The 'Feel Good' Pond
By Keith Stelter...with lots of help from the Dunagan's
I received a phone call from Mike Loewen, business manager for Pond Boss editor Bob Lusk. He told me a passionate story about Pond Boss subscribers Susan and Baxter Dunagan working to create a new pond. He had met them and knew they were interesting folks and might be worthy of a Pond Boss story. After an intriguing phone visit, I arrived at the Dunagan place, near Beaumont, Texas, at the appointed time.
As I moved about their property, there didn't seem to be anything special about this place. The flat land in southeast Texas doesn't appeal to everyone. It's low, swampy, humid and every now and then spits up some black gold, oil that is. Texas tea. Usually, someone else gets the benefit of that commodity.
With a lot of work, farmers can raise a good crop of rice, mixed in with tons of mosquitoes and more than a few trophy alligators. It's land only its mother can love.
With one leg on the ground outside my car at the Dunagan estate, I could see the pond. It looked like any new pond. A little muddy, barren around edges, in need of vertical landscaping. I looked around and thought, 'Why in the Sam Hill did Mike think this barren pond is interesting?'
I had no idea this adventure would turn out to be so very special. The pond is only part of the story. As a matter of fact, the pond is only a small part of the story.
Susan and Baxter greeted me with warm smiles and firm Texas handshakes. They invited me in. Susan had prepared a platter of cantaloupe and iced tea.
Breaking the ice, so to speak, I asked Baxter if he built the pond for Susan, because she liked fishing. "No," Baxter said, "it didn't start out that way. It started as an idea a friend suggested. My friend and I were walking the wet ground between our house and hayfield. He asked if I'd ever thought of putting a pond in to help get rid of the swampy area and maybe some mosquitoes, too. That sounded like a good idea and since then the pond has taken on a life of its own. It's something Susan and I have really been able to get into. We work together and have some fun, as we watch the pond develop."
They suggested a closer look at the pond. We passed a small shelter, similar to a gazebo, equipped with a grill, a perfect place to entertain and enjoy a few close friends and thick Texas steaks. Next, on pond's edge, was a boat house. Baxter told me that originally he and Susan had planned a two acre pond. It ended up 6-1/2 acres. Susan told me that Baxter had kept a journal of the progress. He filled me in. The pond was started on 16 September 2004 and digging was finished on 27 October. Copious notes unearthed his fervor and deep seated interest in his latest project. The pond is mostly excavated, but water does sit a few feet above natural ground level. They had to do something with extra dirt. It took until 26 February to fill with water. Rainfall is plentiful near the upper Gulf Coast of Texas, a stone's throw from the Louisiana border.
No time was wasted in stocking the pond. That was done 1 March. Water is still a bit turbid, so you couldn't see the 1100 bluegill, 2,100 redear and 250 Florida bass (each about 10" & 3/4 pounds) swimming there. They plan to install two automatic feeders and put more underwater fish structure in key spots in the pond. They've built a pump-house on the far side of the pond. It pumps standing water from low ground and adjoining hay field. The pump keeps the pond full and drains the hayfield, making both parcels more productive. It's a win-win deal. They've figured out a pretty simple way of putting the water to work while letting the hay pasture be a hay pasture.
Baxter said, "This is our 'feel good' pond. When we complete a new project, we feel good about it. There is no long-term master plan; we take it as it comes. We think of an idea, talk about it, and then either go ahead, or wait for a new idea. The pond has really taken hold of our lives." Susan jokingly said, "If we keep this up, we'll have our own little resort." They've made a lot of hard life decisions, but never look back on what could have been. Just forward about what they're going to accomplish next. The whole concept strikes me as "out of the norm."
"Kind of like you can imagine something," Baxter continued, "and then plan it and make it happen. No fancy plans or architect's drawings. Things just happen. We never know what we'll come up with next." Their son is graduating from college, and when he comes home to visit, adds his ideas about the pond.
I asked if the fish were for catch and release, or eating? Baxter answered, "These bass aren't being raised to eat. I want to see Susan's face 4 or 5 years from now, when she catches a double-digit bass. We'll mount it and have a major celebration."
When we strolled back to the front yard, a couple of white-wing doves landed under an oak tree. Susan was looking for a squirrel that had wandered into their yard days earlier and homesteaded in the oak tree. He never appeared, maybe because the furry tailed creature still has concerns from the week before, when he and the Dunagan border collie had a little run-in. Susan said, "He'll be O.K. Things always work out."
Baxter answered a call on his cell phone and had to go into the house. It was then Susan told me that Baxter had been diagnosed with Hodgkins cancer 17 years ago. It had recurred for the third time in 2001. This time treatment had been more radical and intense. A combination of high-intensity radiation and chemotherapy required a bone marrow transplant. Baxter was able to furnish his own. This shortened the treatment period from 6 months to months. He was able to receive treatments as an out-patient at MD At Houston. Susan told me that some days his skin was so burned from the treatments, he would walk around holding his arms straight out, so the flesh didn't rub. Baxter planted a rice crop that year, but that was the last one. They've stopped running cattle and raising rice.
"We lived in town then," Susan said, "but decided to move out to the old Dunagan homestead. It needed some fixing up, Baxter's grandpa built the house in 1908. It gave us something to stay busy with." Susan and Baxter both have jobs in town and spend their free time planning what to do next with the pond and fixing up the homestead. They both have looked Hodgkins squarely in the face and haven't blinked. Each knows the treatment has a double-edged potential. It kills the Hodgkins cancer, but may start another new cancer.
Building this 6-1/2 acre pond is not the culmination of a life-long dream for the Dunagan's, but a striking example of stubborn determination of looking forward and the expression of a deep love and faith. Susan and Baxter are perfectly in tune with each other and the pond is simply an extension of them. They don't look back... only forward...to the things they want to do....and are doing. As I headed for my car, Susan said, "You all come back and check on how the bass are doing. I want one bigger than the 8 pounder I caught at my Daddy's." As I was leaving, I asked Baxter, what he first thought about when he got up in the morning. His answer was quick and straightforward, "I look around and if I'm still on the right side of the dirt, I say 'Thank you."
This was the first time in my life I had seen and felt a 'feel good' pond. Had I said there was nothing special about this place?
Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine