Ponds, Beaver Ponds, Arctic and Antarctic Ponds, and Walden Pond

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

When I read this sad story, of which more below, I had a forehead-striking moment that having posted on estuaries, rivers, streams, lakes, and swamps, I had never posted on ponds. So herewith. Getting the obligatory Monty Python reference out of the way:

The peasant Dennis undermines Arthur’s legitimacy not only with reason (“no basis for a system of government”) but by challenging the rhetoric of the Arthurian Legend itself, substituting the plebian pond (“strange women lying in ponds”) for the wellborn Lake (“The Lady of the Lake”).

And indeed there’s something subversive about ponds. Although their etymology comes from pound, enclosure, they seem ill-defined at the edges. They seem ephemeral. Though sometimes they are not. Beaver ponds and alligator holes enrich ecologies. Ponds from melting permafrost or glaciers signal (and accelerate) climactic change. Ponds resist classification: The Wikipedia entry for Walden Pond begins: “Walden Pond is a lake…” but then goes on to refer to it as a pond (lower case “p”) throughout. Ponds are strange things!

Regardless, I went looking for a classification system for ponds, along with a definition. Wikipedia defines a pond as “an area filled with water, either natural or artificial, that is smaller than a lake” (and we see again Dennis’s subtle diminution of Arthur). Which strikes me as pretty vague, and Wikipedia goes on to admit that “the technical distinction between a pond and a lake has not been universally standardized…. Accordingly, some organizations and researchers have settled on technical definitions of pond and lake that rely on size alone.” (Of course, they can’t agree on the size. Wikipedia only presents technical definitions based on size; later I’ll present what looks to me like a better one.) We can forget about artificial ponds; I’ll leave ornamental ponds, swimming pools, Crystal Lagoons®, hog lagoons, and water hazards on golf courses for another time.

Small size, I think, leads people to think of “this pond” as “my pond.” I’ve never seen so many photos of any body of water as I saw when collecting material for this post. Many are beautiful, since most ponds are still water[1], their unruffled surfaces reflect sky, trees, clouds:

And this one:

“The pond” is my pond:

Of course, not all ponds are placid, or that small:

Pace Wikipedia, there are at least two classification systems for ponds that are not size-driven. The first comes from The Nature Conservancy, “A Lake and Pond Classification System for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States” (PDF). This was a 2014 effort to design a classification system that would cover all the lakes and ponds fo the Northeast. Here is the key slide:

Initially, I was tempted to classify this classification system as a failure, simply because there were a lot of different agencies and stakeholders round the table. I’ve been to meetings like that, and I saw the complexity (33 pond types? Really) as a resolution of institutional conflict. (And I’m also extremely suspicious of classification systems that have a bucket called “Miscellaneous,” because the lazy or ignorant will throw too much in that bucket. So, “Unclassifiable”? Really?) But on further consideration, I’m not sure I’m correct; nature is complex, and the Northeast is big. Plus the projects. maps are beautiful.

Nevertheless, this classification system is more congenial to me, because it reminds me of the ponds on the plains of my youth in the Midwest. From United States Department of The Interior Fish And Wildlife Service, Bureau Of Sport Fisheries And Wildlife, “Classification of Natural Ponds And Lakes in the Glaciated Prairie Region” (1971):

Here is the method used to design the classification, from pp 7-8:

Seven major classes of wetland in natural basin are recognized on the basis of ecological differentiation. Each class is distinguished by the vegetational zone occurring in the central or deeper part and occupying 5 per cent or more of the total wetland area being classified.

The Nature Conservancy taxonomy considers temperature, trophic state, alkalinity, and depth. Unlike the Fish and Wildlife taxonomy, it does not consider vegetation. That seems odd. If one wishes the consider the pond as an ecological being, surely the vegetation it contains and that surrounds it should be part of the equation? In any case, choosing a pond classification system is above my paygrade; but at least we know that the problem is more interesting than Wikipedia makes out.

Ponds may also be classified by life-cycle stages (and their lives tends to end). From the Missouri Botanical Garden, which also provides a brutally simple definition of the term:

A geological event, such as a glacier or sink hole, can create a pond. Ponds are nothing more than shallow holes where water collects[2]. Yet, if left alone, ponds will fill in with dirt and debris until they become land.

