Who Is Your Water?
Editor’s note: For the past five years, Crash Barry has pursued the neo-homesteading lifestyle in eastern Oxford County. This is the second of a dozen essays about his attempts to live closer to nature.
“Most important to me are dragonflies,” I said. “I’m hoping for hordes of dragonflies to eat all the mosquitoes and the black flies.”
“I hope the land…” said Sweetgrass, pausing to think, “has a spring.”
We were daydreaming — a year before we even knew Dreamstead existed — about the features of the piece of earth we hoped to find and settle upon, a place where we could live in better harmony with the natural world. Weary of pavement and the concrete infrastructure of modernity, we both longed to be among varmints and birds, communing with the wind, the rain, the trees, the universe.
“Come on,” I said, frowning, still stuck in the old paradigm. “Don’t ask for too much. We gotta be flexible. For instance, if there aren’t dragonflies around, we could always buy and hatch larvae and grow our own until a population gets established. But a spring?” I shook my head. “I mean, those are rare and…”
“Nothing is more important than free-flowing water,” Sweetgrass interjected. “I’m hoping for a spring. Maybe we could manifest one.”
“This over here is pretty special,” said Pete, pointing at a mossy pile of leaf-covered rocks. He was showing us around his land, which we were hoping to lease. Surrounding us was a half-dead spruce, a bunch of maple saplings, several middle-aged ash and a stand of juvenile birch growing askew in the shadow of a good-sized cedar. An apt description of this area of Oxford County would be “the middle of nowhere.”
“This is the spring,” Pete said. “Did I mention the spring?”
Sweetgrass and I exchanged a look.
“Really?” I said. “A spring?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was abandoned ages ago. Water still comes up, though, all the time. That’s why this section of the land is so soggy. See that pipe?” He pointed to an ancient piece of galvanized iron that jutted out among another rock pile. “That’s the overflow. All plugged up.”
Pete grabbed a fallen branch and used it like a rake to remove the leaves from what had appeared to be a puddle. The treasure was revealed: pure, clear spring water.
“Look close,” Pete said. “You might even see the bubbles where the water comes up.”
Sweetgrass knelt and peered, her reflection framed by what I now recognized were carefully stacked and mortared rocks, not just a pile, surrounding a spring about four feet in diameter and at least a couple feet deep.
“Yes,” she said, turning to me with a smile. “I see the bubbles.”
“Could’ve been built a century ago.” Pete grinned. “Maybe even a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. Maybe by the first farmers around here.”
One of Pete’s plans had been to reclaim the spring so he’d have a back-up water supply for the dug well that occasionally went dry during hot, rainless summers. But Pete’s dad was getting old and his mom could use some help, so he needed to move back home, to the family farm a couple towns over, and give ’em a hand. That’s why he was considering leasing us the 21 acres of abandoned pasture and woodlot, with a wonderful one-bedroom house, until we could come up with enough cash to purchase it.
“Amazing,” Sweetgrass said. “Is it safe to drink?”
“I dunno,” Pete answered. “I’ve never tested it, but there’s nothing around here that could pollute it. Except maybe deer shit.”
“How deep do you think it is?”
“Not sure,” Pete said, poking the bottom with a stick, stirring up a muddy cloud. “As the old-timers would say, ‘She’s pretty well silted up.’”
With many pressing projects to undertake during the first three years of the land lease, the only improvements I made to the spring were to turn some of the trees nearby into firewood and replace the clogged pipe with a 10-foot length of PVC. The new pipe allowed the water to flow faster than a kitchen faucet. The soggy land around the spring gradually dried up, and we were able to use the water for summertime agricultural purposes.
Finally, last August, I determined to reclaim the spring water for human consumption. The Internet has very little info about this sort of spring-recovery, but the first step was obvious: dig out the muck. Luckily, I had access to a little gas-powered Honda pump. After about 45 minutes, with the spring temporarily emptied, I climbed into the hole with a five-gallon bucket and a hand trowel, intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery: How deep was this thing?
I pumped the spring dry six more times over the course of the next couple weeks to de-muck. I was never alone, though. Turns out a trio of frogs and at least two salamanders called the watery palace their home. Each time I climbed into the hole I gave the amphibians a lift out to the upper world, and they watched as I filled my bucket. Sweetgrass and I viewed their presence as a totem. We knew the water must be safe for creatures of all shapes and sizes if frogs would drink it.
This was dirty, difficult labor. Due to the width of the spring and the girth of my bulky frame, crouching was not easy. But the mission had an irresistible goal: an unlimited, free-flowing supply of the best water the planet could offer.
