In This State: Tim Matson is Vermont’s supreme ponderer of ponds

TIm Matson
Tim Matson of Strafford, a photographer and freelance writer and pond consultant, figures he has helped design and rehab some 500 ponds in Vermont. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at http://www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate/. This week’s piece is by freelance writer and editor Dirk Van Susteren of Calais.

Like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, Tim Matson travels the countryside bringing value to landscape – only he plants ponds not fruit trees. By his reckoning, in 25 years he has helped design or revitalize some 500 ponds in Vermont.

Matson has found an income stream with ponds, and why not? John Chapman (Appleseed), was known to pick up a free lunch here and there during his meanderings with seed bags across the Midwest.

Pond consulting augments freelancing for this writer-photographer from Strafford. If Vermont decides it ever needs an official pond guru, as it has a state flower and bird, Matson would be a top candidate.

Pond consultant and author Tim Matson offered consultation on this Orange County pond, a little gem that cost less than $2,000 to build. (Photo furnished by Tim Matson)

It all began in 1971 when Matson, then 28, joined thousands of other counter-culture types in immigrating to Vermont, where farmland was cheap and native residents were generally tolerant of newcomers, even those with long hair.

Matson had done a stint in the military, where he had the good luck, in his mind, to avoid Vietnam by being accepted at Army photography school. After his service he wangled a job in book publishing in New York, where his father had been a noted literary agent.

He wound up at divisions of Simon & Schuster, pulling a decent salary as a jack-of-all-trades, copy editing, buying reprint rights, writing book jacket copy, sometimes even taking photos.
Matson, now gray-haired, dates himself by mentioning he had a role in helping to bring Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s book, “Revolution for the Hell of It,” to paperback.

On a cold December day in a field in central Vermont, where he is scoping out possible pond sites for a landowner, he mentions with a laugh that it was his photo of author Joe McGinniss that graced the back cover another political classic of the times: “The Selling of the President, 1968,” the story of hucksterism in Richard Nixon’s campaign.

As befits the historic stereotype, Matson arrived in Vermont in a VW bug, a red one at that. He had grown “absolutely and totally sick of the city,” and unhappy with the political system, he says, he was moved by the “back-to-the-land movement” of the period.

His first brush with ponds was the waterhole at a farmhouse that he and a girlfriend had rented in Thetford. It turned out to be a perfect place for hippie parties, skinny-dipping and other wild affairs. He tasted the pond bait and was hooked.

Three years later, with help of a $7,500 advance on his second book (“Pilobolus,” a photo essay of the famous Dartmouth College dance group), Matson bought 45 woodland acres in Strafford and pitched a tent he called home and began building a cabin, with among other tools, a chainsaw. He got along without electricity, put in vegetable gardens, cleared a spot in the alders for his second pond, and then hired a guy with a backhoe.

“I grew up in Connecticut on the Sound, and found that I missed the water, and I wondered where it all was in Vermont,” he says. He couldn’t find enough of it close by, “so I had this pond dug.”

Marriage and two daughters (now grown) followed, and the pond became the focus of family life: Swimming in summer, ice-skating in winter, and, always it seemed, opportunities for social life and observing wildlife.

A snapshot taken years ago of pond designer Tim Matson’s daughters as they enjoy the water on a summer day at the family home in Strafford. (Photo furnished by Tim Matson)

Matson embraced rural life, and, as a freelance writer began writing essays and how-to’s about back-40 ponds for the likes of Harrowsmith, Mother Earth News, Country Journal and Yankee Magazine.

For children and the young at heart, he says, ponds are part zoo, playground, museum and amusement park.

“Kids love to hang out at them, make mud pies, fool around with salamanders, and watch dragonflies,” he says.

“I think too many kids today suffer from what a friend of mine calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’. … They are too much into phones and computers; they live in a screen world.”

Matson is bullish on family ponds of all sizes and shapes, but he’s quick to warn that a once-promising body of water can easily become a costly headache if poorly designed. They can turn to algae-infested quagmires They can even disappear due to drought or leakage.
A pond can also cost a lot, anywhere from $5,000 to more than $50,000, he explains.

Walking across the brown-gray landscape and looking for potential pond sites, and carefully choosing verbs that sidestep certitude, Matson says, “That could be a spot.”