More formally, from artificial pond-marker Kasko, “Pond & Lake Life Cycle“:

Ponds or lakes are divided into 3 categories; they are either Oligotrophic, Mesotrophic, or Eutrophic stages of their life (listed youngest to oldest).

Oligotrophic bodies of water are considered new or young ponds or lakes in the overall scheme of things. Oligotrophic ponds and lakes have a low concentration of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. They typically have steep sloping shorelines and are deep and clear. The bottom of the pond or lake is typically sand, gravel, or rock.

When Thoreau describes Walden Pond — supposing it to be a pond — he is describing an oligotrophic pond:

The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description. It is a clear and deep green well… The surrounding hills rise abruptly from the water to the height of forty to eighty feet… Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Viewed from a hill-top it reflects the color of the sky; but near at hand it is of a yellowish tint next the shore where you can see the sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark green in the body of the pond. In some lights, viewed even from a hill-top, it is of a vivid green next the shore.

Back to Kasko:

Mesotrophic bodies of water are considered middle aged, geologically. Mesotrophic lakes fall in the middle, between oligotrophic and eutrophic lakes. They have more nutrients and, therefore, more plant and algae growth than oligotrophic lakes and pond, but less than eutrophic. As a pond or lake ages from oligotrophic to mesotrophic, the sides of the pond begin to slope less and the bottom of the pond begins to fill in with organic material. The substrate that was once rock, sand, or gravel, now consists of mud on top of the rocks.

Eutrophic bodies of water are considered old or dying ponds or lakes. Eutrophic lakes and ponds are extremely well nourished with nitrogen and phosphorus, leading to an abundance of aquatic plant growth. As the pond or lake continues to age, the sides continue to flatten out and what were once steep sides is now gently sloping. The bottom of the pond is now filled with organic sediment and mud. The overall depth of the pond or lake is continually decreasing and the clarity continues to decrease. As the pond or lake fills in and the weeds grow larger, the total open water area shrinks as well. If left alone, the pond or lake will eventually fill in completely, and become a swamp or wetland at best.

Of course, these stages are not inevitable; they are affected by the pond’s ecology, in particular megafauna. From the Guardian, “Blasts from the past: how ice age ponds are coming back to life“:

“If you leave a pond it will naturally, in most cases, silt up and turn into a bog or a woodland,” says Dave Hutton, ice age ponds project officer at Herefordshire Wildlife Trust. “Without those natural processes, like aurochs and large mammals traipsing around and keeping them open, ponds and their wildlife tend to disappear. We’re acting like beavers and other large herbivores and keeping them open.”

And aurochs bring me to the poor elephants whose fate induced me to write this post. From Smithsonian, “Toxic Algae Caused Mysterious Widespread Deaths of 330 Elephants in Botswana“:

For months, what killed the more than 300 elephants between late April and June was a mystery, with many wondering if poachers were somehow involved or if something sinister might be at play. Now, officials say the pachyderms were laid low by toxic blue-green algae that had polluted their drinking water, reports BBC News.

Botswana is home to the world’s largest population of elephants—roughly 130,000 and rising—making the country a premier destination for wildlife tourism, report Mqondisi Dube and Max Bearak for the Washington Post.

The blooms of blue-green algae, which is actually not a true algae but a type of cyanobacteria, took hold in seasonal pools of water used by elephants, says Cyril Taolo, Botswana’s acting director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. The deaths came to a halt once these ephemeral ponds dried up, reports Sello Motseta of the Associated Press.

In other words, the ponds had reached the Eutrophic stage, and the blue-green algae produced by eutrophication killed the elephants.

From aurochs and elephants, who come to ponds to drink, we turn to megafauna that build ponds[3]. First, beavers. On the bright side, Smoky the Beaver prevents forest fires (or at least ameliorates their effects). From Emily Fairfax, Beavers and Wildfire:

TL;DR: water from beaver ponds is spread around the landscape in little channels the beavers dig. The pond water slowly seeps into the soil, keeping it wet and plants green. When wildfires come through, the beaver wetlands are too wet to burn. Can’t start a campfire with soggy sticks. Beavers = Firefighters

Fairfax presents these aerial photographs:

The caption:

Top panel photograph from California Manter Fire Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER ) Team. Bottom panels from Google Earth satellite imagery of Buzzard Complex fire in Oregon.

