The Pond Guy
Tim Matson writes about them, builds them and, of course, swims in them
Vermont Sunday Magazine
by Stephen Morris
August 27, 2006
Tim Matson, 63, with a slightly grizzled look that makes him an ideal candidate for a Peter Miller book, has built a career on holes that fill with water: ponds. His fourth book on the subject, "Landscaping Earth Ponds" (Chelsea Green, 2006), a colorful celebration of the aesthetic possibilities of integrating a pond with its environment, has just been released. His initial book, "Earth Ponds: The Country Pond Maker's Guide to Building, Maintaining, and Restoration" was published in 1982 (Countryman Press), revised in 1991, and has sold more than 100,000 copies. In addition to his books, Matson has written a host of magazine articles on subjects as diverse as dance and death that have been published in various country-living magazines. He is a social and cultural observer, but the topic with which he will be forever linked is ponds.
Ponds are provide Tim Matson with his primary source of income. He is paid by publishers to write about ponds and by homeowners to advise them on siting, building and landscaping. He consults with do-it-yourselfers who have botched their own attempted ponds and wealthy second-home owners for whom a pond is an aqueous ornament. He travels widely within Vermont and throughout New England to advise homeowners, farmers and even condominium developers on the practical and aesthetic aspects of their ponds. He has conducted seminars as far away as Atlanta, Ga.
In a typical assignment he was recently hired by an ecologically minded retired couple in Windsor County who own a protected wetland. Their problem is that the wetland is suffering from eutrophication, a process in which the mineral and organic nutrients are proliferating, causing plant life, especially algae and invasive species, to go wild. This, in turn, reduces the dissolved oxygen content and causes the extinction of other organisms.
In other words, the wetland is disappearing, but because it is protected by the state, the homeowners cannot perform the necessary clean-up to preserve the very resource that the state is trying to protect. They've hired Matson to write a report to convince the state to allow the remedial action.
As with so many unique careers, Matson's path was neither a straight line nor intentional, although in hindsight, he says, it was logical. "I grew up near the water in coastal Connecticut. Water was the one missing element when I moved to Vermont." His arrival here was in 1971, when the state was in the midst of what Matson calls the state's "First Transformation."
Like many of the young people migrating to the state at that time, Matson was attracted by the low land prices, the back-to-the-land movement and the live-and-let-live ethic that seemed so much a part of the cultural and political landscape in Vermont. Just as powerfully he was strongly affected by the political and cultural currents of the 1960s triggered largely by the Vietnam War.
Matson became one of millions of young people who "questioned authority." His disaffection started while he was in the Army where he received his first formal training in journalism and photography. "I was a newspaper reporter. People don't remember this, but there was a very active underground publishing scene going on within the armed forces. I don't know if what we were doing was illegal, but it was certainly not authorized. Little newspapers like FTA (an acronym for "F**k the Army) were creating quite a stir as anti-Vietnam sentiment was growing."
Matson's journalistic credentials were enhanced when the Army sent him to "Leica School" in Ft. Bragg. He received several weeks of specialized training in photography put on by employees from the well-known camera maker. This training qualified graduates to take battlefield footage in Vietnam. Luckily for Matson, he was discharged in 1968 before applying his newfound skills. He headed to New York City to start a career in book publishing.
Publishing is a family tradition for the Matsons. His father was a well-established literary agent who made sure that his children, as Tim puts it, "grew up in a house with a big dictionary." Matson's two siblings also have ended up in the world of book publishing.
While his home life prepared him for a life in publishing, his education had prepared him more for a life in ponds. At Rollins College in Florida, Matson says "I majored in water-skiing. No kidding! We had a lake on campus, a beautiful inboard boat, and even a one-armed ski instructor. I was the trick specialist on a team that competed at places like Cypress Gardens."
Assisted by his father's connections, Matson secured a position as an acquisitions editor at Pocket Books, a division of publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster. With the "cultural revolution" a reality of the late 1960s, Matson was largely given a free hand to develop projects that would appeal to the youth market.
"It was wild what they were letting us get away with," he says with a grin. "And I knew it was too good to last." Among the publishing projects Matson was associated with were "Revolution for the Hell of It" by Yippie Abbie Hoffman, several Rolling Stone record review compilations, and "The Child's Garden of Grass," a thinly-disguised guide for pot smokers.
Matson was right about it not lasting: the wild, heady ride came to an abrupt end. Simon & Schuster was acquired by a publishing conglomerate and the brutal side of business reared its head. Under the guise of efficiency the personnel ax started falling. Sensing that this was a good time to leave New York and publishing, he headed north.
