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News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Carrying Water

The thirsty drink from a bowl made of mountains, hills, and trees...

In the rural area where I lived for 20 years -- and throughout Oregon, as well as elsewhere -- "watershed management" has become a common term. Farmers and ranchers compete with urbanites and salmon for water to feed us all. The media call them "water wars," but without water, no one eats and no one "wins." If the salmon lose, we lose too. The issue looms ever larger: climate change, population growth, and an economy on the verge of collapse. Fear makes it hard to manage anything, but we try. Meanwhile, "watershed management" has become a career path. Years ago, an earnest young woman came to a community meeting to asked us this question:

“What is the one most beneficial thing that a resident can do to improve the quality of watersheds?”

She was trying to organize a citizen's committee to come up with a "management plan," but I thought instead of all the waters that pour from the sky to fill the creek where I lived, which replenishes the wide ocean, as well as our cloudy Oregon sky. I saw myself standing at the creek watching the salmon spawn as they have spawned since long before my ancestors stood on two legs. I thought of the bucket I used to haul water to my little house. I felt, again, the immense gratitude and wonder I have for all the miracles, seen and hidden, that make my life possible. Rather than sign up for more meetings, I sent her the following message:

The most beneficial thing a resident can do to improve the quality of watersheds is to learn the value of water. But value is not a concept you can understand by reading. Rather, turn off your main valve, or your electric pump. Fill up your bathtub with water. Get by on one tubful per day, every day. Carry water from the tub to wherever you need it. Wash your hands with a pint of water, your body with a quart, your hair with 2 quarts. Learn what you smell like. Disconnect the drain under your kitchen sink. Replace it with a 5-gallon bucket to catch all your dish water. Go to your tub to fill another 5 gallon bucket with clean water, and use it to do all your washing for the day. Put drinking water in a special, beautiful pitcher that will give you pleasure every time you pour yourself a glass, or fill the kettle for coffee. Figure out what to do with the dirty wash water from the bucket under the sink. If you use it on your garden, think about what you washed down the drain before you put it on your lettuce.

Make a composting toilet, so you don't have to use any of your precious tubful to flush. Carry water in buckets to feed your garden plants (if you have a garden, you get extra). Learn to make a dirt bowl around every plant, so the precious liquid doesn't run away into the garden path, where it only feeds weeds or rocks.

You will learn to value water the way most of the rest of the world does.

Then you will know the value of watersheds.

Then you may ask questions: Why do we waste millions of gallons of clean drinking water to flush away all that valuable fertilizer? Why do we make huge houses (with 3 or 4 or 5 or more toilets) that only rich people can afford to buy and live in? Why, in order to build all those big houses, do we cut down all those forests that hold water in the soil, and keep our rivers clean and flowing? Why do we damn all those rivers to make all that electricity for all those big houses that only rich people can afford to buy and live in? Why do we drive so much? Why do we make it so important to drive, when we know that cars cause such damage everywhere? Why don't we have decent public transport? Why do we use so much water to grow so much grain to feed beef cattle, when we could feed lots more people, more cheaply, from that same land and water? Why do we eat so much meat? Why do we import most of our food from far away countries when we used to be able to feed ourselves? Why do we drink so much soda pop, when we know it's bad for our teeth, our bodies, our health? Why do we buy bottled or filtered water, when we can still drink what comes out of our taps? And why do we use so much of it to flush away all that good manure that our land and crops cry out for? Oh. Sorry. I already asked that question.

But why do we? Because we don't value water. Until we value water, we can't value watersheds. When we valued water, we didn't have to "manage" watersheds, because they were perfect. They gave us the essence of life -- and we were grateful. Now we've traded the immeasurable value of water for cash we can count, and conveniences we ignore: flush toilets, washing machines, big fast cars, other stuff -- and we have to ask ourselves how to "manage" watersheds that we abuse at practically every turn.