That’s the bright side. On the dark, or at least a different side, beavers are accelerating permafrost melt. From WBUR, “The Unusual Connection Between Beavers, Permafrost And Climate Change“:

Over the last 20 to 50 years, satellite imagery has shown beavers moving from the boreal forest to build ponds in the Arctic tundra…. The influx of beavers building ponds is starting to thaw the permafrost — land that’s been frozen for at least two years but often hundreds or thousands of years — under the ground…. “Evolution has taught beavers to be almost perfect hydrologic engineers,” [University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Ken Tape] says. “They know where to put their dams. They are very efficient, and they’re incredibly industrious.”…. Permafrost makes the beavers moving up into the tundra a global concern. When beavers flood the tundra to make ponds, the water transfers heat to the ground and starts thawing the permafrost, releasing the greenhouse gases stored inside, he says…. “[Beavers are] really creating these focal points or oases on the landscape for boreal species to gain a foothold in the Arctic,” Tape says.

I wonder if the climate models include the effects of beavers building ponds, and what the effects are. (Since they tend to complexify the ecology, I would speculate they are good.)

Our second pond-building megafauna is the alligator (amazingly enough). From Wired — this article really is fun, I now stan for gators — “The Creature Feature: 10 Fun Facts About the American Alligator“:

5. Alligators are ecosystem engineers. Alligators play an important role in their wetland ecosystems by creating small ponds known as alligator holes. Alligator holes retain water during the dry season and provide habitats for other animals.

Here is a gator hole (Anita Gould):

(It really does seem to be hard to take a picture of a pond that’s not beautiful.) In Defense of Plants describes how and why alligators build their holes, and the habitats they create in “Alligators Increase Plant Diversity“:

[Alligator] activity level changes during the dry season when water is in short supply. Gators don’t sit back and let nature take its course. They spring into action and create their own aquatic refuges.

As the surrounding landscape begins to dry, gators will excavate holes or pits in the soggy ground called gator holes. These holes hold onto water when most of the surrounding landscape isn’t. … When a gator excavates a gator hole, it creates variation in both hydrology and soil conditions.

Soils that have built up over time are lifted out of the hole and piled into mounds. Mounded soils are not only rich in nutrients, they also dry at different rates, creating a gradient in water availability. Plants that normally can’t germinate and grow in saturated soils find suitable spots to live up on the soil mounds while emergent aquatic vegetation fills in along the parameter. Plants that normally prefer to grow in deeper water can also establish within the gator hole itself. In the midst of fairly uniform marsh vegetation, a gator hole quickly becomes a hotbed of plant diversity. The differences in vegetation can be so stark compared to the surrounding landscape that some scientists can actually map gator holes using aerial scans simply by measuring the differences in infrared radiation given off by the leaves of all the different plants that establish around them.

Of course, all of that plant diversity has a huge effect on other organisms as well. Gator holes become important areas for various reptiles, amphibians, birds, and so much more. The paths that alligators take to and from their holes even act like fire breaks, changing the way fire moves through the landscape, which only increases the heterogeneity of the immediate area. Fish, though occasionally eaten, greatly benefit from the stability of water levels within a gator hole. All in all, gator holes are extremely important habitats.

Finally, melt ponds may accelerate, or at least affect, climate change in both Arctic permafrost and the Antarctic ice sheet. First, the arctic. From Phys.org, “Permafrost in the Arctic can thaw faster than presumed“:

Air temperatures are increasing in high latitudes and in high mountain areas dominated by permafrost in the ground…. [One] consequence is that ice layers in the ground start to melt, so that the ground subsides and depressions with ponds and lakes form. This landscape change [is] known as “thermokarst.” … Among scientists, the general assumption is that thermokarst processes locally lead to faster thawing of permafrost. “However, with our model, we have also considered stabilizing processes that can slow down thawing. We were amazed that under a moderate warming scenario, thermokarst processes can even limit the thawing of permafrost”, [says Jan Nitzbon from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany]. Under a stronger warming scenario, however, self-reinforcing processes dominated, which would drastically change these landscapes due to accelerated permafrost thaw.

