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Fish Funeral

We bought our house -- a simple, single-family home on 65 acres -- in 2008. When I was rooting around in the basement -- as one does after buying a house with years and layers in its history -- I found an unassuming cardboard box full of dog-eared, coffee-stained papers. Warranties for long dead appliances. Random receipts. Hand written notes. Flipping through them, one document in particular caught my eye. A permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) outlined that in 2001 -- seven years prior -- the pond had been stocked with seven triploid grass carp. The carp eat grass and that makes the pond nice. And because our pond, which is nearly an acre big, is spring fed and near the Pepacton Reservoir (where 25% of New York City's drinking water comes from), the DEC cares. As a matter of fact, no one will sell you these carp without such a permit.

Now in 2020, just so you don't have to do the math, those fish would be 19 years old, at a minimum. Add a year or two to the age of the fish, whatever you choose, assuming that the DEC-approved hatchery did not sell days-old hatchlings to the previous owners. Let's call it a 20-year-old fish. OK? Done. Before you suggest it, let's add another important fact to this story. In case you are thinking that some of the seven original carp from 2001 must have had offspring (because no fish in a pond could be that old), you should know that triploid grass carp are sterile, like mules. This is yet another reason that the DEC permits them. These carp will not take over local waterways as an invasive species.

Over the years, I have walked the banks of the pond, forgetting the fish lived beneath the surface, and we would surprise each other. The fish would turn suddenly, setting off a series of waves, splashes and echoing ripples that would continue across the pond to the opposite sides. I, on the other hand, would scream, jump back and then double over with laughter at myself and my aquatic neighbor. I would wave and say, "You got me again!" My husband likes to swim the pond, but being close to this giant, whiskered fish has always given me pause.

The gate at the road opens to a stretch of driveway that flanks the pond. The UPS man has paid us many visits since 2008, too many to count and definitely more than I would like to admit. He comes in pretty quickly and usually drops our stuff by the mudroom door and zips back out. A couple of summers ago, I was outside when he arrived, quickly shooing chickens out of his way and he stopped to talk. He stuttered a little bit. "H-h-h-h-have you seen it-t-t-t?" I just smiled. I knew just what he was talking about as he held his hands wide. From his perch high up in the seat of his big, brown, box-shaped truck, he had the best view you could get. "The Loch Ness?" I asked, laughing. Anyone who has come across this fish has had a similar reaction. Part awe. Part fear. Part disgust. Total fascination.

Our pond is deep in the middle. It is spring fed and has a good exit drain that heads to a local stream. Every winter it freezes. It's windswept too, which makes it an excellent place to skate. The pond is home to a lot of fish -- bass and crappie mostly. A few carp. Salamanders and a few frogs, but not too many. I wonder how deep they need to go to winter over. And I always wonder if the big carp will make it back every spring.

This year, the carp was back. But only briefly. One morning, while I was cutting back the ornamental grasses at the pond's edge to ready them for spring growth, I noticed a large white mass on the opposite shore. Plastic, maybe? A fish? Hmmm. I didn't go too close, but later -- back at the house -- I watched two vultures circle in and land on a small peninsula that juts into the pond near this theoretical white fish body. They approached it cautiously, inching awkwardly closer, craning their necks. Then they left. An hour later two crows landed, also cautious. Then one started in, pecking and lifting pieces of white flesh from the floating corpse. Watching them through my binoculars, it dawned on me. This fish was too big to be just any fish. Our carp had come to its final day.

The word was definitely out. Raptors -- vultures, hawks, falcons and eagles -- circled the pond. But none were braver than the first crow. Days went by and the community of birds got closer. The pairs of Canadian Geese multiplied, Mallards and Buffleheads joined the pond scene too. None of the waterfowl seemed interested in the fish carcass and none of them seemed concerned about the encroaching army of raptors.

Finally, a lone Bald Eagle landed. She had a day of eating fish undisturbed by her peers. She ate so long that we wondered if she would be too full to fly. On day two, two more Bald Eagles joined, one a juvenile with its head still brown. Only one seemed to be allowed on the peninsula at a time. The other two would take turns in nearby trees. When two landed, they would squabble, wings flapping, water splashing, then calming down and reverting to their watch, eat, watch, eat routine from the shore and the trees. The scene -- witnessed through the eyepieces of my binoculars -- was reminiscent of a low budget National Geographic special. Over the course of five or six days, the party continued with as many as six Bald Eagles attending, other raptors hovering, geese watching, and ducks paddling nearby.

On the seventh day, in a torrential, sideways rain, when the feast had ended, I went to pay my respects. She was a masterpiece. I paused to survey her majesty. I measured her head by my boot and marveled at her enormous eye sockets. Now just a skeleton, she measured a good 38 inches long, but surely in all of her glory -- with her tail and flesh added -- she would have been a good 40-something inches long.

March and April of 2020 have been surreal. On New Year's Eve, I looked back on an old decade and forward to another one. The roaring '20s. And now, unpredictably, here we are: Day 34 -- and counting -- of quarantine. I cringe at the death toll COVID-19 has racked up. It is devastating and anesthetizing all at once. How can we pay tribute to so many individual lives when we cannot gather? No funerals. No shiva. No hugging. Only tears, isolated mourning and a promise of doing the right thing later. When? Whenever we can.

In a way, something was right about this fish's death and the life it attracted in its wake. I could certainly be accused of anthropomorphizing here, but the constant parade of living birds, swimming by, soaring, circling, inspecting and picking the carcass clean over the course of more than a week, felt somber, quiet, respectful and full of homage. It was a proper sendoff. A cycle. From nature back into nature.

Good bye old friend. Thank you for being here, for keeping the pond clean, for providing an air of mystery and fascination all these years. I feel good knowing you had a beautiful life in the waters of this pond. I feel even better to have been a participant in the celebration of your life after it ended and with such glorious, stately, honorable company. Amen.

xoxo Farm Girl

If you would like to see video footage of the eagles squabbling and trading places you can find them on my Instagram page (@xoxofarmgirl) here.

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