Carping over muddy ponds


Me and Mr. Matsuki, we’re developers. There — I’ve said it. We actually alter habitat. We haven’t got around to making golf courses yet, but about 10 years ago, when I bought another section of land to add to what is now the Nagano prefectural Afan Woodland Trust, there was a large section of it that my longtime forester and friend Matsuki-san (not even his wife would call him Nobuyoshi) said would never grow any good trees. By “good trees,” he means trees that will be big and thick and tall, and one day yield fine timber.

This was because just after World War II, the land was handed over at a nominal price to people returning from Manchuria. They denuded it of trees, put in heavy equipment, dug some rough surface drains, and tried to make fields and paddies. These failed, and the land was left. The part Matsuki said was useless for trees always got waterlogged in spring because the ground had been flattened by some kind of heavy machinery. Tens of thousands of tadpoles would flourish there briefly in shallow surface ponds, but these would soon dry up and the tadpoles would die. However, a meter or so below the dried surface, the soil was boggy with viscous, sticky, iron-rich mud that suffocated, or drowned, tree roots. To grow “good trees” there, we would either have to drain away water by laying deep drainage systems, or dig a suitable pond.

We opted for a pond.

On this rare occasion, Matsuki and I were in agreement: We did not want a concrete-lined water box; it must be as “natural” as possible. I envisaged a literary pond, an old-style one into which frogs would plop. Whatever, it would have to be about the size of a school swimming pool, and deep enough to drain water from the surrounding soil.

To excavate our pond we used a backhoe, and to reduce damage to the forest floor we brought the machine in on a temporary road of logs. During construction, the backhoe nearly got swallowed up in the red mud, but we struggled on and reached harder earth about 1 1/2 meters down. Here we found shards of pottery. Oops!

Most developers in Japan would ignore the rules and hide this. Not us. We reported the finds to the local authorities and stopped work. The shards turned out to be from the period of the Yayoi Pottery Culture, which history books tells us replaced the nearly 8,000-year-long Jomon Pottery Culture around the third century B.C., then lasted for around 600 years. But as the pond was simple, and the finds “insignificant,” the authorities said we could go on with our developing.

So, I wanted an old-style pond, didn’t I. What I got was a new pond with an old name — Yayoi Pond. Very posh. Now for the plopping frogs.

We put in a pipe through an earthen dike to take off the overflow. To reinforce this bank we put in wooden pilings, woven together with willow. The willows grew, with their roots strengthening the bank and their branches giving shade. We planted some rushes and reeds for water-life cover, and so dragonfly nymphs could climb them when they emerged. We also planted cherry trees along one curve of the bank, while the other edged onto natural woodland and a bog that is a golden carpet of marsh marigolds in early summer. At the time I had an argument with Matsuki about irises, which I won by sheer sneaky subterfuge, so irises went in, too. Otherwise we left the pond to nature.

My oh my, did the tadpoles flourish! We got dragonflies, mayflies, wagtails and mallards, too. By the end of that first summer I could enjoy all the frog plops the most devoted haiku fan could ever wish for.

Then one of my friends put in some carp. They flourished, and because of their habit of gobbling and then ejecting mud to sieve it for edibles, the once-clear water soon grew murky. The carp spawned and, in their thrashing passion, uprooted most of my irises. I hated them. And I’ll swear that just to get back at me over the irises, Matsuki fed them. He boiled up fresh new potatoes with wholegrain rice and best lard. He cooked for them, indeed, with all kinds of extra calcium and protein — and they went forth and multiplied.

The result was a sharp drop in plopping frogs and a plenitude of carp fry. This drew kingfishers, flashing over the pond like multicolored jewels. This delighted me, although we’d not thought of kingfishers when we dug Yayoi Pond. So we decided to dig another pond next to it — this time leaving an earthen bank into which kingfishers could burrow and make their nests.

So, more development, and behold — Kingfisher Pond!

On one side we made a gentle slope on which I planted, yes, irises. I was adamant that no carp would go into this pond! However, the next year’s rainfall was so heavy that water — and carp — overflowed from Yayoi into Kingfisher. And lo, the carp went forth and multiplied again, and Kingfisher Pond’s once-clear waters became muddy as well.

The great Matsuki-Nicol carp debate has been going on for years. After the woodland was turned over to the trust this May, though, I sneakily got the board of directors behind me and we voted to get rid of carp — starting with Kingfisher Pond.

As our new trust had found a generous sponsor in the Ricoh company, we held an event for their staff and children in October, when 17 children and 16 adults came to Kurohime to partake in a great muddy carpfest.

We drained Kingfisher Pond and let the kids loose. With the help of parents they scooped up fish, squealing with delight (the kids, not the fish). We measured and separated their haul into species, which we found to be almost entirely common carp (koi; Cyprinus carpio), which have large scales and barbels (little fleshy mustachy things, not training weights) on their upper lips, or crucian carp (funa; Carssius carassius), which are smaller and carry no barbels.

We got 639 of the little crucians, weighing 7 kg in all, and 133 of the bigger ones, which tipped the scales at 20.7 kg. Altogether, they ranged in length from under 10 cm to over 49 cm. We also caught frogs, loaches, newts and dragonfly nymphs, all of which were later studied, then released. I dissected a couple of carp to show and explain the function of their inner workings, comparing them to other vertebrates, like us, for example. Ladies might squeal at the sight of guts, but kids, though they might make faces, just revel in innards!

The smaller fish we transferred to another small pond nearby, where we can net and use them at ease through the winter. The larger ones were cooked that night for a big feast for the children, their parents, our helpers and staff. Having been raised in good, chilly mountain water, these fish weren’t at all muddy in taste despite all the muck they’d sucked in and stirred up in the ponds.

We had a traditional Japanese country dish called koi-koku, which is carp chunks cooked with miso soup — and huge pots of it. And guess who did most of the slaughtering, gutting and cooking? Hah! Revenge! It was Matsuki no less. I must admit though, he makes a far better koi-koku than I do. But he certainly looks grumpy when we all threaten to drain Yayoi Pond next year. Hah, ha ha!