I never did get any kind of response, but for twenty years all the water we used in our house we carried in 5-gallon buckets and 5-gallon plastic jugs. In the winter, we heated water on the wood stove; otherwise, we used an electric kettle. To wash dishes we boiled a kettleful, and dipped cold water from bucket to basin. We got very good at cleaning a sinkful of dishes with a few quarts.

The first couple of years, I watered the garden by bucket from the creek, but when my wife moved in, the garden grew, and we extended the pipes from our 200 gallon open springbox so we could water it all; later a neighbor gave us an old pump to keep the springbox full and run the sprinkler. But when the weather's cold enough to freeze the pipes, we went back to the creek, and remembered bathing under the summer sun.

In winter, when the water's warmer than the sky, creek baths provide a different kind of exhilaration that made me feel tougher than I probably am. When we extended the water into the garden, however, we added a wood-fired hot water heater and outdoor shower. That made winter bathing a very tight-fitting kind of comfort that woke us up as well as making us clean. We noticed the stars.

Western Oregon, where we live, is famous for it's rain, and a watery place if ever there was one. Water shortages? In California maybe, but not Oregon. But every well taps an aquifer, and every aquifer or reservoir rises or falls, eventually, with the rain and snow -- which we've been getting less of since I moved here in 1992. And there are more people moving to the state every year, many of them escaping drought-plagued California. One well driller I spoke with told me he was not only drilling a lot of 2d wells because clients couldn't get enough water from their first wells, but he was drilling deeper to reach a receding water table. "you can only put so many straws in a glass," he said.

In California lives a doctor named Rachel Remen, who has spent a long career learning about the role of mind and spirit in healing. Widely lauded, she has suffered from Crohn's disease since she was a teenager, and her stories about the blessing of life don't grow out of medecine's power to "save" life, but from her experience of watching it end, as well as watching people survive terminal prognoses. She's come close, many times, to losing it herself. In a book titled My Grandfather's Blessings, she tells how her rabbi grandfather asked her to make a daily chore of pouring a small amount of water into a small pot of earth. She was only 6 or so at the time, and quickly found it boring -- but she persevered, for love of her grandfather. And watched in amazement as the dirt sprouted and became a plant. It appeared to her as magic. She asked her grandfather, "was it just the water?" "No," he told her, "it was your faithfulness." Life, he showed her, depends on us doing what we do, every day, w/out reward; our actions shape not only our own lives, but the lives around us.

In another story, she writes about a daily practice she learned from a Tibetan nun, who would start each day by filling a bowl with water. It spent the day on an altar, where it held the fullness of the nun's life, the full promise of the day and, of course, the holy gift of water. At the end of the day, she would pour the contents of the bowl out onto the earth, letting go whatever had happened, and watching the earth drinking it in. The bowl spent the night turned over on the altar, to be "ritually" refilled the next morning.

True ritual comes, I think, merely from understanding the truths beneath our daily acts. A Jewish friend studying to be a rabbi told me about the many prayers of gratitude he had had to learn, one for every act, from peeing and pooping to eating and drinking and making love. What's important, however, is not the ritual of prayer, but the true connection between our actions, and the source of all action -- whether you call it God, Good Sense, or even, I suppose, the Source of all Resources. The connection transforms act to rite.

As an artist, I was pleased, and not really all that surprised to discover that "rite" and "art" share the same root, which simply means "to fit together." But fitting together -- connecting ourselves to the land and life around us -- takes time, and work, and it takes recognizing the true, physical interconnectedness of all things.

Ritual only succeeds, however, when it can slow down our hurried minds, and help them adopt the measured, rhythmic, pace of nature. Whether it's prayer, dance, painting, song, work -- even the simple Catholic act of genuflection -- making the sign of the cross -- or carrying water -- if it slows us down to nature's pace, then we may see the nature of miracles.

After 20 years, we're moving to an acre in town and building a house. It's illegal, here, not to have the flush toilet, piped water and a pump to push it into every sink at the rate of many gallons every minute. And every sink has two taps, each of which take a quarter turn to unleash a 5-gallon-per-minute flood so we can wash our hands and brush our teeth to the sound of "running water" -- much of it hot! Even when we don't need it hot.

