend with the field in which I keep it, upside down, so it doesn't fill with rain. I flip it over. It does fill with ants and spiders and pill bugs, which I wipe out before dragging the boat down to the water. The thing may be ugly, but it fits me, or I fit it, and that is satisfying.
I ease one end of the boat into the pond, pushing through a gap in the cattails, which are so tall they hide me. Good thing, too, because the sight of me getting into the boat is comical, if not embarrassing. The water is so low I have to take a step into the muck to get the boat out far enough to float it. I've done this maneuver a hundred times, but I'm surprised by my awkwardness, my stiff knees. They actually creak. I have to move slowly, which means my foot is sucked deep into the mud before I wrench it out, give the boat a wobbly push, and crouch into the seat in the bottom. I'm fine once I'm settled. Feeling thankful again for their cover, I back out of the cattails.
I turn my boat around and get the hang of the paddle. The cormorants gathered on a rock have spread open the shiny black capes of their oily-feathered wings to dry. The swans drift away; there were at least a hundred on the pond this summer. "What'd you do?" a friend once asked. "Call Disney? This place is out of central casting." They are mute swans. They came here, the story goes, from Long Island, where a wealthy man had imported them to his estate from England in the '20s: the queen's own swans. I had seen the same kind on the Thames. When the man lost his fortune in the crash of '29, the grounds went to ruin, and the swans left to feed from other ponds. Their population no longer controlled, they spread across Long Island and then came north into Connecticut and Rhode Island. They are beautiful and nasty. They are fiercely territorial, and when threatened they attack -- bodies high, necks thrusting, beaks wide and hissing, enormous wings flapping so powerfully they could easily snap my arm in two. It is not difficult to imagine how poor Leda was carried off by a swan to be raped. From time to time the swan population begins to overwhelm this marsh pond; the birds' necks are so long that they feed easily off the shallow bottom. They make it difficult for the smaller ducks to find nourishment. Some of the swans keep their necks underwater so long that their feathers become green with algae. Every once in a while someone starts a population control program, addling the large eggs and leaving them in the nests to fool the swans into slowing their production. It doesn't seem to work for long. Lately, though, some of the swans, perhaps feeling crowded, have pioneered the short flight to settle on Martha's Vineyard.
My arms ache, though I am not very far across the water. Taking the island that sits squarely in front of my house as a midway point, I give myself a rest. I balance my paddle across my lap, and as the boat drifts gently, I take an inventory of the other houses around the pond.