Saturday, July 29, 2006

Water, Water Everywhere

I went to Moose Hill this morning with water on my mind.

It started yesterday in Starbucks. As I stood in line waiting for my Friday morning treat, I noticed a display touting bottles of “Ethos” water. I didn’t take the time to read the details of the offer, but I’m quite sure this was the sort of feel-good product sold at trendy places like Starbucks where a small donation is made to some charitable organization for each bottle sold. I am also sure that the ethos they promote does not dwell on the petrochemicals that went into the production and transportation of the bottles and water.

This reminded me of a similar moment I had a few days earlier. I stopped at a convenience store to get a cool and refreshing drink. I wanted something lighter than soda or a sports drink, so I grabbed a bottle of green tea. As I enjoyed my beverage a few minutes later, I studied the label. While I should have been feeling proud of myself for being so wise and healthful while drinking a product boasting in bold print of “natural flavors” and “citrus” and encouraging me to “get active,” to “enjoy three teas a day,” and even “enter to win a bike,” I made the foolish mistake of reading the ingredients list. After water, the primary ingredient was high fructose corn syrup. This sweetener is the poster child for cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrient, processed industrial filler that corporate America tries to pass off as food in today’s culture.

We’ve been having a bit of a heat wave here in the Northeast for the past several days. I was working outside this week, and while I tried to organize my project in a way that would allow me to stay in the shade as much as possible, I was still getting hot and thirsty. Several times a day I would refresh myself with a cold drink drawn right from the outside faucet. Our town is blessed with good municipal water, pumped from six wells. Three of these wells are adjacent to Moose Hill. We are also lucky to have some people that understand the value of this resource to our community.

These were the things on my mind as I headed up the hill early this morning. I wanted to visit the ruins of some water management structures I’ve seen many times from the road. Like the vast majority of southern New England, what now seems like deep forest, not so long ago was open farmland. Almost any walk in the woods here takes one along or through old stone walls. Stone-lined cellar holes are also common. When I ponder all the time and energy that went into moving and stacking all those big rocks, I wonder what we could accomplish today if we didn’t have television soaking up all our time. I can also understand why all the farmers moved to Iowa. In the woods adjacent to the field where I watched the tree swallow flying circus back in April, a small stream flows through a culvert under Moose Hill Street. Just off the road is an old stone well or cistern, about eight feet in diameter, with a concrete cover. Nearby is a larger rock-lined enclosure with the stream flowing through the middle. I always assumed this was the foundation of an old spring house used to keep food cool in the summer, but my closer inspection today tells me it was too large and casually constructed for that. It looks like it may have been used to water livestock. Whatever its purpose, it is clear that the farmer did not take his little water supply for granted and worked hard to protect it and enhance it.

Bottled water worries me, and not just because of the wastefulness of the bottling and transportation processes. Unlimited, fresh, clean, safe, delicious municipal tap water is something we have come to take for granted. Like schools, hospitals, police protection and transportation systems, good water supplies are something we should expect from modern society as something we all need and deserve. Lack of good water is one of the main challenges facing the poorest countries in our world. We have allocated tremendous resources to developing, maintaining and preserving our water infrastructure, and yet - thanks in no small part to corporate advertising - people are beginning to mistrust our water, often for no good reason. I worry that, as people get in the habit of spending more money on their own bottles of water, they will be less willing to support our shared water supplies. There are some things that should just not become a matter of personal wealth.

The tiny stream flows down the hill from the old stone structures. Even in this wet summer this unremarkable stream gurgles quietly through the rocks, only a few inches deep and easily crossed in one jump. The remarkable thing about this place is the rich hardwood forest that this brook waters. This is where I spent most of my morning.

Most areas with good soil were long ago cleared and used to grow crops or feed animals. The few forests that remained grew on soil that was too poor, dry, wet, rocky, steep or otherwise unsuited for agriculture. If trees happened to grow on a good site, they were so frequently harvested and damaged that only junky tangles remained. This woodlot is different. It might be informative to know what land use history lead to the creation of such an impressive stand of trees. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is the most common tree. Some still bear scars where they were tapped for sap, but otherwise many are tall and straight. Some are nearly two feet in diameter and their boles are clear up 30 to 40 feet to the first branches. Scattered among the maples are equally impressive white ash and red oak. Other species, like black walnut and basswood, attest to the fertility of this site. Shagbark and bitternut hickories are also present.