Here’s a photograph of thermokarst:

And now the Antartic. From The Conversation, “Antarctica now has more than 65,000 ‘meltwater lakes’ as summer ice melts.” They call them lakes, but I’m gonna think of them as ponds:

Scientists already knew that lakes form on the Antarctic ice sheet….[S]cientists are particularly interested in these lakes because they may contribute to destabilising the ice shelves and ice sheet in future.

Like a sponge, the more that ice shelves become saturated with meltwater, the less they are able to absorb, meaning more water pools on their surfaces as lakes. More surface lakes mean a greater likelihood that water will drain out, fill crevasses and potentially trigger flexing and fracturing. If this were to occur, other ice shelves around Antarctica may start to disintegrate like Larsen B. Glaciers with floating ice tongues protruding into the ocean may also be vulnerable.

* * *

So concludes another perambulation through the biosphere, this one truly mind-bending for me, since I had not thought that “shallow holes where water collects” could deliver so many of what Davos Man would call ecosystem services, ka-ching. Having started with Monty Python, I will end with Pink Floyd:

Grantchester Meadows once included a fen and a marsh, hence we may think of them as a Eutrophic, filled-in pond.


[1] Freshwater ecosystems are generally divided into two categories: lotic (running water, as rivers, streams, creeks, etc.) and lentic (still water, as ponds, lakes, marshes, bogs, etc.).

[2] “Nothing more.” Sounds like the writer has been fighting through some of the same source material I’ve been.

[3] I have not included feral hog wallows. I do not know whether they are beneficial or not. I suspect not.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carolinian

    Another wrinkle is that these days environmental rules require builders of large parking lots or paved areas to supply a catchment pond to keep the chemicals that drip out of cars from flowing into fresh water streams. Look at any shopping center on Google Earth and you will spot a previously unnoticed pond nearby–behind Walmart a Lake Walmart.

    In my area we had a surge of beavers a few years ago but I think the owners of property developments and artificial lakes don’t appreciate the engineering help and break these dams up. Beavers do like to take down trees that are in and near water bodies by girdling them.

    1. Bill Smith

      The catchment ponds are also designed to catch the water so it slows down the total amount that heads downstream at once. Where I live the building code requires the catchment ponds store 1 inch of rain water.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > environmental rules require builders of large parking lots or paved areas to supply a catchment pond to keep the chemicals that drip out of cars from flowing into fresh water streams

      A rational fix for a system that optimizes for giant metal constructs that leak toxic material when stationary.

      I think beavers should be given priority over developers, as agents in good standing of whichever ecological person they are working for.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      Irish highway construction manuals specify such ponds and pools to reduce polluted run-off from road surfaces, they are supposed to be built at regular intervals, but they’ve been a pollution nightmare, actually increasing ground water pollution everywhere they’ve been built.

      A hydrologist friend (actually, a professor of hydrology) was looking into why this was happening – it turns out the Irish engineering standards body simply copied US standards – but Irish geology is very different, our water tables are far higher. The deep ponds specified in US standards simply allow contaminated water to enter groundwater systems directly when applied in Ireland.

      The solution should be pretty simple – shallower ponds with impermeable bases, or a larger number of smaller ponds – but my friend says engineers are remarkably resistant to change once something has been written into the standards. And engineering standards bodies are equally resistant to changing anything they’ve written in the past, getting highly defensive about them. So these ponds keep getting built even though everyone knows they are counter productive.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Irish highway construction manuals specify such ponds and pools to reduce polluted run-off from road surfaces, they are supposed to be built at regular intervals, but they’ve been a pollution nightmare, actually increasing ground water pollution everywhere they’ve been built.


  2. Swamp Yankee

    It’s an interesting feature of Southeastern Massachusetts that we use the term “pond” for bodies of water that would be called a lake in Minnesota or Michigan. The Town of Plymouth is the largest geographically in Massachusetts, at 144 square miles, roughly the size of Luxembourg. It’s said Plymouth has a pond — typically glacial kettle ponds — for each day in the year.

    But this is not accurate — it actually has more, something like 450! When you zoom out to take in all of the Old Plymouth Colony/SE Mass (Plymouth, Bristol, and Barnstable Counties), which includes Cape Cod, you get a figure of over 3,000 ponds, many of them connected by small streams, or separated only by narrow, steep, glacial ridges.

