by Laura Crum
As some of you know, I’ve been working pretty hard lately on a new project that isn’t horse or writing related, and today I’m going to tell the story, as a couple of you (I’m looking at you, Funder) have requested it. For the rest of you, this may be a pretty boring post.
Long ago, when I was twenty-two, I spent a summer living by myself at a fairly remote Sierra lake, with only my young dog for company. That summer left a deep mark on me, and ever since then, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with sitting by/contemplating water. The first three houses I lived in after I graduated from college were all situated by the banks of creeks. But the property where I now live, which I call home, does not have any water within view. And it has always bugged me.
About sixteen years ago, as I was going through a divorce and struggling with depression, I became determined to have SOME water to look at from my porch. So I dug a hole and bought a pond liner and some rocks, and voila I had a little fish pond. About seven feet long, four feet wide and four feet deep in the deepest part. I had water lilies and iris and goldfish, and for all these many years I have very much enjoyed my pond. But it wasn’t enough.
Every year, as we took our annual road trip across the country to visit my in-laws in Michigan, we camped by and swam in natural bodies of water. Lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs, canals. My husband’s parents live on a small lake and while we stay there, we swim every day.
Grandma and Grandpa’s lake.
Lake Michigan—our favorite time to swim there is sunset.
Poudre River in Colorado—we camped there every summer for seven years in a row.
The mighty Mississippi River—there is a house on an island that I am looking at in the photo.
Walker River in Nevada—my husband swam in every body of water we found.
Stanislaus River in the Sierras—very near the lake where I spent my long ago solitary summer.
And every year, when we came home from the summer trip, I longed to have a natural body of water to sit by and get into. I had/have no interest in chlorinated traditional swimming pools or hot tubs, with their sterile, stinky water (no offense to those who like/own such things--we all have different taste). I wanted “real” living water—a waterhole in a creek would do. But though I searched all around our county, I never found anything suitable. Sure, there is Monterey Bay a couple of miles away, and we do go there, but I wanted water that was private, where I could be alone (I know, I’m a misanthrope), and I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere. I wanted to LIVE by water. Water I could contemplate and get into. But no matter how hard I thought and dreamed and schemed, I could not come up with a concept that seemed to work. For years…
My husband and I talked of damming the seasonal creek that runs through our pasture in the Sierra foothills, but we never could figure out a plan to do this that seemed likely to succeed in creating the water hole we wanted. And in the end, we didn’t want to spend time and money building something that might not work out. Not to mention we got up to the pasture once a month at best, and sometimes it was once a year. The pasture is three hours away from our home, and we were getting burned out on the drive. So that idea eventually got discarded.
I schemed and planned about various possible water features we could build here at home, but I couldn’t really figure out where such a thing should be or what it should look like. And then, one day, about a year ago, a whole lot of things came together in a moment of inspiration (these moments are SO MUCH fun). And finally I had a concept.
Here I have to backtrack a moment and add that another aspect to this situation was our desire to have an emergency supply of fresh water here at home. I had been through the Loma Prieta earthquake, and, at the time, I was taking care of my uncle’s small ranch (with twenty horses in residence) while he was out of town on vacation. Since he was on a well, and the power (which ran the pump) was out for two weeks, it was incredibly helpful for me that he had a large water tank at the top of the property with the appropriate infrastructure to run it on gravity feed through the water lines when needed. Thus I was able to water the horses until the power came back on. It also wasn’t lost on me that even if the tank had not been there, Soquel Creek bordered the property on one side, and I could have led the horses there to drink once a day. It would have been a pain, but it would have worked. So it has always bugged me not to have some sort of emergency water supply here.
Anyway, at my moment of inspiration, one of the factors in play was that my husband wanted to build a small greenhouse, and we had chosen the site. But the logical place for a water tank that could supply our property through gravity feed was above the greenhouse site, and the only way to install such a tank was to put it there before we began the greenhouse project. And so we were stalling on starting the greenhouse because neither of us could decide if we really wanted to spend the money on a water tank, and we couldn’t figure out how to effectively combine it with the existing water system. We were sort of stuck.
And then it came to me. I could kill three (not two, THREE) birds with one stone. And suddenly I knew exactly how to do it.
The inspiration began (get this) thanks to facebook. My friend Liann Finnerty, who is an old high school friend as well as a facebook friend, posted a photo of a natural swimming pool and a link to the site where she found it. Liann is an artist and when she mentioned that these were the swimming pools of her dreams, I took a look. And finally, finally, I got an image of the thing I wanted to make. Because two of the pools on the site (the second and third) really inspired me. Waterhouse Pools. This, I thought, just this, is what I want to do.