In town we'll actually have more land to cultivate than we had at our rural rental, but as we've been planting trees and fixing up the shop, we've rarely seen any of our neighbors outside. Why should they bother? All the blessings of water, wood, and sky have been converted to resources delivered directly into their bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. They don't miss visiting because their friends are all on Facebook®. And they don't mind shitting in their houses because fans suck out the smell, and pipes filled with fresh drinking water flush all that good manure "away."

Speaking of "away," I should mention that we have never had "trash service." Anything we can't burn or recycle gets put into little bags. After about a week, when they're full, we tie them up and take them to a trash can in town. My wife feels more righteous paying the folks at the car wash, where she spends $1 to vacumn the car and deposit the trash in the cans they provide. That makes me wonder how many people generate more trash in their cars than four of us do at home.

We did make a lot of trash when we had to gut an old building on our new place, so I used the opportunity to show my boys where "away" is -- 10 miles out of town, where they're building a mountain called "coffin butte." Isn't that a good name!? We all get to help, not only adding our personal molehills to the mountain, but adding our cash to pay all the staff needed to manage it. The managers are pretty proud that they've trapped and bottled the stinky gases made by all that trash and converted it to a resource that they sell back to us. Trash...good for the, as presidents have told more! So you can throw it away. Not to be cynical but..."it's all good!"

In our old rural "mud hut," we bought relatively little, and lived happily, going outside many times a day to do things peasants do -- carrying water, chopping wood, growing and harvesting our food. We used to get our drinking water from our neighbor's, whose spring was more reliable than ours. Often, the quarter mile walk for water turned not only into a pleasant outing and exercise, but an opportunity to visit and catch up with the neighbors. Probably the "hardest" thing about our water system was the fact that it made salads a challenge. Since we carried our clean drinking water in 5-gallon jugs from the neighbor, a ten minute walk away, we had to be pretty stingy with it when we washed the lettuce. That made salad more of a treat than a staple, and we really like raw greens.

My wife is thus excited at the prospect of being able to immerse lettuce in a full sink of clean drinking water. And I confess, I am looking forward to having baths -- tho I'd trade them in a minute for a creek (even without the salmon). But the real challenge will be finding a way to continue the kinds of daily practice by which we acknowledge -- and say thanks for -- the value of our watershed.

First, we'll turn off the hot tap to the kitchen and bathroom sinks. We'll continue to heat wash water by the liter, so we'll know exactly how much we need to wash a sinkful of dishes. We'll re-design our "modern systems" to connect us with nature, instead of separating us. We'll save our dishwater, and take it outside to share with our new fruit trees. We'll make it a personal, mental, and spiritual challenge to design rituals to help us in our seeking after our common nature.

We'll have a compost toilet. We'll keep our beautiful pitcher for pouring our drinking water. We'll put flow-reducers in the bathroom faucet -- after all, all you need to wash hands or brush teeth is a dribble, and if you leave the tap on, you'll hear a tiny stream abundant enough to do what you need done -- and to remind you of the mist, drops, and rivulets that feed the great rivers, aquifers, and oceans.

How to make a flow-reducer: cut a small disk of rubber or soft plastic (a yougurt lid will do), and drill an eighth inch hole in the middle. Unscrew the aerator from the spout, insert the reducer, and put it all back together -- adjust as needed. And while you're at it, shut the hot water valve under the sink. Do you really need to wash your hands and brush your teeth with hot water? And how often do you mistakenly turn on the hot when you really want cold anyway? Your power bill will go down. Maybe you'll take to watching that tiny stream fill a bowl that you can put on your altar, or use as a reservoir for watering your house plants, or marvel at the gift of water.

This marvelling is how we bestow the human concept of "value" on the miracles of the natural world. It is the source of all worship, and the essence of a true economy. It is the necessary, and currently denied "other side" of the modern coinage we know as money, and tho we think of it as "ours" to save or spend it is, in fact, only ours to replant and cultivate for our children, and for our neighbors' children, both human and wild.

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