Sunday, May 9, 2010

Leon, the Test Fish

I have always wanted to own property with water on it.  Maybe it's because I grew up in Bellevue, Nebraska, hard on the banks of the Missouri River, and frequently explored Fontenelle Forest with its springs and streams and lakes.  Maybe it is something more primitive, some atavistic urge to identify with the Precambrian stew of complex hydrocarbons where one day a couple billion years ago (give or take an eon), non-life sparked into life. 

Or it could just be because I like frogs and stuff.

No matter.  My choice of career ensures that I am condemned to living in or near large cities where most of the flowing water I encounter is in the atria of large hotels.  So when The Memsahib suggested that we should transform our backyard -- approximately the size of a Kia's trunk -- into a ecofriendly North Texas biosystem, I readily agreed.  In addition to a backyard full of beautiful trees, bushes, and flowers (and a gigantic built-in natural-gas grill that taps directly into the Barnett Shale and what I'm sure is a very green 46" Samsung flatscreen to make sure we don't miss any of the Cowboy game whilst grilling), we now have a fake waterfall feeding a burbling fake brook that winds (well, it has one curve -- you can't do a lot of winding in ten feet) toward another fake waterfall into a fake pond.  The pond slurries off into a filter and a pump under a fake rock that sends it back up to the fake headwaters that seem to appear out of nowhere to begin the trip all over again.

And we wanted koi, which, translated, means "grotesquely-colored carp with gratuitously showy fins that look like a cross between cardinal and a dalmatian."

Neither of us knew koi from a sperm whale, but it seemed like exactly the sort of thing a North Texas ecosystem needed -- Japanese-sounding fish whose bright colors and gentle nature would have ensured their instant death in any self-respecting Texas waterway.

Our first problem was that we didn't know where to acquire koi.  I suggested Kois 'R' Us, but a quick Google search was unfruitful.

Our second problem was that we did not know anything about fake ponds, algae, pH, chemical balance, food, or anything else necessary to keeping koi alive for the period between releasing them into the pond and rushing the grandchildren over to see them.

Fortunately, we were blessed with a contractor who once had a koi pond himself  (shameless plug:  Tim Euting with Cutters Lawn and Landscape, who promised to instruct us in koi pond maintenance.  One day when the project was almost complete, I met with him to check the progress of our backyard's transformation.  When we got to the pond, he said:  "I brought you a test fish."

I looked into the pond, saw nothing.  "He's not dead yet," Tim assured me.

"There he is," Tim said.  Sure enough, there was a solitary goldfish, not more than two inches long.  He was a pretty little dickens, white and bright orange, sort of a Holstein of goldfish.  He was swimming.  I took this as a positive sign.

Not Leon

I named him Leon, for Juan Ponce de León, who searched unsuccessfully for the fountain of youth. This is not Leon, but if you can imagine this fish with a more streamlined body and less fabulous tail, you'll come pretty close.

When The Memsahib got home I took her out to the pond and after awhile we saw Leon swimming merrily about.

"Do we get to keep him?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.

But then I thought:  Do we? 

What is a test fish, anyway?

Perhaps he had gone through a lengthy and expensive training regimen to become a test fish, and we were only his latest assignment.

Perhaps he was conditioned to be exquisitely sensitive to koi-threatening conditions that he communicated to contractors through semaphore-like signals from his tiny fins.

Perhaps he had exhibited unusual bravery in his koi nursery that suited him to inaugurate amateur suburban backyard fake ponds and their fake owners.

Perhaps his test-fish hardiness would lull us into a false sense of competence in not killing fish and mislead us into believing that any old fish could survive the neglect for which The Mem and I are known among lower vertebrates.

Perhaps he would quickly grow bored with the sameness of our recirculated waters and long for another challenge, or would become a malcontent among the other fishes we hoped soon to introduce, sowing piscatory revolution and advocating for health-care reform.

As it turns out, however, Leon was a standard $0.89 goldfish from Petco that Tim quickly forgot about, and Leon was ours.

Since then, we have introduced ten more fish into the pond.  One (SmartyPants, named for its large bright-orange forehead) immediately  headed for the waterfall and was never seen again, and another (Goldie) began swimming at an alarmingly diagonal angle and vanished soon thereafter.  But the other eight are thriving and growing, despite my efforts at overfeeding.  Leon is still the smallest of the fish, but exhibits a refreshing independence.  The Mem and I have a soft spot in our hearts for Leon, and we still harbor the suspicion that he was chosen especially for this mission.

Perhaps I should have named him Yeager.


  1. I'm not familiar with a Kia with a trunk big enough to hold a backyard full of beautiful trees, bushes, and flowers, a gigantic built-in natural-gas grill, a 46" Samsung flatscreen, and a fake waterfall feeding a burbling fake brook that winds toward another fake waterfall into a fake pond. What model are you referring to?

  2. Nice! We're also planning to build a Koi Pond in our backyard. Currently, we're doing research about pond maintenance. From what I've learned Pond dye's work best in controlling the algae manifestation in waters. Have you heard of it before?