I'm sitting on my shady back porch, sipping a cold beer and meditating on a clump of fist-sized poppies the colour of red sockeye. A wave of fragrance from the lavender announces Felix, who bursts out of the garden with something long, thin and tail-like hanging from his mouth. Rat, I think, reminding myself to turn the compost. But then the tail flexes and kicks the air with a delicate webbed foot and I jump up just in time to unclamp the cat's jaws from around a comatose bullfrog.
As I reach to pick it up, it leaps into the pond with a small, musical splash and dives under the lily pads.
I'm not the only one in my struggling Toronto neighbourhood with a passion for ponds. There are four of us on my Parkdale street who spend our summers wading in slime and our extra cash on bottles of Pond Detox.
In the big picture -- where affluent suburbanites disguise their swimming pools with boulders trucked in from the Shield, build waterfalls to rival Niagara and stock their private lagoons with $1,000 Japanese koi the size of pinto ponies -- our small efforts are decidedly of the working-class variety.
We're just trying to create little oases of peace and quiet on a street dominated by twin high-rise towers that often make me feel like I'm living under the volcano.
It was the soothing promise of running water that hooked me, and my fellow pond-keepers agree. If we all turn up our jet pumps high enough, the water music almost drowns out the thumping bass of cars rolling in the laneway.
Heading out of the wild lands on the Lansdowne bus, my pondy neighbours and I discuss the price of aerators, the pros and cons of different algae fighters, cures for fish bloat and cottonmouth, and how the goldfish look like orange popsicles through the pond ice in winter like members of some strange aquatic cult. We swap nets and hoses and fountain attachments, and moan about how our teensy water holes suck up time and money like quicksand bogs.
But we Parkdalians are resourceful types. By staying alert for garden centre blowouts, scavenging foundation stones from a demolished house and making an annual spring rite of bullrush- and tadpole-collecting trips to the Island, we've honed budget ponding to a fine art.
I've discovered that roofing membrane makes a good, cheap liner and that root-heavy marsh marigolds and hardy irises keep my little lake as clean -- well, almost -- as expensive filter systems. You won't find any Starter Pond Kits in our basements. We're closet installation artists, and our narrow, hidden yards are our galleries.
The pond two houses away is the pride of a saxophone-playing community advocate from Utrecht and his Filipina wife. The biggest pond on the street, we call it the Zuider Zee. Approached through a jungle of giant, red-flagged cannas, it harbours an impressive collection of found garden nymphs and a dozen fat yellow carp that churn up the water like baby sharks. Fed up with de-mucking his bio-filter every week, Lex has switched to a sump pump, which, he gleefully tells me, sucks up algae and fish poo like a monstrous bottom feeder.
Lex also has a thing for tadpoles. But as soon as they get their legs, they hop over to my pond in search of more spacious digs, miraculously navigating two chain-link fences, the burdock field behind the abandoned house and a backyard playground.
The kidney-shaped plastic pond next door to me was rescued from the garbage by my hair-cutting neighbour and mounted on concrete breeze-blocks. Never mind boring bladderwort or bog beans for Sasha. Her plants -- red and white impatiens in a wavy Canadian-flag pattern -- would look great on television. Her only wildlife is a battery-operated Guard Frog. "I think I'll buy a heater and turn it into a hot tub," Sasha says.
The newest water feature on the street is lovingly referred to as "my Yuanming" by its creator, a cook from Hong Kong. William is the formalist among us. The centrepiece of a miniature palace garden, his pond is a simple cement bowl full of fan-tailed goldfish for good luck. "The fountain and plants will have to wait till next year, after I put up a fence," William laments while picking up fast-food wrappings and chicken bones from the parking spot next door.
My pond is a lot like the lakes where I passed slow summers as a kid, biking along the sun-baked, dusty sideroads of the Oak Ridges Moraine to catch tadpoles, minnows and painted turtles. When I stand at the edge of my small body of water watching algae the colour of KFC coleslaw lapping against the stones and the red comets spawning in the cattails, it's like I'm standing on the breezy shore of Lake Simcoe.
And when the fountain spray sparkles in the afternoon sun, I'm in a motorboat with my dad again on a crystal-clear bass lake up north.
I know that my small backyard in gritty Parkdale is a long way from cottage country. And that although our humble ponds have introduced a bit of nature to the street, they haven't changed it a whole lot. But this 6-by-8-foot hole filled with tap water and wild things has sure changed me.
Why work myself into a sweat over the boom box across the street when I can stay cool watching Turtle bask on his clay-pot island as turtles have done for millions of years.