Matson had vacationed frequently in Vermont and moved here with his girl friend, who got a job teaching at a Montessori School in Hanover. They settled in the Thetford/Strafford corridor, rural enough to be Vermont, but accessible enough to Dartmouth to be culturally stimulating. He dedicated himself to learning the skills necessary for non-electric living, the skills that rural Vermonters had been living for centuries. This included building, gardening, heating with wood, putting food by ... surviving. Matson bought a 45-acre parcel. At first he lived in a tent. Then, he built his own house "with a chain saw."
He supported himself with odd jobs and "banging nails." Inevitably, his literary and photography skills surfaced. He became involved with Pilobolus, an experimental dance group at Dartmouth co-founded by Moses Pendleton. Using his training from Leica School in the Army he began taking photos. Then, taking a page from his publishing past, he pitched an editor at Random House with a proposal to do a photographic book on Pilobolus. To his surprise, the editor quickly agreed, and offered a modest advance.
Here's where the story takes its critical turn. Matson took the money from his advance and invested it in what he thought would be his best home improvement ... a pond.
Others might have opted for electricity, a well, or a barn, but Matson chose a pond. There were rational, mature, logical reasons for his choice, such as the recreational benefits of swimming and ice skating. There were security benefits in terms of a back-up water supply or in case of fire. You can match up a pond with a little sauna, so there is always a place to get completely warm and clean. The pond can be stocked with trout to provide fishing and food. And there is a compelling social reason, too:
"Ponds give you an excuse to invite girls over for skinny dipping," says Matson. (He also claims that Calvin Coolidge once declared that "skinny dipping is a Constitutional right of all Vermonters," although this writer was unable, even with the assist of Google, to confirm this.) Matson's skinny-dipping parties are legendary in Strafford, a subject for continual ribbing when he encounters his neighbors at Coburn's General Store.
Pilobolus won two awards from the American Institute of the Graphic Arts, and Matson was established as an artist. Also established was his modus operandi: partake in a cultural experience, then turn it into a book project. He did this by publishing his own account of illicit home brewing in the Green Mountains in a booklet, "Mountain Brew," then again in a project with the working title "Pond Sculpture." It took shape first as an article in the then-bible of rural living, Harrowsmith, then became a book proposal for Random House. After a serious flirtation, the company passed, and Matson brought it to Vermont publisher Countryman Press in Woodstock.
Peter Jennison, Countryman's legendary founder, liked the project immediately, although he sent Matson back to the drawing board on the title. Author and publisher both agreed that the book would be more of an art book than a how-to. At the time "pond" was synonymous with "farm pond," meaning a scooped out receptacle to hold water for irrigation or any number of other practical purposes. Aesthetics ranked at the bottom of the priority list.
Countryman published the book in a horizontal format which is loved by graphic designers and photographers, but hated by bookstores because of the difficulty fitting this format onto shelves. Matson's text was filled with what he calls "Waldenesque tangents" long on philosophy but short on information. For a new title he came up with something to distinguish what he was describing from the ubiquitous farm pond ... "Earth Ponds."
The book was published in 1982 and has been in print ever since. It has sold well more than 100,000 copies and has spawned several offspring, including an "Earth Ponds Sourcebook" and an illustrated encyclopedia called "Earth Ponds A to Z," both of which were published by Countryman Press. Despite the success of the original volume, Matson now says of it: "I really didn't know what I was doing. I was guided by a combination of dumb luck and following my passion. I only became an expert ex post facto."
Matson's own pond became both his classroom and laboratory. Most of the existing information on pond construction came from civil engineers whose only consideration was that a pond not leak. As a result, their ponds were designed with what Matson refers to as a "moonshot mentality" with way too much freeboard (exposed land) giving the finished pond the look of a "bomb crater."
Matson's eight-foot deep pond was equal parts aesthetics, recreational opportunities, and survival considerations. In its early years he used it for drinking water as well as swimming and skating. Going down to pond's edge in mid-winter with a giant ice chisel became a daily ritual.
He discovered that there was a trade-off between food production and aesthetics. Trout, he discovered, contribute to the nutrient content. Nutrients can lead to algae, and are thus counter-productive to clean swimming. A healthy population of crayfish, however, helps keep the water pristine.
Dan Chiras, author of numerous best-selling books on natural building and renewable energy, including his most recent, The Homeowner's Guide to Renewable Energy (New Society Publishers, 2006), has this to say about ponds: "I grew up swimming and fishing in farm ponds and rivers in Connecticut and rural New York state. After picking cherries at a local cherry orchard, we would head for the farmer's pond for a quick dip.