Of course, this also meant the spring was always refilling. I could work efficiently for maybe an hour. Then my pace would falter as the water continued to gush, flowing faster than I could scoop and bail the wet mud. The cold water climbed above my ankles and reached for my shins, making my bare feet ache, almost burn, forcing me to abandon my efforts.
“I can’t believe you’re barefoot,” Sweetgrass said the third time I dewatered the spring. “You have no idea what’s in that mud.”
I climbed out of the hole, half-naked, looking like a lunatic, my entire body streaked with filthy decayed leaf and loam. My chest mane was enmeshed in alluvium. My tattered Daisy Dukes were on the verge of becoming a loincloth.
“C’mon,” I said. “You know how shoes in the summer harsh my chi.”
“OK,” she shrugged. “Just that I’d be wearing shoes.”
She was probably right. So far, though, the muck had revealed nothing manmade except one six-inch-long, inch-wide piece of plank. The rest of the goop, as far as I could tell, was the product of the eroding slope and leaf matter.
By my fourth trip into the hole, I’d doubled its depth to almost five feet. Soon, I hoped, I’d hit bottom, though, in theory, the deeper the hole, the better. The growing pile of silt drying next to the spring was a rich gumbo destined to end up in the veggie-garden compost heap; within a year, it’d become a strawberry bed or potato patch.
As I climbed back into the mire, my feet sank a couple inches into the muck. I evacuated the frogs and began to fill the bucket. After a minute or two, I shifted my stance and felt something hard, like a tooth, scratch my sole. I tried to extract my foot and, to my horror, the damn thing wiggled against my skin.
The terror was short-lived. A little digging with the trowel revealed a broken, rusted rake head. I climbed out, walked up to the house and donned a pair of old sneakers, convinced the artifact was a sign I was getting close to the bottom. I was right. The final depth: about five feet and ten inches. The capacity of the spring: about 550 gallons. I’m not gonna tell you the flow rate, but it’s more than adequate.
By mid-September, the spring was completely de-mucked and had been scrubbed several times. After eons of neglect, the rock walls were clean and the bottom was a bed of sand that made the bubbles easy to spot. Sweetgrass recycled some pine boards and built a rugged springbox to keep out the leaves, the riff-raff and critters. Animals would have to quench their thirst at the discharge pipe, because we were protecting the spring (now known as Deirdre) to keep her as pure as possible.
I gotta admit I drank a bunch before we got the water tested. I suffered no ill effects, but we still sent a sample off to the state laboratory. I’m ecstatic to report the results were exceptional. The water has the most perfect amounts and blend of minerals, coupled with an amazing purity, but for one thing: high levels of coliform bacteria. Google quickly informed me that’s normal after an abandoned water source has been stirred up. Based on the size and depth of the spring, the state lab recommended “shocking” the well with a third of a gallon of bleach.
So on a cold day in late fall, I ran the pump until the spring was half empty. Then I unceremoniously dumped in the bleach and stirred the spring with a long branch. The spring refilled to the brim within three hours, but I didn’t take a sip until the next afternoon. Mmmmm. Amazing. Alive and full, not like the bland, sanitized, watered-down stuff pumped by municipalities and Big Water. (Don’t get me going on the malarkey that Nestle’s Poland Spring tries to pass off as water. Want commercially produced spring water? Check out Summit Spring in Harrison. Wanna fill your own jugs? Please don’t come to my place. Instead, visit findaspring.com to discover where to fill up for free in Maine.)
This project wasn’t without casualty. In my haste to shock away the bacteria with bleach, I totally forgot about the frogs. Ugh. Sweetgrass, who has better eyesight, spotted them dead on the bottom. Once the warm weather returns, I’ll pump and clean the spring again. Hopefully, I’ll find their bodies and give ’em a proper burial. It’s the least I can do. On the bright side, the salamanders survived. And despite the frog corpses, the water still tastes great.
Maine’s literary community lost an icon on Jan. 17 when bookseller extraordinaire Stuart Gersen, of Longfellow Books, passed away. Stu, along with his business partner and pal Chris Bowe, have long been leaders in the indie-bookstore movement, both nationally and in Maine. They and their team have made me and many other Maine writers lots and lots of money. I’ve lost count of the number of out-of-state readers who’ve contacted me, saying they learned of my work through Longfellow Books while visiting Portland.
I credit Stu for helping to change my life. Sure, he was a huge booster and trusted advisor when it came to the business of being an indie author. More important, though, was his friendship and help in weathering an existential crisis a couple winters ago. On a sunny afternoon in his Eastern Prom apartment, he lessened the burden of my struggle the way he did everything: with savvy wisdom and kind humor, mixed with the right amount of tough love. A hippie at heart, the dude was top notch. He’s dead, but not gone. Not for those whose lives he touched. Friggin’ guy is gonna live forever.