Ode To a Dug Well
Tomorrow the drilled well will be hooked up. After tomorrow I can do all the laundry at home. After tomorrow I will not have to pack water all through the summer and fall. No more boiling water to wash the dishes. No more scooping the used dish water out to use for watering the garden. No more lugging buckets of dishwater being careful not to splash the water on the floor or on my Birkenstocks. We have an eavestrough that catches the water on the north side of the roof. It flows into an old style tub that you can lie down in and get really covered in water and soak. It’s a garage sale item my cousin picked up and has future plans for in her own home. For now it holds the rainwater.
During the rain storms I would go out there with my rain coat on and scoop out the water into buckets so that we could get as much as possible to water the garden with and flush the toilet. I would keep watch on the tub and make sure I got out there to bail out some water before it began to over flow.
People would give us buckets. A donut shop franchise in Toronto gets muffin dough in square buckets, which are discarded in the dumpsters. My brother in law would scavenge some for us when he got off work late or early in the morning. He also got us some huge black barrels from another chain store. My husband set the black barrels up to catch the rainfall on the south side of the roof. Then he rigged up a tap on the bottom of it so we could just turn on the tap and fill up the watering can or an empty 25-lb. bucket of peanut butter.
It was a family affair watering the garden. One person would watch the water pouring into the buckets and switch them so that they would not overflow and waste our precious water. The others would carefully lug the buckets and pour the water dispersing it over the garden. I always made sure my favorite vegetables got an extra drink of water. By the time a bucket had been poured evenly over the beans or carrots, another bucket was filled up and ready to go.
I would go to the beach where there is a tap, to get the water most often. There was a tap on the outskirts of town but for some reason it was shut off one winter and never turned on again. So I resolved to going to the beach for the water. Many times when I would arrive the tap would be on, the water pouring relentlessly over the grass and making an ankle deep puddle. Or kids would be playing with the water spraying each other. Adults would scrupulously rinse their sandals and children’s beach toys. I would wait patiently, feeling humble that I needed this water to cook my supper with and wash my dishes and bathe with. I needed this water to make juice to quench our thirst in the July heat. I needed the water to rinse the vegetables from the garden. This water was vital to my family and me.
I had it down to a science, with no bathing, just cooking, drinking, washing hands and washing dishes, I could get by with using 100 litres of water a day for my family of five. I heard an advertisement for a dishwasher recently on the radio citing that rinsing dishes under a running tap for 5 minutes can use up to 115 litres of water. Kinda puts it into perspective.
My husband rigged up a system so that we could have hot showers outside. With the aide of the propane stove, an old honey extractor, a pulley system and an old claw tub we salvaged from our last home 4 provinces away, we had the benefit of warm showers. Sometimes at night we would set the water to boil on the stove while we watched the television. By the time the show was over, we had enough hot water to fill that big old claw bathtub. Underneath the huge old oak tree below the stars, we would settle into the tub together for a special romantic time. We could hear the frogs singing and feel the peace of the summer evenings. The steam would be rising from the water as we kept as much of our bodies as possible under the surface.
My husband and I always bathe together. It started as an act of intimacy and has remained throughout our 14 years of marriage. It truly was one way that we conserved water. Sometimes as we showered outside, we were very quick at washing with all the mosquitoes vying for our naked bodies.
There is something very ancient about bathing in the woods under the sunlight. I think of how new the concept of indoor plumbing is, only a few generations ago it became a way of life for most people. No wonder I sense a body memory of bathing outdoors, it really hasn’t been that long since we have adapted to showering and bathing indoors. When you consider how long we have bathed outside, it seems like the natural thing to do, in the summer time anyway.
Sometimes when we all needed a shower at the same time in the fall when the well was still not full, we would take turns in the indoor shower without even turning off the water. It was like passing the baton in a relay race. When one was done washing, another one was ready to hop in and wash. We were extremely adaptable.
When we first bought the place we had no running water. The old pump and hot water tank had to be replaced and most of the plumbing also had to be replaced. After all the plumbing was in and hooked up we discovered that the tub surround desperately needed replacement as well. With the enthusiastic assistance of my neighbor, we planned how we would tear out the old rotten wall and shop for new materials including linoleum for the floor. After we ripped out the rotting wallboards and put up some of the dry wall, I found myself struggling to finish the job. My motivations to cut up that dry wall dissipated like a popsicle melting in the sun. The walls were not square the new tub surround overwhelmed me. I wanted to be baking Christmas cookies instead. There seemed to always be another job that called me. After a week or so of this unfinished mess and no shower facilities, my husband asked me if I needed help to complete the job. I acknowledged that I did. I had to admit that I was submitting to his help. After all, I was the one that used to be a Carpenter’s Helper. I had the experience. I had all the pointers on how to do the job just so. He agreed to finish the bathroom.
During the unfinished bathroom period, I would fill up our large corn pots and put them on the wood stove to heat up. Then they were transferred over to a rectangular container that was 16 inches high and the water was poured into them. This became the children’s bathtub. They loved playing it the snuggled tub. It was an adventure for them. They splashed and played only a few feet from the crackling wood stove. Hard to believe they actually fit in those containers now.