But I still didn’t know where to put the thing. I walked out my backdoor, looking for an answer, and it came to me. Just outside my back door was something we referred to (rather optimistically) as “the courtyard.” The courtyard is the level area between our two small houses. It is covered in pea gravel and there are roses planted on the fences and buildings that surround it. We think it looks very pleasant and French (in a rustic haphazard American way).
That is, it looks pleasant when it is empty. But it was almost never empty. Because it was one of the only flat places where we could park the camper and the big pickup that hauls the camper, and we used it more as part of the driveway. So my courtyard was occupied by a large, ugly white camper and a big truck. This absolutely ruined whatever beauty it had, and it bugged me every single day. It had been this way for years.
The thing is, on the day I looked out at the courtyard searching for a place to put my pool, I was aware that we hadn’t actually USED the camper in over a year. We had used it pretty much non-stop for ten years, and we took a lot of road trips and camping trips in that time. But all three of us had gotten pretty burned out on covering highway miles and we just weren’t motivated to plan camper trips these days. For the past year and a half I had been walking around/looking at the camper/truck combo in the courtyard—to no real purpose. And I suddenly realized that if I could walk around that footprint every day of my life, I could walk around another equal footprint—the footprint of the pool. Not only would I gain a pool, but the annoying camper would be gone. AND I would have fresh water storage that was beautiful, instead of a big ugly water tank. At that moment I knew what I wanted to do, and somewhere in my heart I knew I would accomplish this.
The very first thing I did (after I broke it to my husband what I planned to do) was put the camper in storage. Then I began parking the big pickup truck in the riding ring (a temporary measure). Now the courtyard was empty. I got some garden hose and laid it out in the footprint where the camper/truck had been. I fiddled with it until I had a rough shape for my pool. And then I spent a LOT of time looking at it and thinking about it.
This was last summer. I contemplated my potential pool and I walked around its shape every time I crossed the courtyard. I also called Chris from the Waterhouse Pools site and asked for advice. Chris lives in New England and it wasn’t practical to have him build me a pool out here in California. He recommended a book by Michael Littlewood about natural swimming pools, which he said got him started building these pools. He told me that if I couldn’t find a natural pool builder in my area, I should look for an experienced koi pond/landscape pond builder. “It’s basically the same thing,” he said.
I bought the book. My husband and I read it cover to cover. We learned a lot. And I began looking for natural pool builders in my area. Turns out there were no natural pool builders in my county/part of the world. Or none that I could find. The closest folks who billed themselves this way were three hours away. And they all turned out to build something very different from what I wanted. Essentially they built regular chlorinated, concrete swimming pools that were designed to “look” natural. This wasn’t what I had in mind. I wanted a pond that was meant for people to get in it, more or less. All the filtering and purifying of the water was to be done by plants and beneficial bacteria, as it is done in a balanced garden pond—or, for that matter, in any natural body of clear water.
So I looked for a pond builder. I called quite a few. And only one was responsive and interested. And this was Tim from Pond Magic.
Tim had never built a “natural swimming pool.” But he had built over three hundred ponds. He listened to my idea, looked at the photos on the Waterhouse website, and said that he liked the concept and didn’t see why he and his crew couldn’t build such a thing. I looked at his website and saw that he had done the sort of work building dry stone walls and placing large boulders that I was interested in doing. He borrowed our books on natural swimming pools to learn more. He reiterated that he made no claim to being a natural pool builder. I said that I would design the pool and take responsibility for it. He would just be building another pond—to my specifications. I wanted to be in charge of my own project and supervise it every step of the way. Unlike many contractors, Tim didn’t seem to have a problem with this. We agreed that we would work “time and materials” (in my view the only fair and workable way to do ANY construction project). And we set a date to build the project in the spring—six months away.
During the six months before my planned construction date I pondered my “pool” every single day. I knew that I wanted to build it using a flexible pond liner (which was the sort of construction Tim the pond builder was most familiar with) and I wanted to line it entirely—walls, floor and rim—with natural stone. The Waterhouse Pools site had given me a visual image of a “sunken patio floor” that I wanted to do, and also a concept for a small pool that was lined by big slabs of flat rock, like something you might find in a quarry. One of my concerns was to fit this pool into our landscape in both practical and aesthetically pleasing ways. And one of the things I wanted to avoid was the “faux” natural look that I saw in most garden ponds. You know, here’s your suburban lawn and next to it is this irregular rocky little “natural” pond. Uhmm, huge clash there. My pool was to be set in a simple open, graveled site and there was no way in hell it made any kind of aesthetic sense for it to look like some kind of mini natural lake. What I thought it should look like was sort of as if people had developed a spring and made a reservoir. Or perhaps as if there had once been a quarry—I had seen many interesting pools in quarry sites.
So this was the vision I kept in my head as I planned the pool. Something simple and clearly man-made, but very much about natural stone. As if some primitive village had developed a spring and built a reservoir… a compromise between “formal” and “natural” styles. And gradually I began to see the pool clearly in my mind.