    These are critical not only in ecological terms (e.g., SE Mass. served as a refugium for otters a hundred years ago, from which it is probable they repopulated the Commonwealth), but also economically. Tourists, canoers, campers, and fishermen are drawn to these bodies of water in the warm months, providing a huge influx of jobs and cash to communities that are often quite poor.

    They are a major feature of the landscape and life in this part of the world. Thanks for the write-up, Lambert.

  3. ObjectiveFunction

    Pondage is also the unit of measure for the temporary (wait for it!) pond formed behind the weir of a run-of-river hydropower plant. Its purpose is to create a limited daily impoundment (storage) for peaking or load balancing purposes, and in some cases to gain headroom.

    1. Susan the other

      And the old mill ponds. Now that was a leisurely time. Industrialization at a pond’s pace. We might wanna consider that one again.

    2. HotFlash

      Mr. HotFlash, back in the 60’s, worked at Riverside Press in Boston. The machines had originally been powered by water, the Charles. The same overhead drive shaft and the leather belt power take-offs that ran the machines were still in use. All that had changed was that the overhead power drive had been switched to electricity. I believe that Lambert worked in a textile factory of similar vintage. My MIL worked in a Bata shoe factory back in Slovakia, before WWII, there was a roof but no walls (for the light). My grandma sewed clothes for her family of 10 on a treadle sewing machine.

      When people go all “OMG, we’re gonna DIE!!!!” about getting off fossil fuels, I think about all the stuff we managed to do without fossil fuels, up to 150, 200 years ago. Cathedral of Notre Dame, no fossil fuels; Pyramids, no cranes, no Dewalt, not even Black and Decker. Survival will be a matter of change in priorities, not quality of life. Great music, great art, good and sufficient food, good friends — we can still have all of this without fossil fuels.

      Unless Capitalism prefers to put the whole planet down for short-term profit and we don’t fight it hard enough.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I don’t know if we can ever fight it successfully from ” in front “. We may have to figure out how to undermine it from behind and below.

        A semi-parable occurred to me once.

        You can bring a ten ton elephant to the Washington Monument and have the elephant push till forever . . . and it will not fall over.

        Or you can bring ten tons of moles and gophers to the Washington Monument and have them dig all the soil out from underneath one side of it. Give them enough time to do enough digging, and it will fall over.

        Or you can bring ten tons of protesters to march around the Washington Monument, waving their little signs at it and screaming their screechy little screams at it till forever. It won’t respond. It don’t gots no ears, you dig?

        ( Nothing against the Washington Monument itself. I just use it as a symbol of something very big and heavy, which can’t be pushed over. Like capitalism).

  4. anon in so cal

    Thanks for this, only skimmed it, bookmarked for later; it looks fascinating and the photos/tweets are beautiful. So very sad about the elephants.

  5. Joe Well

    In Spanish, the words are “lago” and “laguna” for lake and pond (except a very small artificial pond, like a koi pond, is just an “estanque”), and in general people just use them casually like we do in English.

    But you inspired me to search, and apparently there is a simple formal distinction: lagos are connected to rivers or other bodies of water, and lagunas are just unconnected standing water. This means that lagunas can shrink a lot and even dry up completely, but not lagos.

    Why don’t we just adopt that distinction in English?

    Except it means that some pretty big bodies of water would be “ponds.”

    1. Ignacio

      Very good job with a small caveat Joe. The distinction is mainly about size. Lagunas is very frequently applied to mountain lakes (think off small lakes of glaciar origin not far from the top of mountains in temperate regions) and many of these have nearly constant water sources that might not be considered rivers but mountain streams. So the formal distinction you mention holds but not to be taken too literal. There is another word and it is ‘esteros‘ which is applied to shallow ponds or lakes that are formed in the plains during the rainy season. These can be very large. This is mostly applied to seasonal plain-floods such as in Doñana Natl. Park, or the immense flooded plains in some regions in South America in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia etc. The lands of capibaras, crocodiles, piranhas that are so productive during the rainy season and sustain millions of fishing birds and communities.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        I’d love to hear from any multi-linguists here – I think the words used in languages are very reflective of local landscapes and how people saw water bodies. For example, what you describe as lagunas were in old Irish called coum, which was a specific word for upland glacier lakes. The old Norse word was tarn, while the French called them cirques. Interestingly, all those words were absorbed into technical English to describe those glacial lakes – it seems there was no original English word to describe them, as you might expect from a language of people from the plains.

