12 September 2008

Quakers in the Country: Water

You know, living out in the country here in Appalachia has its advantages. There’s lots of fresh air, blue sky, beautiful woodlands, pushy wildlife, privacy, and quiet. I love the quiet. In the winter when the birds are all in Acapulco you can stand outside my kitchen and listen to your heart beat. But there are some things that you can take for granted elsewhere that you can’t take for granted out here. One of those things is water. Not marshes, or creeks--there's lots of those-- but clean, potable, water--drinking water, water for cooking the rice, washing your clothes, that sort of water.

I've lived in San Francisco, where water rationing made a lot of people unhappy back in the 1980s. And I've lived in Arizona, where droughts made the desert brown out early and the fires ran through the Ponderosa pines. But while water was scarce there, I never had to deal with the phenomenom of No-Water-At-All, which is routine where I live now. My neighbor to the north has a decent well tapping a local aquifer, one that also breaks through the gravel into the road in front of his house and freezes into a speed bump made of ice in the winter. My neighbor to the south has a little spring trickling from the rock face through the roots of a pretty big sycamore, into an open-topped cistern made from concrete packed against old boards. Here, the houses are generally built where the water already is, and if there isn't water, you don't build there.

Our own household water comes from a 24-foot deep, hand-dug well. It’s right by the kitchen door, and until a couple of years ago the only water in my house came from the sky-blue cast-iron hand pump that stood on top of it. If you wanted water to wash the dishes, you stepped outside and filled your bucket. The well is lined with hand-laid fieldstone to about ten feet down, and then it becomes a four-foot circular hole in the sandstone bedrock, ending with a flat bottom. You can see the pick axe marks in the stone, shining in the dim light as the ground water trickles down the walls. I know, because one of the jobs that comes with the ownership of a hand-dug well is going down there from time to time to clean out the mud.

This is a big event for the kids, because of the high drama of watching their father climb through a very small hole and disappear into the earth. Last time it was announced well in advance: “Come quick! Daddy’s going to kill himself now!” Prep work involves lowering the biffy lantern down on a rope to make sure the well has enough oxygen to keep this reluctant Quaker alive. The lantern stays lit, and so down goes the 24-foot extension ladder, just barely long enough to lean against the side of the concrete slab capping the hole. And then down goes Kevin.

I do this in the summer, because it’s really, really cold down there, and the summer is also the only time that the water is shallow enough for me to stand on the bottom. The cold water comes up to my waist, and the light filters down through the little square hole way up there, and its usually made even darker by a circle of little Quaker heads looking down eagerly waiting for Daddy to die.

I have a five-gallon bucket tied to a rope, and I use a plastic scoop to fill it up, over and over, with silt, and pebbles, and whatever else has dropped from the upper world since the last time. With five curious and scientific-minded kids, there’s also lost Lego pieces, sticks, old pieces of metal that made a satisfying splash, the missing kitchen knives, and once a length of fishing line with a hook on the end. Nobody fessed up to that one. I fill the bucket, and then the kids haul it up through the hole, bumping more pebbles off the well sides onto my head as it goes up. A moment or so of quiet, and down comes the bucket to be filled again. After many trips, we either decide that the well is good enough, or that Mom is going to have to come down and fish Dad out before he succumbs to hypothermia and really does die. Then we dump in about a gallon of chlorine bleach and let it sit for a day or two to kill the bacteria. And we’re set until next time.

I took the hand pump off the well a while back, and it's lying on the ground beside the abandoned chicken house, waiting for me to install new bushings. These days we have an electric jet pump in the cellar, leading into the well through a pipe driven into the block wall through the ground out into the well hole. The plastic jet pump line runs through this pipe and then curves down into the water. This is really a better solution, because it means that we can have a bathtub, and a sink in the kitchen, as long as the well doesn’t go dry. When that happens, I have to load the 450-gallon polyethylene tank on the back of the one-ton and go buy water in town every week. Last year the well went dry in May, and we had to buy water in town all the way through October. When the well fills all the way back up, it announces itself by spurting through the pipe and running across the cellar floor to the center drain. When that happens we know we can wash the clothes and take showers without even worrying about it at all! But that much water in the well only lasts for a day or two. Then we're back to eyeing the shower nozzle warily, wondering when it's going to surpise us by suddenly switching from water to compressed air. Not if, but when.

We may get city water piped out to us in a few years. The local coal miners have already run under the farms to the east, and the farms just to the west are scheduled next. Mining under your property usually means that your wells and springs go dry forever, as the groundwater runs out the new cracks in the bedrock and out the mine entrance instead, miles away. Typically, you get a visit from their hydrogeologist first, who looks at your well to make sure you really had one. Then if all goes well the miners pay the county to bring a water main down your road and install your very own water meter that you get to pay for forever. But they don't always do that, and our place has been the last house on the road for about 100 years. They may decide that bringing water all the way out just for us would cost too much money. We'll see.

We like living out here, but there's no denying that there are some things about it we'd like to change, and intermittent water is one of them. So far, though, the well has been reasonably good to us, as it has to the residents of this hilltop for the last 100 years. This summer, I'll make a new concrete cover for the top, one that we can seal up better, and then we can bolt the old hand pump on the well again. That will let us get water even if we lose the electricity. It will also keep the rabbits and toads from falling in, but I suppose I'd better leave that aspect for another day.

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