There were practical considerations also. The pool needed to fit into the footprint we had been walking around for years (where the camper/truck were parked). It could not impede the paths that we used every day. It would be essentially at the end of our driveway, so there needed to be some large boulders at the driveway end of the pool to prevent some idiot from driving into the water (“What, who me?” said my husband when I mentioned this). We had to come up with an effective way to hide the skimmer/pump. And we needed to decide between the various methods of filtering/pumping. We also had to figure out a design that allowed for a “wetland system” where the plants would be, and an area for people to go in the water. I wanted to have a “deep” waterhole, where I could float. And we had to choose what sort of stone we wanted to use. There was a lot to think about.
OK—this is too long and probably very boring to most people. Certainly not horse or writing related. I will finish the “pool saga” up next post—with lots of photos of the pool itself.
Awesome, thank you! It looks so beautiful, and wow you put a lot of work into it. Can't wait for part 2 :)
I like looking at (pictures of) your pool. Your delight in it is wonderful.
Here in the Swampland, of course, such a thing is absurd. We go to astonishing lengths to get water AWAY from our homes (nasty stuff, water!)
And that, right there, is the beauty of the Internet.
Good topic. Like you, I love sitting near a creek and losing myself in the sound. I also love swimming in natural water, even if it's kind of nasty.
But I'm tempted to rip out every water feature we have here, because of the tremendous amount of work involved in maintaining the ponds.
We have a hardshell pond right at the street/entrance to our house, and it's adorable with rocks and ground cover plants and flowers, but I'm constantly weeding it as grass grows right through the ground cover. The pond itself attracts insects and regularly fills with algae. Neighbors let their dogs drink from it, which baffles me. Also, those hardshell ponds can be installed perfectly level, and overtime the ground shifts and one plastic lip is always sticking up, looking bad.
Then we have our biotop, a larger flexible "fabric" (rubber?) pond, with pretty rocks all around it, that are constantly filling up with weeds. Grass, nettles, moss, everything. Fireants live under the rock border so when I try to weed there, I get bit. I've learned how to patch up holes in the material with something similar to a bicycle tire fix kit, but it's not a task I enjoy. Nasty, nasty animals live in that pond, in addition to cute little salamanders. Currenly grass is growing in the pond itself, somehow, and I don't know how to get rid of it because it's intertwined with the water plants. Soon it will be completely full of grass.
Then there are our fish ponds. They are in such a horrible state right now, slowly filling up with grass and weeds, they are an eyesore. The guys who have contracted our ponds to keep trout down there, they have neglected them the last 8 months, and it's a disaster, I can't stand to go down there. (Literally, the nettles are so high now you can't walk.) And since our tiny creek is down there, it's the place I like to go and sit in my chair and listen to the water. We are glad that we don't have to personally fight with those fish ponds anymore, and we're hoping the fish guys come back. Draining those ponds to clean them out was a task I never want to do again.
You probably know people who say "Screw mowing, I'm installing a gravel front yard." I'd much rather mow and not have to get down in the fireants and pull weeds around/in ponds.
I wish you success in your water feature; apparently you have the passion to maintain it and not let it turn into what we have here.
Ideally we'll sell this place to a lady who has a horse, and a husband with a water hobby.
This sounds so cool. Can't wait to hear more and see pictures!
Thanks, all. Glad you enjoyed it.
Lytha, I do understand what you are saying. I have had my small fish pond for seventeen years now, more or less, and I have experienced pretty much all the things you've mentioned. Ponds are a lot of work to maintain--as are horses and gardens (and for that matter, chlorinated swimming pools). I told myself from the beginning not to attempt this project if 1) I was going to be upset when the pool went through a bad phase and looked less than lovely (cause this will happen), and 2) I didn't want to interact with it regularly. Again, I look at it the way I do the horses. Lots of work, but interesting work (to me). That said, I would not want as many pools to maintain as you seem to have. That would be too much work for me.
With our small fish pond, we regularly reinvent it by pulling virtually everything out--a messy business and the water plants take a beating. Then it looks pretty for awhile, then gets overgrown and must be cleaned out again. I think of it as a natural cycle. And for a fact, those lovely bodies of water that I so admire across America? I have seen them all on days when the water was cloudy/murky/green...etc. It's just the nature of water.
Aarene--It is partly the fact that these brushy hills where I live are a very DRY enviroment that makes the water so soothing. If I lived in a swamp I would not want a pond either, I don't think.
I'm fascinated by your pool - it's gorgeous.
Not boring at ALL - I'm fascinated! Never heard of a "natural" pool so I'm extremely curious.
Can’t blame you for falling in love with natural pools! There's something peaceful and serene about lazing in a natural pool on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. I’ve always been fond of looking at beautiful lagoons, that’s why we decided to have one built in our backyard!
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