"By and large, the ponds were pretty muddy. You'd sink up to your ankles in the mud at the bottom if you stood up. The water was often pretty muddy, too. One pond in Connecticut supported a heavy mat of algae that we had to wade through to fish or swim. But here's the deal. ... We were kids and none of that bothered us one bit! "
A lot of people, in Vermont and elsewhere, built ponds in the 1970s and 1980s. Most ended up as the pond of Chiras's description. One Vermont architect, who wishes to remain anonymous, describes them "slime pits." Many Vermonters have had the experience of being invited to a swimming party that involves such sensuous events as sinking to your knees in feathery muck and seeing your tootsies swarmed by leeches.
The fact is any yahoo with a backhoe can make a pond that works like that. It takes more than a yahoo with a backhoe to build a successful pond.
Humorous anecdotes about mishaps with ponds abound. Years ago, a group of creative builders in the Mad River Valley constructed a wood-fired Zamboni to make smooth ice for their impromptu hockey games on a pond - only to watch it melt through the ice and sink. In West Brookfield a horse bent down for a drink, only to have a snapping turtle affix itself to its nose. The turtle relaxed its grip only after the local veterinarian arrived and shot the turtle with a pistol. In Fairlee there was the story of a pig destined for the roasting spit making an escape by swimming to the middle of a pond. When approached, it charged, proving the best defense is a good offense, as so reported by the local newspaper, Behind the Times.
Matson undertook a major revision of Earth Ponds in 1991. By now he had become reasonably expert. Increasingly his writing income was supplemented by income from pond consulting. Other pond books - he now counts four in al -) have cemented his reputation. Kermit Hummel, current editorial director at Countryman, touts the book with these words: "Tim Matson's 'Earth Ponds' have endured the test of time because they deal with the real fundamentals of ponds. Fashions come and go. But, Tim's work focuses on the nuts and bolts that will make a pond thrive or die; remain flush with water or evaporate away; become choked with organic growth or remain clear enough to be your backyard swimming hole.
"Anyone even thinking about a pond should refer to Tim Matson's work to get their bearings. And, from the 100,000-plus sales his books have enjoyed, the evidence says that people are, in fact, relying on Tim's advice.
Matson, the social observer, says Vermont in now undergoing another transformation, as it did in the '60s and '70s. He has noticed the change in the demand and interest in ponds. Now, instead of the low-to-the-ground hippies learning life skills from the natives, it is the seasoned and aging hippies selling services to the well-heeled second-home owners.
"Most of my current clients are wealthy," says Matson. "I am now a feudal serf to the state's second-home owners. They own significant chunks of real estate, and while they may stock their pond with trout or use it to ice skate, the primary function of their pond is as an aesthetic centerpiece of the landscape."
Hence, the need for his new book "Landscaping Earth Ponds." Although published in the same horizontal format, with even the same cover format and background, the content is dramatically different. The original "Earth Ponds" was an inspirational guide for the flannel-shirted guy who wanted to get behind some heavy equipment and move some dirt. Its pages are filled with grainy black and white photos that show excavators, spillways, and culverts. Landscaping, by contrast, is full of sumptuous four-color photos of trophy homes reflected in the tranquil waters of tastefully designed aqueous gardens. The final chapter is 15 pages of recommended plants for ponds. There's not a piece of machinery in sight, but lots of flowers.
Much of Matson's current work involves fixing the mistakes of pond builders from 20 or 30 years ago, some of whom may have even followed his early less-than-expert advice. On the other hand, there are many people who prefer the first edition of "Earth Ponds" to its more technical and accurate revision because of its sense of, in Matson's words, "spiritual adventure and poetry." Pragmatism and utilitarianism have their limits.
Matson still lives in the house he built with a chain saw. It's a little bigger now, and it has electricity, and there are a couple of new outbuildings. Oh, and there's still water in the pond (although he doesn't have to chop ice to get drinking water in the winter.) The pond has been an integral part of life for the entire Matson family. Not only has it been a source of recreation and security, in their case it has sustained them financially.
Tim's oldest daughter, Johanna, 19, is about to head off to college and to claim a generation of her own. If there is a pearl of wisdom he has to dispense, it is that "The best possible investment you can ever make, is an investment in your own place." That's what he did when he took his Pilobolus publishing advance and "dug a hole with it."
College tuition will be a major burden, but Tim is confident that his mastery of basic life skills will help him navigate the choppy financial waters as it has helped him through many other situations. He says he's grateful to have lived the life of an artist and still make a living.
"A lot of artists never make a living from their art. I've been blessed to make 'sort of a living' from my writing and love of ponds. Where else could I have done that but here? I owe a debt to Vermont."
He clarifies the statement, "I owe a great debt to Vermont.
Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer who lives in Randolph. He is the founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com) and editor/publisher of Green Living Journal.