A fickle aquifer in our path

Posted by jdg | Thursday, July 24, 2008

I am trying to spend more time with my grandfather these days. He's turning ninety soon. Yesterday afternoon he was holding his great-grandson while I stared at his penny loafers wondering how a man who claims not to be as mentally or physically fit as he once was still manages to put on slacks and dress socks for a ninety degree day. I admire the generation that endured the depression: even back when they had to tie their pants up with rope and stand in bread lines they dressed better than most of us do now. Aside from the polyester sweat-suit crowd in Boca, most of them still do. I consider my closet full of t-shirts and blue jeans and bemoan the fact that most turn-of-the-century hobos dressed with more dignity than I do. I am basically an overgrown toddler. If they made onesies for adults, I'd probably wear them.

When we get together I often try to ask my grandfather what it was like to see Chaplin movies in the twenties or the fighting at Guadalcanal, but all he wants to talk about is the future: the peak oil crisis or the coming Chinese hegemony. Most old people won't shut up about the past, but getting my grandfather to talk about his history takes work, like priming an old-fashioned hand pump: raising the handle, pouring an old coffee tin of water down the spout, and pumping till that cold water trapped deep underground flows up to the surface.

I have managed to turn my grandfather around on the old family homestead. All my sentimental talk of family history and the area where he and his wife grew up and raised my mother seems to have actually moved him. Yesterday he explained he would love to see us buy it, but just doesn't want the project to devour our savings. To him, I think, the house was a gloomy place he visited in those prewar days before it had plumbing or reliable electricity. The farm must have seemed stuck in a past not worthy of sentimentality. "I want you to understand the potential pitfalls," he told me. "Starting with the water."

My grandfather was the longtime head of his city's water department. Prime him with water and he'll speak of his past. He describes the difficulty of drilling wells in the area where the homestead sits, the fickleness of the aquifer in that part of the county. The quality of the water is bad, he says, and just a few miles to the south underground salt deposits from the edge of an ancient sea could potentially make the water brackish and non potable. He starts talking about childhood memories of the farm, the elaborate chain pump that drew water from the ground before modern plumbing was installed and how even then good water was so scarce he was forbidden to flush after urinating.

Before I know it we are discussing the future again: elaborate plans for rainwater harvesting cisterns and filtration systems. I tell him next time I come to town we will go there together and discuss possibilities, but really, I am hoping the touch of those thick old tulipwood floor planks will jog memories of more than water. If not, I'll still looking forward to the drive out there together through the country to that land our ancestors cleared back in the 1830s.

While driving there alone I might pay attention to a particularly picturesque curve of road or a stately Victorian mansion under the shade of ancient trees. I always look for the history of a place, of the buildings I see driving through the country. What was that four-story brick beauty before it became a real estate office? A dancehall? A fraternal lodge? What stories could it tell? I never really think much about the role of water in shaping the landscape. I remember the cistern at Mycenae, climbing alone into the 3,000-year-old pointed arch a hundred steps down with just one book of matches. The water at the bottom had dried up just like the bones in Agamemnon's tomb. But it felt like the belly of Greece.

My grandfather's landscape is informed by a bureaucrat's working knowledge of hydrogeology. A road might twist the way it does because it once followed a creek that dried up after they built that dam in Saline. There are memories of meetings: the sting still of heated exchanges with county drain commissioners. Three men once worked for him, he says, scouring the townships for undiscovered deposits of fresh water. For decades he ensured that his fellow citizens had quality water to drink. A genius of the local, my grandfather tells me about the landscape in a way I could never appreciate without him as we drive or walk through a park with a playground for the kids. Another road might follow a small river not visible beyond that mound of earth and trees. He'll tell me where it drains. The lakes, ponds, and swamps we drive past are just windows to that underground world only he knows is there, remembered through strange maps only he could read. Underground he knows where there are rivers no one will ever see, lakes of permeable rock, a whole history and future right there under our feet.