        In Irish, a lough is a lake, while a pond is lachlan, while there is also the word linn, which I think implies an artificial pool, or just a waterbody. But in additional there are numerous other more specific words including dabhach (a deep, dark pool), turlough (a temporary limestone lake), snamh (a pool in a river) and so on. You could probably fill a book with all the Irish words for various types of muddy, boggy pools. I guess you’d expect all those words in a very wet country.

        I don’t have much Japanese, but from what I can work out the language is comparatively starved of words for waterbodies, with just 湖 mizumi (lake) and 池 ike (pond) plus words that are clearly derived from English or other languages, like the commonly used プール (puro). There may of course be lots of local dialect words I’m not aware of. But as Japan generally lacks much in the way of natural lakes and ponds due to its geology, I’d expect fewer words.

        1. Ignacio

          Indeed, there are local names!. For instance, the small glacier lakes in the Pyrenees are called ibón plural ibones. The origin of this word is Basque. In basque (euskara) rivers are termed ibai and the ibones are the sources of many ibai. So, this is a rare case of a word used in Spanish from Basque origin.I guess there must be many names for the same in the Alps in different languages.
          The Irish linn would be the equivalent to the Spanish estanque mentioned above by Joe. An artificial water deposit done for various possible reasons: landscaping, fish nursing, water reservoir… It doesn’t surprise me Irish has such a variety of names for different kinds of water deposits being such a wet Island. You don’t find that many in Spanish. Let me bring here the ‘cenotes‘, a mexican word of Mayan origin (ts’onot according to Wikipedia) for karstic lakes in the Yucatan Peninsula. Indeed, the karsts, with their open air and subterranean lakes they form must be a source of many variants of lakes in many languages.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            You remind me of another Irish word poul, which can mean a cave or hole, but also is applied to the deep pool at the foot of a waterfall. Its a very common place name in Ireland, they seem to have been considered sacred places, as the second element of the name is often something like ‘of the beast/worm/devil’.

            Years back I was doing some informal land survey work for a friend interested in buying some land to build a house. The engineer who did the first survey had marked a scrub filled depression with a tiny pond as an ‘old gravel pit’, and suggested that it was a good site for a house as it could be easily infilled. I could not help noticing that the local name for the field started with ‘poul’, so I did some research. Sure enough, on the oldest version of the ordnance survey maps showed that it was in fact a natural pool and deep cave entrance. Had they built a house there it most likely would not have lasted long.

          2. Basil Pesto

            Out of curiosity I looked up my French-English dictionary and got two results:

            l’étang – obviously a word parallel to the Spanish estanque, I looked up my Petit Robert and the etymology is interesting: from the latin stagnum, whence, of course, stagnant in English.

            la mare – whose etymology is I guess a bit more obvious. Defined as a small, relatively shallow body of water qui stagne – that remains still. It is derived from la marais – marsh – which is also the name of a famous quarter in Paris, traditionally home to its Jewish community.


      2. Joe Well

        So, it looks like that website I linked to just made everything up. Looking at it again, it doesn’t list any sources.

        I finally searched the RAE, and it says a laguna is just smaller than a lago. Other dictionaries say the same thing, some say the issue is depth rather than just size. I couldn’t find any websites that backed up the distinction made by that article.

        Also, I overstated what it said. It didn’t say lagunas aren’t connected to other bodies of water, just that they don’t empty into others so the water doesn’t turn over. But at any rate, it appears they are alone in this opinion.

        I trusted the internet not to make up stuff about geographic features but I was naive. :(

  6. PlutoniumKun

    Dublin is the only major city that I can think of that was actually founded on a pond – the Dubh linn (black tidal pool). The Vikings found it to be a convenient mooring point (it was right beside a local high point, perfect for a fort). It shows the relative value of a pond to a seafaring people compared to a crossing point for a herding people – the original Irish settlement nearby was ‘the town at the ford of hurdles’. The Viking name won out. The pond is long gone, but is now been excavated – as well as being a useful mooring place it seemed to have been useful for nefarious purposes.

