There was a lovely weeping willow tree in the backyard of our new house in Portland when we bought the place. Its canopy covered 2/3 of the backyard and extended over the fence line on two sides and the house on the third. From the time we moved in (in late August) until October, we enjoyed frequent breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks, happy hour beers or drinks, and suppers under its cool shade. We lived under it.
However, one of the trunks was badly rotted out and we decided it would be best to remove it rather than risk it coming down in an inopportune windstorm. We interviewed three arborists and hired Hedgehog Tree Care to do the job. Very nice, careful and safe, environmentally sensitive job they did, too. Bravo. And for what I thought was a fair price. That was on October 4.
Since I am nearly always eager to get out into the yard, I took some time one unseasonably warm December afternoon to pull winter weeds. In the process I struck a bit of concrete near where the willow had been. A bit of digging revealed a concrete, rectangular box about 18 inches long a bit less wide and deep, filled in with muddy soil.
I didn’t think much about it until we had a fence installed along the portion of the south side of our property that wasn’t already fenced. Then in early January after leveling some of the soil that had been dug for the posts, I decided to investigate that concrete box and dig it out. It looked to me like an old concrete water meter box, but was in an odd place for that and I was curious.
Soon enough I discovered that the box had four rusty pipes going through its sides. Following one of them, I found more buried concrete. After a couple days of heavy digging, it was clear that I had discovered an old, buried concrete fish pond. An underground, in-ground, swimming pool, I quipped.
The thing was well built. A lovely six-by-three-foot crescent shape with stones cemented into the top of the sides and a nice finish coat of robin’s-egg-blue smooth concrete. The concrete “meter” box had apparently housed a pump and perhaps controls for filling the pond.
The pond itself had been filled in with moderate-sized stones (not too big for me to lug) and 3/4-minus crushed stone. (I had just been wondering the day before where I would find some stones for a low wall and some crushed stone for a walk I wanted to create. I must remember to be careful what I ask for!)
That willow tree — I had told others that I thought willows belonged beside a pond or stream, not in a small backyard — had been planted right where it should have been, just beside the pond. One of its roots — a good three-inches in diameter — had grown over and across the filled-in pond, so clearly the pond had been decommissioned for a couple of decades or more.
I gave almost-serious consideration to restoring it since it was mostly in very good condition, with no obvious cracks. I imagined water lilies, frogs, goldfish, and a babbling fountain.
But that made no sense at all, given the design (steep and slippery walls), depth (a good three feet), and the fact that we have toddler-aged grandchildren. Someone else (an attorney) suggested that it would have raised our homeowners insurance premium substantially. Another new friend said that Portlanders discovered long ago that keeping koi was like setting the dinner table for raccoons. They had already apparently been responsible for the dimise of two of the neighbors’ three hens (I won’t mention the moderately annoying, accidental rooster here).
So I set to work breaking up the concrete and removing it. First I had to buy a new sledge hammer — I had sold one in our yard sale before we moved from Carlisle, of course. But I really don’t mind supporting the Division Do It Best Hardware store down the street. More good folks in a wonderful old-fashioned neighborhood hardware store of the sort that Home Depot and Lowes have — alas — mostly put out of business. Judy chastised me for not having first sought to borrow one from a neighbor or my son-in-law. But no project is worth doing unless you can buy a new tool for it!
Like other concrete I’ve had to remove, this was very well constructed. Embedded heavy reinforcing wire and chicken-wire fencing held it together. The bottom was a good five or six inches thick. So I whaled away (yes, Mom, with heavy gloves and goggles) at it and gradually reduced it to rubble.
Beneath the concrete was one huge willow root — a foot across — and a lot of smaller ones, which I also removed. Once the rubble had been moved to the driveway, the stones set aside for wall construction, and the crushed stone salvaged, I set to work filling the hole back in with soil that had been dug out. I was surprised that I was able to fill it 3/4 or more. Still need some additional material to bring it up to the level of the surrounding yard.
But at least now I can plant there and expect whatever goes in to have at least a fighting chance of survival without dipping its roots into water-logged soil (most plants need air around their roots).
The project was finished just before the wet weather arrived. Thank goodness we’ve had a moderate and dry winter so far! Today snow flurries and a very wet week is forecast ahead with “wintery mix” of snow, rain, and sleet. (We need the water. May the snowpack increase in the Cascades from the current too small portion of normal for early January.)
I’m left pondering (pardon the pun) what significance to place on this whole thing. (It is the second time I’ve discovered an unknown buried pond in the back yard of property we’ve owned. I could even say in every home Judy and I have owned together.)
It does seem to me a shame that so much work had been covered over. I can feel the pride of creating and enjoying the water feature on the part of a previous owner, and his/her care in design and construction. I can also imagine a subsequent owner determined to remove it and after discovering the difficulty of breaking out the concrete, deciding instead to cover it over. And I would guess that the most-recent prior owner/occupier (who was only here for two or three years) and the “flipper” from whom we bought it had no more idea that we did that this thing was sitting there just under the ground.
From a psychic (and Feng shui?) perspective it seems inauspicious to cover over a water feature. It feels like the ghost of the pond produced odd vibes in the yard. And besides it was in the sector of the yard that should be for fire and sun, not water. Perhaps extinguishing the fire energy?
And I wonder if a tragic loss led someone to cover it over in grief and the rage of anger? Did someone perhaps drown in it? Or was it the great love of a deceased or departed spouse and covered over by her or his survivor who never wanted it anyway? Or was it covered up at the request on an insurance underwriter? Like the rot in the willow, it represented a problem that needed to be addressed in order to clear the area for different hardscaping, planting, and enjoyment.
And here is another reminder that I’m no longer 35, as my beloved wife said when I told her I used to be able to work that hard for six or eight or even ten hours a day, but now was exhausted and sore after just two or three hours of heavy labor. On the other hand, I have all the time in the world now that I am retired. I could get rid of that rubble by putting one chunk in the trash every-other week (Portland’s new biweekly trash pickup schedule began last fall — recycling and compostables ever week — trash every other).
And last I wonder why I didn’t suspect something sooner. There was a row of rocks sticking up from the soil that I had noticed and thought looked like someone’s attempt to but a border along the lawn. (You can see them in the first image, along in front of where the arborist is standing.) But why was there a willow root growing along them so near the surface? And why didn’t I wonder that not much was growing in that area while all around it were abundant weeds and invasives? Guess I won’t make much of a detective — in this life at least.
Now rest, gentle soil, let the rain soak in and drain away. And compost down to new organic soil, you remaining chunks of willow root. Prepare for new and wondrous things to come this spring.