Observations at the Duck Pond
By Matthew Jones
On a warm March afternoon, in the midst of Virginia Tech’s campus and its buildings of dead dolomite limestone, the Duck Pond pulsates with quacking ducks. Canadian geese fly in and splash down in a spray of shimmering white water. The first green leaves of the weeping willows tremble like feathers in the wind. A student sits cross-legged on a bench watching green-headed mallards float by. A small herd of cadets run by.
Students who rarely venture from the residence halls and classrooms may not notice that the pond is very much man-made – a mud and clay idea from a civil engineering student’s senior thesis in 1917. The pond was constructed by damming a portion of Stroubles Creek, which runs through Blacksburg, Virginia and originates from small springs on the other side of time. Currently, the water flows through a series of underground tunnels that run throughout campus and town, including the landmark Drillfield, which it once flooded on a regular basis.
Today, I watch from the hill above. Two students walk along the edge of the pond, holding hands. She mocks the ducks, and he laughs. Although the Duck Pond is not the oldest feature on campus, it remains a central part of campus culture. There’s a rumor that if a girl takes a boy to the Duck Pond, she’ll wind up marrying him. There’s some basis in fact: Several proposals, wedding photo shoots, and perhaps even the rituals and mating ceremonies themselves have happened here for decades. On the east shore, a small stone marker marks the spot where one man proposed in August 2005. Pieces in campus humor magazines cite the Duck Pond as a must-try place for late night rendezvous.
I notice a girl sitting on a weeping willow that has tilted precipitously toward the water, a consequence of poor planting and shallow, shifting roots. Throughout the year, community members come to the Duck Pond to relax and reflect on the waters. Families come with young children to feed the ducks that have become overly reliant on breadcrumbs and popcorn. Bicyclists, runners, and walkers use the paved trail beside the pond, even late at night, even through storms. On a few occasions, I have seen people fishing in the Duck Pond. Even though the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation has held many fishing competitions at the pond, it still is not a destination for sportsmen, and the biggest fish pulled out of the water would have shamed most of us.
“Is the water clean?” I hear a toddler ask his father as they walk towards the upper basin. The smaller upper basin was built in 1881 to supply the school with ice in the years before refrigeration.
“No, this water is green,” his father says patiently.
He may not know how right he is. In 1740, when settlers first came to what was then called Draper’s Meadow, Stroubles Creek provided a clean, reliable water source.
But as the campus and town sprang up, Stroubles Creek and the Duck Pond experienced significant stress. But the Duck Pond’s problems extended far beyond sedimentation from development. Davidson Hall, home to the Virginia Tech Chemistry Department, fed chemical waste directly into Stroubles Creek between 1970 and 1978. In 1986, kerosene spilled into the pond. Eight years later, a hydraulic fluid spill required removing more than 2,250 gallons of contaminated water and oil from the pond. More recently, in December 2006, 50 to 80 gallons of fuel leaked into Stroubles Creek from a tank at a hardware store. As a joke, students sometimes dare each other to ignore the “No Swimming/No Ice Skating” signs and take a dip in the shallow water. People usually refuse, citing their desire not to contract an STD.
This afternoon, I watch a group of five students as they film a scene for a video project. Surveying markers used by engineering students are dedicated to victims of the April 16th, 2007 shooting at the school. Environmental science students take samples of the water and bring them back to labs for analysis. Occasionally, an English class may come down to the pond to reflect on the relationship between the natural world and literature.
The pond remains the fragile heart of campus, the flowing blood of the sprawling campus. Everyone eventually passes the pond, whether climbing trees late at night or driving by on Duck Pond Drive on the way to a party at fraternity and sorority housing in Oak Lane. Tonight when I leave, I walk past the resident ducks and geese and frogs, and mock the sound of crickets – at ease in an enclave of nature on the edge of this small city, in this small campus, where it seems, life goes on.
Matt is an undergraduate mathematics major at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He is also an assistant news editor for the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper of Virginia Tech. In his free time, he works on mathematical puzzles, files Freedom of Information Act requests, and walks aimlessly around Blacksburg.