    Your article reminded me that the early Celtic peoples of Europe considered dark pools to be sacred – many votive objects (and sometimes sacrificed bodies) have been found in ponds. Its been speculated that ponds used for this purpose were on the boundaries of tribal lands, and so considered to be entryways to the underworld. But the later Irish changed their focus to springs as the places where the underworld could be entered, and these became holy wells.

  7. PlutoniumKun

    For some reason, in Ireland the term ‘pond’ (or ‘pool’) only gets applied in the lowlands. Even the smallest permanent waterbody in the uplands gets the grand name of lake or loch. I would speculate that lowland ponds are considered to be ephemeral, while upland waterbodies were always historically important for navigation so attracted grander names. An ephemeral waterbody in the uplands in Ireland is generally just called a ‘hole’ or ‘bog hole’, something to be avoided as they can be very deep. Or snorkable. It should be said that some small northern hemisphere ponds can be very deep if they have a glacial origin, thats how they avoid silting up.

    Incidentally, the many long dried up ponds of the post-glacial period are very important economically in the northern hemispheres, they are a primary source of well sorted out construction sands. If you ever glance into a sand quarry you can tell if it had its origin as a glacial lake, because it will have distinct layering, rather than the chaotic make-up of direct glacial deposits. Glacial lakes were of course very oligotrophic, hence no nasty muds down there, they left behind sand as clean as the finest beach.

    I’d add one more form of pond, although they are generally called lakes – turloughs. These are not seasonal, but weather dependant – they are found only in limestone areas (I don’t think there is a single identified example in north America), mostly in Ireland. They are fed by underground lakes and appear and disappear at will according to rainfall patterns. They are highly oligotrophic and can be extraordinarily beautiful. They’ve caught out many an unsuspecting hiker who decided to pitch camp on a nice looking patch of lush open grass only to find themselves under water by morning, even if it didn’t rain.

  8. William Beyer

    Out in Minnesota, we call some of them “prairie potholes,” much prized by duck hunters as essential habitat for migratory waterfowl. Thanks for a nice read!

  9. Brian (another one they call)

    I live in the Beaver state but much like properly cleansing the forest, there are disagreements about how much they help or hinder. I wish to end my days being where they run the forest. I know it is far better than I could ever imagine.
    a brilliant read Lambert, thanks!

    1. HotFlash

      Yeah. Me 100% for beavers, but many farmers are not. Dynamiting beaver dams is a bucolic pastime in much of rural Ontario, and as a Kingston area farmer once told me, “If’n we didn’t dynamite, the whole damn province would be under water.”

  10. Wukchumni

    Beavers ought to reintroduced here, as there are none whatsoever now, but once upon a time…

    Jedediah Strong Smith was probably the first American to visit the Four Creeks area. Searching for a mythical river that supposedly flowed from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, he went south from Great Salt Lake, picked up the old Spanish Trail to the Colorado River, and, after crossing the Mojave Desert, eventually reached Mission San Gabriel late in 1826.

    Smith and his party were well treated by the Spanish but were regarded with suspicion and, in January 1827, were ordered to leave California by the same route by which they arrived. However, the party turned north from San Bernardino, crossed Cajón Pass into the desert, then over the Tehachapis into the San Joaquin Valley, probably by way of the old Garcés route. They traveled up the east side of the valley, trapping beaver on the Kern, Tule, Kaweah, and Kings Rivers as they went. Smith later reported this to be the best beaver country he had ever seen.


  11. Alex Cox

    For another city named after a pond, how about Liverpool? My old home town is a port, of course, but named around 1190 after a “pool with muddy water.”

    And then there are cenotes! These are found in Mayan country and may count as ponds. They are limestone sinkholes – rock most of the way down, and at the bottom of the pool you can often see daylight — shining in from an adjacent cenote. I was told that bold locals dive into one cenote, swim through the connecting tunnel, and emerge in another.

    I didn’t dare to try this. But cenotes are beautiful, and worth the attention of the pond enthusiast.

