Monday, October 8, 2012

Feeding the Minnows

     Saturdays, I walk down to my pond and stare into the mineral-green water.  If the sun is bright I can see all the way down to where the tiny teardrop fish are swimming.  They are so translucent that unless I focus very carefully, looking past the reflections of mobile clouds, and ignoring the good-natured water bugs who skate incessantly on the surface, trailing behind them besmudging ripples, it may seem as though there is nothing below the surface at all.
     Two months ago I poured several baggies full of minnows into the pond.  After that, they disappeared--and I was forlorn.  I tested the pH--6.0--perhaps too acidic for the minnows. The pond how-to books say fish need a ph between 6.0 and 8.0.  Too acidic, and the growth of minnows will be stunted.
     Had I had not provided properly for my little progeny?  Minnows are supposed to be prolific.  Why weren't they spawning?  What could I do?
     I could dump a few tons of lime into the pond, but the idea of adding solid material to reservoir I had hoped would fill itself with rainwater and seepage seemed counterintuitive.  Besides, it would be best for the pond to support whatever wildlife it could on its own.  So far, the pond wildlife includes:  snails, leeches, crawfish, moles, frogs, toads, spiders, deer, raccoons, alligators, otters, turtles, possums, cranes, egrets, eagles, and hawks.  There are thousands of dragonflies.  The tiny fish I observed, with oversized heads and big eyes, might be tadpoles, or baby minnows.
     This past Saturday I stared through the water and saw, with a thrill, a school of little fish--one and a half or two inches in length.  Minnows!  It was my happiest moment in months.  The little fish are growing! Something new is coming into being.  If they thrive, there may be hope for the rest of my life.  Everyone knows that water is a symbol for the unconscious, and that the unconscious is the seat of everything creative, and destructive, and new in the world.  Similarly, fish symbolize many things, especially a spiritual groundwork, and have connotations of everylasting life and transformation, and the miracle of replication, as when Christ fed a multitude in the desert with five loaves and two fish.
     In Hinduism fish are associated with birth and rebirth, the cycle of life.  They are symbols of revelation.  It was a fish who revealed the Vedas--the whole of sacred knowledge--to Vishnu.   Fish are symbols of fertility because of their astounding powers of reproduction.  Most fish lay 2,500 eggs at a time.  Fathead minnows lay up to 700 eggs, which hatch in four to seven days, but golden shiners can lay up to 200,000 eggs in one sitting.  The males protect the eggs until they hatch, then leave them to fend for themselves.
     The minnows in my pond were a combination of golden shiners, mosquito fish (heterandiria formosa), gambusia, flagfish and bluefin killis.  They all make good feeder fish for bass.  I realize that the reproduction of these fish is an ordinary process, insofar as any form of life bursting into being is "ordinary."  I regard the multiplicative powers of my minnows as a miracle, just as Anne Morrow Lindbergh did, when she wrote:  "I don't see why I'm always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like white dogwood."  My minnows, shimmering like a hundred bits of tinfoil in the slanting sun, saved me this week.
     My big idea, and one to which I looked forward every day until Saturday, was to take some of my fine, granular chicken feed down to the pond, wait in stillness for a shoal of minnows to appear, and sprinkle some of it on the surface.  Would they like it?  Would they eat grain-based chicken feed?  Could I train them, like pets?  I let my enthusiasm for these minnows slip one day while talking in the office with a patient--a fellow pond owner--who told me, "Fish eat anything."
     A minnow's usual diet consists of zooplankton, insects, plants and algae.  But the minnows I fed inspected my pulverized grain offering, and went for it.  Soon there were two hundred minnows, of varying sizes, swarming a depression in the pond bed, where feed had fallen.  Minnows produce pheremones, which are chemical exclamations to their species--before long, minnows were coming from every direction to the spot where I was staring down.  If my shadow shifted on the water, they scattered.  When I stayed very still, they returned.  When I got home and looked at the clock, what felt like a quick trip to the pond had taken two hours.
    I can report one identification with these minnows, related to their ability to produce a certain alarm chemical called Schreckstoff.  When a predator bites a minnow, the substance is released from its skin cells, serving to alert all minnows to danger in the area.  In response, they scurry away at a manic rate. Even a predator's feces emanate enough of this substance, after eating a minnow, to send a signal to other minnows of the same species.
    As a human version of this small fry, one who has been bitten and damaged--and soon may be excreted--I, too, am sending a signal to everyone of my kind in the vicinity:  Look out, get away, a devouring predator is in the area.  Is there anything the rest of us--being human, and endowed with greater intelligence than a minnow--can do, besides run for safety?




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