Things started off slowly. It rained again last night, and although the dawn broke through a clear sky, the woods were warm, damp, quiet and misty. Mosquitoes were the most active creatures. A few birds were going quietly about their business. I followed the stream downhill for a while, expecting to see it grow in size as it gathered waters from a widening watershed, but was surprised to see it disappear altogether, and then form again downhill where another small valley contributed to the flow. I wondered if our thirsty wells might be sucking it dry.

Hoping for a break from the mosquitoes, I went back up the slope where some drier air was now moving. Sitting down to have breakfast, I noticed a new background sound. In addition to the hum of I-95 far in the distance I noticed the buzz of cicadas. This is one of those perpetual sounds that’s easy to ignore, but in my conscious effort to sit quietly and pay attention to my surroundings the steady low hum of these bugs became obvious. The noise would rise and fall, hitting periodic crescendos and reminding me that it was now getting to be late summer.

Shafts of light from the rising sun pierced the green canopy, creating puddles of brightness on the forest floor. Every now and then, birds moved among the sunbeams, but because they were so quiet, and many of them immature, this rather casual birder was having trouble making positive IDs. I did get a good look at a phoebe with its bobbing tail and heard the beeping of a nuthatch and the constant drone of the vireo. I was happy to hear that my peewee was still around. In this world of gray, brown and green, I was momentarily stunned to see the bright sun strike the brilliant red of a scarlet tanager high overhead.

My quiet watchfulness yielded another prize. I spotted a small movement in a tangle of brush created by a wind-fallen maple. Raising my binoculars as I crept closer, I was delighted to spot a winter wren. I like all the wrens, but this must be my favorite. It’s hard to imagine how such a tiny, perky bird with his striped underpants and stubby upright tail could get a big threatening-sounding name like Troglodytes troglodytes. Maybe it’s because they are often found poking around in cave-like recesses of piles of twigs and branches. Whatever his name, every time I see one, I feel like I’ve discovered a small hidden gem in a secret place.

It was time to head back out into the full, hot sunshine. I found my bike and pushed it through the grass of the swallow meadow, past the now-empty nesting boxes. Where birds zoomed in the spring, monarch butterflies now drifted over milkweed.


At 10:42 AM, Blogger robin andrea said...

Yes, the future will be about water, more precious than oil. Most cities have ancient infrastructures and can not afford to replace it with modern materials. I've read of cities that sell their public water systems to private companies which can afford the expense of upgrades. Of course, the citizens will be paying private industry for what should be the most important public utility.

An interesting side note about that bottled water, most testing has shown that it is not any different in quality from public water, and in many cases is actually worse.

If you are interested in reading about one small city taking on a multi-national water company to get its water back, check out Felton, California.

I guess you can tell that I'm very interested in water. sounds like you had a nice walk!

At 10:59 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Water as a status symbol - what will be next?

Another of many things we take for granted.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger lené said...

mojoman, I really like the way you weaved in the bottled water/commercial interests/abandonment of local responsibility issues with a beautiful day walking through the woods. You brought us many places while helping us to consider water all along the way. Thanks. :)

Just a side-note question--I heard somewhere that slaves were actually brought in to build many of the stone walls. Do you know if that's true? I had completely forgotten about it until you mentioned the walls you see on your journeys.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Lene: I never heard that about slaves building stone walls. Indentured servants, maybe? It seems unlikely there was that much slave labor in New England.

Of course, Thoreau may have said the farmers were slaves to their own ambition and property.

Thanks to Robin Andrea and Laura. The way corporations are taking over so much these days, I do wonder if our public water supplies could be in danger. I'll be paying more attention to stories from places like Felton.

At 8:05 PM, Blogger lené said...

Maybe I misunderstood. Hmmmm. It does happen. :)


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