  12. Hana M

    This post “could not have fallen more happily.” The word pond instantly conjures one of my favorite Stephen Maturin lines from the Patrick O’Brian sea sagas: “I am with child to see a dew pond!”

  13. HotFlash

    , and the main street and shoppoing areas have persisted)These guys are called lakes, but I think they are probably ponds. This, the Experimental Lakes Project, was shut down by the Stephen Harper Conservative (similar to Republican) government in 2013. If there was a full-throated restoration by the Liberal victors, I never heard it. Apparently the project is still running, thanks to alternate (somewhat murky — still trying to dig through all those foundations) funding.

    But ponds. Oh my. I have spoken to many children on my street. They mostly seem intelligent and curious, but I think they don’t have enough stimulus. Maybe. their connection with nature is mostly field trkps, highly curated. Most of the kids have never seen a frog or toad, let alone a polliwog or tadpole, and their parents have to ask each other whether they do, in fact, own a wrench? I myself haven’t seen a toad here in decades. My ‘hood is in downtown Toronto these days, which was its own village until 1879, with the leftover infrastructure — good water plant, fruit-veg-butcher stores, theaters (plural!), barbers, hairdressers, schools — all within walking distance. I have an edible front yard and have been teaching the local kids what to eat and how to take food so as not to destroy the plants. I have a couple of poisonous plants in the yard — I tell them, “Not all plants are your friends.”

    I would love to have a yard pond. Polliwogs and tadpoles.

  14. drumlin woodchuckles

    William Beyer up above has touched on something I was thinking about. There is a whole other category of pond which has been given the name Prairie Pothole. There used to be numberless numbers of them.
    Drainage, attrition, etc. have reduced them to rather few.

    Here is a link about them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prairie_Pothole_Region

    And here is a link to a group who has spent decades saving some of those that are left, and possibly even restoring and rehabilitating some. https://www.ducks.org/
    Granted, they just want to assure themselves a renewable supply of wild ducks to keep hunting. But beavers just want to assure themselves a renewable supply of water to keep swimming in. So what’s the difference, really, between Ducks Unlimited and Beavers, when you get right down to it?

  15. vlade

    As an aside, in the Czech Republic, pond would be used mostly as a fish-pond (“rybník”), an artificial body of water (but not a dam!) used to farm fresh water fish (mainly carp). The largest is 6.5 km2, so a decent one, but in southern Bohemia Trebon region there’s almost 500 of them, for close to 75km2.

    Technically, they are connected to a river – by a very interesting canal that runs for 45km, with total descent of 30m, which gives you average declination of 0.07% (or about 65cm/km, call it 3′ per mile).

    Lake equivalent (“jezero”)in the CZ would be mostly a natural body of water.

    That said, there are finer distinctions in both, as there could be say “pískovna” (an artificial body of water that was created by water filling (intentionally or not) a disused place where sand was mined, “pleso” meaning a fresh water body in the mountains (which may or may not be fed by a stream or just purely meltwater) etc. etc.

  16. William Hunter Duncan

    Here in Minnesota for 150 years we were busy draining ponds, aka wetlands. Hence probably 60% or more of the wetlands were lost. You can see them still in the plowed fields, where one in seven years it is dry enough to grow commodity crops but they go ahead and plow and plant it every year anyway. There is probably enough subsurface drain tile draining Minnesota fields to wrap around the earth at least once, a straight-line of topsoil, nitrates and pesticides into the creeks and rivers. Much of this has accelerated in my lifetimes such that the migratory waterfowl flyways have shifted West into the Dakota’s just in the past few decades.

    I am considering moving to 80 acres in central Minnesota, sand flats that are marginal for commodity crops, with vast areas of tamarack bogs. The land has a spring fed pond that is filling in, which used to be about 5 acres but now is maybe 2 acres of open water surrounded by three acres of cattails and willows. The water appears to be only 4 ft deep at most, but there is probably 20 ft of sediment before true bottom. It is covered by lily pads most of the summer, contributing to it filling in. There are several other areas on the property that were ponds hundreds of years ago, but have mostly filled in and only have open water in the spring or in especially wet years.

    If I move there I will probably pump out solids from the pond, to spread on the garden and orchard, and to make a proper swimming hole and maybe eventually, a fishing hole. Turning back the clock, so to speak.


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