Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

In a Dry Season

The mountains upstate are the tap, the fire hydrant, the wellhead for the city. Decades ago the thirsty megalopolis bought land to serve as gigantic offsite gutters and rain barrels. It evicted villagers and their cemeteries, dammed streams and drowned roads, and dug underground aqueducts to keep the millionaires and the slum dwellers a hundred miles to the southeast clean and refreshed. The water that remains unfunneled is a never-ending source of delight, every valley hiding some stream tumbling in a downward clownish course. The larger lower streams meander between farms and broken-down bungalow colonies until they too suddenly fall fifty or a hundred feet, then resume their stately pace until they empty, out of sight, into the big river (technically a fjord) that flows to the harbor, then to the Atlantic. Or so it goes, until — as happened this year — there is a drought.

Our friend the resort owner supplied the science. His property (four generations in the same family) has maintained a weather station for over a hundred years. This August, he told me with the authority of hand-noted data, was the driest in all their records, this September the fifth-driest.

The dry months followed a rather wet spring. After midsummer we noticed the shrinkage of the seasonal stream — an annual event. When the snow melts, it overflows. When the leaves fill out, it sings and clatters. By August, it retires to a few sullen pools with water striders and frogplops, connected by an idiot’s sidewalk of broken stones.

The pond shrank too, maybe a little more than normal. Duckweed smothered the shallows, the cattails stood in dry if treacherous ground. Where mallards dabbled, only dragonflies made predatory recons.

Then we began to take note of our water pressure. Like almost everyone in our town we draw our water from a well, and in 15 years it had never failed us. We are two weekenders who wash clothes and dishes at a normal rate when we are there. When we picked our bathroom fixtures we chose retro metal faucet handles, with plump teardrop shapes. Hot or cold, the water always came at command. Suddenly one night the water was stubborn.

Our neighbor Doug, who was born in Brooklyn before it was cool but has lived in the country since he was a boy, told us it was time to conserve. We have never watered our lawn (if the grass goes brown, crabgrass and dandelions will make it green again); we stopped watering the vegetable garden (it was the dying time anyway; the kale could fend for itself). We resorted to parsimonious flushing. Doug, helpful as always, directed us to a book on how, like the bear, to use the woods. I would not regress to that extent, but I kept the window boxes going (in spring and fall a window needs pansies) with this spring’s rainwater; since the spigot on the rain barrel was on the fritz, I sucked it up and out through a hose. N.B.: Rainwater is sweet, forget the odd nutshell.

Bob Nolan, a Canadian singing cowboy, wrote a song called “Cool Water,” about a man and his mule hallucinating in the desert. Vaughn Monroe made it a hit and many singers have covered it, but the version I know was by Hank Williams, strumming his guitar in the only key he knew but singing with that heartbreak voice. Commenters on the site of the YouTube video explain that it is an allegory of the soul yearning for the refreshment of Christ. Could be, but it also works as description of a body yearning for the refreshment of cool water.

That would be every body. As the drought settled in, I took to monitoring all the unofficial roadside water gauges: the rocks and roots exposed on the banks of the creek that runs along the state road; the wide shallow stream in the field off the turnpike that turned scummy, then turned to green grass; the reservoir above the college town that supplies its students, bars, and ethnic restaurants. Down, down, down — well, they can still drink beer.

Late last month, the sky, formerly bright and unyielding as the shield of Achilles, gave up a few showers. The grass greened, people even complained about the weather. “We need two more weeks of this,” said Doug.

One resource never failed. About a mile west and north of our house, the road winds past several fields, a couple still stocked with cows. In front of one house on this road stands a metal pipe, about three feet tall. Below it is a grate, leading away ultimately I suppose to the stream nearby. Out of the pipe flows a stream of water, thumb-to-forefinger thick. In the winter it splashes to ice; in droughts it flows just the same. It has tested negative for parasites. When the power goes down for a day or more and the pumps on wells fall still, the cars line up before the pipe as people come to fill jugs. Now we came to accept the offering. So accustomed am I to human contrivance that I felt a twinge for not turning it off when I left, but there is no handle, it does not stop.

A few yards away, a dead-end side road passes a few houses, an overgrown field with an abandoned house and an unpainted barn with gaping slats, leading finally to an agronomist and his apple orchard. His property, half of an old farm, is half of a steep bowl. The view from the top goes for miles. He has planted it with rows of trees grafted with dozens of varieties from chestnut crabs to Calville blanc d’hiver to almost-purple buckeyes. He sells $10 or $20 U-pick bags, his conversation on everything to do with apples is free. I asked him whether the drought had affected his trees. He waved a hand. “This” — he meant his corner of earth — “sits on water.”

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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