Our water flows from an unnamed, underground spring. It flows downward from a point about a kilometre north-west of our home. We share the license with our neighbour, giving us rights to this water, as long as we pay some arbitrary fee spelled out in a statement arriving every two years.
The water, in a good year, will brim and spill out over the banks of the reservoir. Before we fenced, and then wove a solar-powered electric fence in around that fence, cattle and deer and sometimes a black bear would come to drink. Some days I swore you could taste the bear in our water. Not now though.
The water flows steeply downhill, conducted by PVC pipe we bought and laid before we built our home. The pipe was white, its sections joined with fluorescent turquoise glue and carefully bedded in sand. The pitch is such that, rather than a pump, we needed reducing valves to restrain the flow of water before it came into the house. Pressure was never a problem. The problem has been supply.
Most months one of us—my husband usually—hikes up the water line, accompanied by our dog Miles, to check on the water level and the condition of the two lines of fencing that surround the reservoir—fancy name for a depression clawed into the hillside with a backhoe.
Last July, our youngest son and I walked up. I could mark his maturity as much by how he held back branches for me to make my way over the neighbour’s fence we crossed to access the path, as by how he knew what to do at the top. I trailed along as he inspected the electric fence, clearing wayward branches and watching for signs of cattle or bears or deer. Then, leaving me behind, he heaved himself over that fence and steadily hitched himself out along a log to count the rings of the culvert pipe, making note of the number of rings visible (twelve), which indicate the level of the water.
That’s low. We’d been anxious for a couple months, watching the water level drop—even as the rains fell through May and June. It seems that our spring flows from deep beneath the ground level, and so registers water levels at odds with what’s happening at the surface. Other springs in the vicinity will be overflowing when ours is falling perilously low.
I grew up thinking of water as hardly warranting a moment’s thought. It seemed bountiful, originating, with all I knew, from the taps at the sink. Hot water was another matter. That meant power, which meant money. And we knew very well, money did not grow on trees. Beyond that, water was the given in lives with no abundance of certainty. It was without weight: inconsequential, yet reliable.
For our three kids, water has always been a precious commodity. They’ve grown up to our nagging about overlong showers. Taps are never to be left running. A half-glass of water left on the table goes in houseplants, not down the drain. The usual vague background parental noise—to be ignored; except that they remember how, in 2005, that minor irritation became hard reality when the spring ran dry. The boys helped to lay two kilometres of hose from the neighbour’s well, allowing us to stay put for the months till freezing, when to our good fortune, the reservoir filled again.
We bought our land and licensed our water supply in 1980. A culvert was the first purchase I recorded in the blue ledger I’d bought to track our progress. The culvert was required to sustain the ditch where the driveway met the road, ensuring drainage along the roadside. It’s ironic because never, in thirty years, has water flowed through it. Now, in fact, the culvert is full of gravel, the ditch overgrown.
In 1981 we purchased our first washing machine, used and exactly what we’d been looking for. Called a suds-saver, it sported a feature which allowed you to hold water from first wash in a laundry tub, to get sucked back through a length of hose for a subsequent load of laundry (or two). I developed the lost art of collecting and sorting laundry with reused wash 49 TEMPLEMAN | Reflections on Water water in mind: sheets and towels first; blue jeans and work clothes last. Saving the suds was, for us, immaterial: detergent was of little concern; water was.
Our first serious scare was in 1985, the year our first child was born. I’d wanted to use cloth diapers, but our water supply wasn’t up to the additional demand. We found a diaper service, driving in to meet them twice a week. Our scrawny new fruit trees and my vegetable garden—an ambitious array of raised beds, unaccustomed to neglect (not yet competing for attention with three kids)—wilted between rainfalls.
From a young age, our daughter seemed aware, peripherally, of our focus on water. An early talker, she mixed up the word lion with line. When we’d walk or drive down our laneway, she’d say, “Watch out for the water lions.” Did her misspeak result from our vigilance at that invisible point where the water line crossed beneath our driveway? Maybe she imagined some lion-like threat lurking there. She was too young to remember, so we’ll never know; such are the mysteries of the perceptions of children.
Our water is hard, thanks to the bedrock layers through which it seeps to the surface. The silty rock surrounding the spring and the coppery cliffs rising above are rumoured to be rich in minerals—iron and calcium to be sure; copper, and perhaps even traces of gold. The calcium abounds, lining the tea kettle, or any appliance, with chalky lime residue.
In the winter, as the layers of ice skim, break up, and sink, the water in the reservoir will turn over, producing an unmistakeably sulphury smell. The first whiff, usually in the shower, portends weeks of bad tasting water— fine for washing, okay for cooking, bad for drinking. That smell, and taste, probably result from weeds that grow and then die in the reservoir. To us, it’s a normal and even inevitable part of winter. But our kids get embarrassed when, at its worst, the whole house smells vaguely of a lost and forgotten rotten egg.
The water flowing into our home is neither unappreciated nor bland. It changes in character throughout the year, varying in taste season to season, and probably year to year. I can imagine samples, lined up in small glasses in front of me, to swirl, sniff, and sip. If I were a reviewer, my tasting notes might read something like the following.
Issuing from an unnamed spring to the north of Heffley Lake, the Templeman family water is aged in an open reservoir for some indeterminate period. Transported through PVC piping, it’s charcoal-filtered on site and issues freely, most always, from the home taps. The water varies in taste and aroma, with intriguing distinctions season to season. Recommended for mature palates, the taste is an acquired one. Most varieties go well with thirsty work or play.
April 2010: Pleasantly light but bracing, with a soft, almost chalky texture. Flavours of early spring growth linger on the palate, rounded out by a faintly coppery finish. Splendid straight from the tap after an afternoon of biking.
July 2010: Light-bodied with subtle notes of mineral and spruce, slightly sweet with a dry finish. Brightly complex, yet unremarkable. Best served cool; pairs well with grilled fresh vegetables and bread.
December 2010: Robust and earthy with silky texture. Redolent of pond weed, a finish of willow leaf balances the heavier overtones. Slightly sulphury to the nose, with a hint of earth in the finish. Best boiled and then chilled; pairs well with left-over beans and rice.
Through the summer and into fall, we waited to know if the spring would run dry or not. My garden got weeded sporadically, watered less often. It’s nerve-wracking, and strangely incongruent while the grass is still green from recent rains. Later, when the grass is bleached of colour and crackles underfoot, worrying about water—along with the seasonal worries about fire—will seem fitting.
Water and fire, both remote from my thinking for the first twenty-five years of my life; and central to it since. A shift at the core of consciousness. And really, not such a bad shift. What could be more elemental— more steeped in significance—than fire and water?
The spring is a blessing, its water rendering our land habitable and our home possible.
Ours only as it flows into our home, and our lives—our water is distinct and sometimes scarce. A mixed blessing to be sure.
Elizabeth Templeman lives at Heffley Lake with her husband, and a houseful of stuff their kids have left behind. She teaches at Thompson Rivers University. In 2003, Oolichan Books published a collection of her literary non-fiction called Notes from the Interior. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in various journals.