He gestures toward a natural dimple in the field, where some topsoil already has been removed, but then he quickly notes there are no obvious sources of water. He says he will suggest in a report that water might have to be pumped in from a well to fill any man-made pond in this location.

On the plus side, this site has shade trees on the east and southeast, which means water would stay cooler in summer. Go down eight feet, and water would be deep and cold enough for trout.

Matson explains the need for in-flows and out-flows to keep the water in any pond fresh. And he often mentions to landowners that they may want their pond’s bottom covered with a plastic liner to prevent underground leakage. But plastic liners, covered with sand or gravel, can add thousands of dollars to pond construction.

A recently excavated pond site in central Vermont now awaits only water. (Photo furnished by Tim Matson)
Tim Matson
Matson scopes out a possible pond site near Montpelier. Photo by Dirk Van Susteren

He will strongly suggest to the landowners in this case, as he always does, that a test hole be dug before full-scale excavation is begun.

He notes that a landowner will sometimes have his or her heart set on a site, then run into problems with state wetlands regulations.

Matson says he spends about half of his consulting time recommending fixes to ponds that were put in 30 or 40 years ago by contractors with equipment but no expertise.

Some farm ponds he works on were dug back when the federal government, in the form of the Soil Conservation Service, gave money to farmers to build ponds to water livestock, to assure a supply of water for firefighters in the event of a barn fire and to serve as a catch basins to limit soil erosion.

Matson can turn to four of his own books to address all aspects of pond use and design, including “Earth Ponds,” published in 1982; “Earth Ponds Source Book,” 1997; “Earth Ponds, A-Z,” 2002; and “Landscaping Earth Ponds,” 2006.

He also has written non-fiction books about home brewing, living without electricity and navigating the funeral and burial business.

But his thing, clearly, is ponds. And he is finding that pond owners these days are confronting a whole new set of challenges that come with erratic weather, possibly the result of global climate change.

Pond owners are seeing “pond scum” algae growth much earlier in the season, which may necessitate constructing better drainage or aeration systems. Hurricanes like Irene and Sandy, with their downpours, can cause erosion at pond sites.

There’s also concern – with cases in Vermont of the West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis – that poorly designed ponds can become breeding grounds for infecting mosquitoes.

Ponds need a little current and steep-enough banks to limit mosquito breeding in stagnant and shallow waters, Matson says.

He mentions that dragonflies should be welcomed because they eat mosquitoes. And crayfish are good too, because they feed on algae.

Another benefit of such flying and wriggly critters: Children love to observe and mess around with them, says Matson.

“You want the kids outside getting their clothes dirty,” he asserts.

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Dirk Van Susteren

About Dirk

Dirk Van Susteren is a freelance writer and editor, who has 30 years experience in Vermont journalism. For years he was the editor of Vermont’s Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus, assigning stories dealing with the environment, agriculture, politics, energy, health care and a host of other topics important to Vermonters. He assembled teams of writers and photographers to produce books for the Herald and Times Argus, including A Vermont Century: Photographs and Essays from the Green Mountain State and Howard Dean: A Citizen’s Guide to the Man Who Would Be President. During his career Van Susteren has been the publisher of a weekly newspaper, The Suburban List in Essex Junction; an editor at the Providence Journal (R.I.); and a writer for United Press International. His freelance stories have appeared in various publications, including The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Northern Woodlands magazine, Saltscapes of Nova Scotia and AMC Outdoors. Van Susteren has taught writing at Community College of Vermont and in the University of Vermont Summer Writing Program. He is a native of Appleton, WI. and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and his wife Marialisa Calta live in Calais.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Dorian Yates

    Matson’s “Earth Ponds” book was an inspiration and guide when my family built our pond twenty-five years ago. As Matson says, “ponds are part zoo, playground, museum and amusement park.” I would add to that they are also a place of healing, joy, sanctuary and spirit. For anyone considering undertaking a pond project, I would highly recommend Matson’s pond books, as well as recommending ponds in general.

  • DeAnn Gundel

    Hi I have always wanted a pond. I am now 63 years old and would steel like to have my dream of a pond, on a small piece of land I recently bought in Northern
    California. I would like to contact Mr Mason, and like to take to hm about putting in a pond. If you can tell me how to contact him I would really appreciate it.

    Thank you ,