Tuesday, November 8, 2011

You don't miss your water 'til the spring runs dry

Tucked into the folds of the Patrick County countryside is a springhouse that has served generations of Connors and Woods and other families that lived in the little frame two-story farmhouse a few feet away. The springhouse, now nearly hidden from view by greenbrier, blueberry bushes and a lush growth of stubborn vines and weeds, was not just a water supply but also the refrigeration for families who farmed the high pastures and rocky bottoms, raised a few dairy cows and cultivated apples for the better part of a century.  And the spring would have been a good place for native Indians to hunt game as deer and other creatures of the woods came to water in the long times before the springhouse went up.  My father-in-law once told me he had found several arrowheads along the little creek that flowed down from the spring and the nearby seeps that helped feed what is know as the North Prong of the North Fork of the Mayo River. 

You can't see the springhouse, hidden in foliage in the picture, above, that  Dave Bennett took in August. But at some point in the 20th century the spring was enclosed in concrete half-walls, and a gabled roof was built atop -- just about the size of a modern dormer -- to keep vegetation and leaves out and to provide shelter and shade to the cool waters that burbled up from the ground. Eight years ago my father-in-law asked me to pick up some roofing material because the old shingles were falling to pieces. I got some green corrugated fiberglass roofing from Lowes and commenced to have an awful time fastening it down to the ancient oak purlins.  They had dried and weathered to approximately the hardness of cast iron, or so it felt, and nailing those roofing sheets down was a miserable job.  But the roof went on and the springhouse looked good.

Buford Wood, who died a few years ago but who lived with his family in the nearby house many years ago, once told me that the spring ran low a few years but never dried up.  My father-in-law, who died last year, had poured a small concrete basin in the floor of the springhouse to collect enough water so that he could run it through a half-inch flexible pipe down to the garden, a couple of  hundred feet downhill.  He had a wire mesh intake for the water, and connected the other end of the pipe to a wooden sink with an old bronze faucet at the garden end. There they could wash the garden produce in the sink or get a drink of cool water on a hot day without worrying about creek mud, bugs or things that ought not be in the water.  In a dry summer they ran hoses from the sink to irrigate the tomatoes, corn, broccoli,eggplants, lima beans and half-runners.

A few weeks ago as we were putting the garden to bed or the year I turned the faucet on for a quick splash -- and got nothing but air.  While the nearby creek was still running with a steady trickle of water, nothing was coming down the pipe. A quick walk up the hill showed why: the intake pipe was out of the water because the water level itself had dropped to barely half an inch in the bottom of the basin.  This was no huge cause for alarm. After all, the growing season was over, and we had had a mighty dry period his summer that ended only when the remnants of a tropical storm blew through and dropped five inches or so of rain.

The other day I checked the spring again and the basin was dry this time, although I could hear the creek the spring fed as water hurried downhill. It's hard to see where that water originates, but it has to be close by under the thicket of weeds.

This is our first fall living full-time on the mountain, and I don't know if this represents a permanent change or merely a seasonal shortage.  But as I put away the hoses for the year and brought the last of the buckets and watering cans inside the old house for storage, I sent up a hopeful prayer that in the spring we'd see springhouse water running again  -- on its way down the mountain in time to help feed the Dan River and the Roanoke River and, a couple hundred miles east, Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

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