(In times of normal weather! Not this past week!!)
Puddles can be objects of joy and fun, living contemporary-art forms, or causes of trouble and anxiety.
A small child’s instinct on seeing a puddle is to leap into it and make as big a splash as possible. I still remember the powerful sense of satisfaction I felt whenever I did that.
Where does this universal desire come from? I wonder if children in the ancient world wanted to splash in puddles? Which parent in aeons past first urged their child to jump and splash? Or does it come from our time floating in the womb, and require no parental encouragement at all? Unless they’re asked to wash in it, all children love water, whether it be to float a paper boat on, drop pebbles into, paddle in, or splash at others.
There’s a wonderful feeling of adventure combined with safety in venturing into a really large puddle. Your wellies will keep your feet safe and dry – I remember thinking, ‘Ha, ha, ha! You can’t get me! I’ve got my wellies on!’ – while at the same time I could feel the cold of the water through the rubber, and wondered for a second if the puddle was deep enough to come over the top of them.
Then there’s the power over others which comes with the ability to kick the water about. A tiny child can ‘terrify’ an adult with the threat of a soaking in muddy puddle water! How wonderful that felt!
For an adult there’s a satisfaction mixed with mystery in the contemplation of a puddle. What is the meaning of this particular shape? Finding pictures in the shapes of puddles is rather like looking for objects in clouds, except that their shape is fixed, and can be viewed from different angles.
On a wet day raindrops create a living art form on the surface of the water; a multitude of intersecting rings in every imaginable size; a never-ceasing, always moving design, pop-art, or perhaps op-art! It must have a meaning, but the constantly changing patterns prevent you from grasping it.
And when the sun comes out, puddles become miraculous mirrors, miniature lakes of blue holding tiny reflections of the sky, tempting you to go and look into them – ‘Will I see myself, and what will I look like?’ A temptation no child can resist, but which few adults give way to.
Now they’re shining works of art scattered on the ground, an ephemeral exhibition of sky, sun, and trees with maybe a leaf or feather turning them into a collage. An exhibition inviting you to wander around and collect their mysterious beauty and tuck it away into your memory bank. But these artworks have no price tickets, and no money can buy them!
But what about the worrying puddles? The deep puddle traps, lying in the path or on the road with a perfectly innocent and harmless look to them – just waiting for someone to step or drive into them?
In Tanzania we rejoiced at the arrival of the rains which would ensure a harvest for the coming year, but I have no memory of ever contemplating puddles as I do here in England. However I very swiftly learned that puddles were to be treated with the utmost caution, whether I was on foot, on a bike, or driving the school car or minibus.
We never paddled anywhere unless we could be sure there was no danger of bilharzia or other waterborn diseases, and even harmless-seeming puddles (especially a long-standing ones) could have their dangers.
The great danger for cyclists and drivers was the uncertainty about the depth and the shape of the hole which the puddle was hiding. Was it only a few inches deep, in which case we could drive straight through it, or something much worse? Mysterious puddles, especially on a little known road – inevitably muddy – kept their secrets like paranoid schizophrenics!
On dirt roads heavy tropical downpours would create wide, deep puddles in a very short time, so that a road which had been perfectly safe the day before was now covered by a puddle-trap which could break an axle, or tip a cyclist over and, at the best, give you a thorough soaking.
Surprisingly, tarmac roads were even worse. Puddles in a dirt road washed out by heavy rains had soft, sloping sides. Not so those made in tarmac laid on sandy soil! Here there would be a firm hard edge undercut by the water, and an even deeper hole. Dropping a wheel into one of these, often meant waiting for a passing vehicle to pull your seriously damaged car or bus out.
The worst example I saw of this was in the centre of Dodoma where somehow or other – I never discovered all the ins and outs of it – perhaps he was reversing from the centre of the road into a kerbside space – an articulated lorry had lodged its middle wheels into a particularly deep pothole, hidden by an especially vicious puddle-trap!
There he sat, the front wheels of the cab in the air, the back wheels of the rear portion also well off the ground, and the centre ones deep in an evil, widely grinning puddle. Poor man, it took two other lorries and half a dozen labourers to set him free!
Of course we have puddle-traps here at home which delight to lie in wait for the innocent passerby. Farmers know from experience where they’re likely to appear on their tracks after heavy rain. But others gather at the edges of roads, working in collusion with the drivers of passing cars and vans to see how many pedestrians they can spray with dirty water. Still, they’re easily recognised, and so equally easily avoided, and the damage they cause is relatively trivial and temporary. I bear them no ill-will. Without the actions of a thoughtless driver, they are as innocent and harmless as any other of our puddles.
But as our roads become more potholed, as our climate changes, and heavy rain and floods become more common, it might be wise to learn to treat the harmless looking puddle in the road with something more like Tanzanian caution and suspicion.
But cloudbursts and floods apart, after a Spring or Summer shower I look kindly upon the quiet English puddle lying on the path or in the road, it provides harmless fun for children, or moments of meditation for adults, and is a sign of what keeps our country rich and green.