The first summer here we had no idea that the dug well would go dry. We purchased the property in the fall of the year. It had been 3 years and with the poor state of the plumbing, we did not suspect any water problems. Further more, it’s only a five-minute walk to Georgian Bay. Well by July one day, I heard this funny unusual sound coming from the jet pump. “Oh no trouble,” I thought and I turned off the electrical switch for the pump. I informed my husband of the weird noise and he investigated. The conclusion was that the well was dry.
I was so hardy that first summer, I actually packed in enough water to do laundry in my washer. It takes 40 gallons of water to wash 1 (one) load of laundry. And I didn’t even have enough containers to carry 40 gallons in one haul so that meant after the washing and before the rinse cycle I would go back to the tap in town and refill the containers. At this point we had a family of four. That meant that to keep up with the laundry 2-3 loads per day were required.
I also used to go to my friends’ houses and take my laundry there to wash. My friends got to see a lot of me then. They were very generous offering me this service. Sometimes Corinne would actually put my laundry in the washing machine for me, although I was never quite comfortable with that generosity. I felt guilty that she was doing that for me when she had a family of five to do laundry for.
I finally got the idea of going to the laundry mat. I would haul garbage bag after garbage bag into there and take up every single washer in the joint. After many trips like this, the operator of the laundry mat pointed out to me that there were double and triple sized washing machines. I was skeptical at first. Could I actually fit double and triple the amount of clothing into those round drums? I gave it a try with the coaching of Marilyn. Since that time I have never used a single washer again. Those triples were the best! I could fit 2 garbage bags of laundry in them for $4.00.
I got to become friends with Marilyn, the operator of the laundry mat. She has second hand clothing, books and articles for sale there too. She now saves all the fishing magazines for my son. I picked her up a prickly pear cactus when I went to British Columbia last summer. My sons gave her some cacti they uprooted in Saskatchewan in a fenced area where there was a buffalo herd roaming far off in the distance.
The second and third summers I decided to go straight to the laundry mat at the beginning of June. I was able to resume laundry at home by October the second year. The third year was the worse. Not only did we have restricted water use or no water use throughout the summer, but right through until February.
We even purchased 1,500 gallons in January, as we were concerned that the water was low enough to freeze the water lines.
Last summer when our well went completely dry, I ordered water. You can do that, you call the water guys and they bring this truck filled with spring water. Then they transfer it to your well, bill you and voila you have drinkable, potable water. My great uncle prefers to bath in the house so we would accommodate him with the water that we would buy. One morning they delivered almost 2,000 gallons of water, which filled up our well. By the time my husband got home to prime the pump, the well was half-empty. The ground had absorbed half that water we had just bought that morning. I was so frustrated with this attempt to retain the luxury of tap water.
Visitors in the summer were told about our water restrictions and expected to accommodate to them. We told them, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Flushing is such an automatic response for people. Each flush used about 18 litres of water for those 4-6 ounces of urine.
Sometimes we would go to the river to bathe. One time my husband and I went to the river with Rosie, our newborn niece. We tracked through poison ivy and hip high grasses and weeds to get there. We carried our towels and natural shampoo and soap bundled up with our fresh clothing and Rosie in her seat. We positioned her securely along the riverbank and we prepared ourselves to bathe. We never really worried about passersby, as it was pretty secluded. We got into the middle of the river that was only up to our waists. It was chilly but we were tough. We were washing our hair when I felt a nip at my toes. Again it happened. I imagined huge hungry fish wanting to chomp off chunks of my flesh. I expressed my conclusion to my partner. He immediately put his hands to protect his sensitive parts and we exited the river. I later discovered that there was leeches in that river and stopped bathing in it.
Most times we would take the boys to the beach and wash up a bit there. With the boys swimming every day they were able to maintain a semblance of cleanliness and have lots of fun at the same time. I would feel awkward about getting out the bar of soap and doing a quick wash up in the bay when there were other sunbathers there, however my need to be clean was stronger and prevailed.
The process of watering the garden was meditative. Waiting for the buckets to fill up at such a slow rate and then slowly pouring them on the parched soil afforded me much time to linger in the garden and really enjoy the growth around me. I felt sure that I knew the right amount to apply to the plants. Everyone else seemed a little stingy with the water I thought. I took that extra time and made that extra trip over to the bathtub that held the rain reservoir to get just one more bucket of water.
Tomorrow we will have access to year round tap water. I feel sad for the loss of a change in lifestyle. As that drill bores into mother earth I feel sad that I am consenting to that invasion of her. Some of the water that has come up around the drill site is reddish. It reminds me of blood. This drill has pierced her. They have found a steady stream of water at 280 feet below the surface. It will give us 2-3 gallons of water a minute, which equates to almost 5,000 gallons per day. Yes it will be convenient. I will be at par with most of the western world. I will no longer follow a tradition that was an every day event for my Grandparents. I am saying goodbye to that lifestyle.
I have many fond memories of adapting to the water crisis. What most people take for granted, I have measured, scooped and poured with deliberate care and vigilance. I have come to really know of the importance of water and the respect that it commands. I am grateful for this journey and all the laughs we had along the way. I am ready to accept this ever-flowing water that comes from the earth so deep.
As for the dug well, I have plans for it. I think it will come in mighty handy come January 1, 2000 when the power goes out. All I need to do is find a hand pump and fix it to the dug well this summer and we will have water, power or not. Yes, it is good to keep those old ways around. You just never know when you may need it.