Sunday, June 07, 2009

Watching the river run...

When we moved to this little hilltop in the woods a few years back (less of a 'hilltop' than a puckered wrinkle of Virginia's piedmont) the whole region was deep into a prolonged drought. Trees were weakened and dying; wide swaths of field and pasture were shriveled and sun-baked; hot hazy summer skies mocked the parched ground with dry thunder.

The drought lasted through our first year here, and into the next, and only loosened in our third summer. Circumstances were dire for many farmers, whose withered fields refused to bring forth hay month upon month; the range of the drought was such that hay had to be brought in by tractor-trailer loads from the upper midwest. The only crops that prospered were the wine grapes, which were blessed with intensely concentrated sugars; everything else, animal and vegetable, suffered to one degree or another.

At the base of our little hill, through a narrow stream valley, flows a small stream, a pair of streams really. They join up shortly with the river proper a fraction of a mile downstream. Deep as we are in the puckered wrinkle, the sources of these streams may only lie a few hundred yards away in a neighbor's field; there are countless springs and seeps and rivulets that mass in the bosom of these hills, forming the upper reaches of the river that eventually empties into Chesapeake bay. So close to the source of the stream, we are keenly aware of its cycle. Within two or three hours of a heavy thunderstorm, we can hear the fleshed-out stream running full and loud; in another two or three hours it will quiet down and disappear from our consciousness again.

In the depth of the drought, the streams diminished to little more than a string of minor puddles connected with a path of damp gravel; in many places the water was gone completely.

On our little hilltop in the woods, we depend on a well for our water; we aren't really sure how deep the well is, or how dependable. Every gallon we draw cost us in electricity, and needs to be replenished somehow. If ever there was a time our well's capability would be tested , this would be it. So we watered our gardens sparingly and judiciously, and they grew feebly in response to that parsimony.

We installed some rainbarrels, recycled plastic drums that caught the runoff from our ample roofs. But rainbarrels do not magically produce water; they simply buffer what falls from the sky. And if there is no rain, the rainbarrels stay empty. But a brief downpour may fill them, and every little bit helps. Yet, for years one, two and three, there was not enough water to go around, and demand consistently exceeded supply.

Late last summer and fall, the rain began to catch up; things seemed promising. But then we went through the driest winter on record; almost no significant snowfall, no rain to speak of, punctuated by a brutal, almost unheard of sub-zero cold snap that finished off many already deeply stressed plants. Winter rainfall is crucial for replenishing groundwater; when plants are dormant they do not transpire the soil moisture back into the air as they do in the growing season, when a large tree may almost immediately rebreath the rain from a thunderstorm into the sky. Winter rain stays in the ground.

Things were not looking good for this summer. We added more rainbarrels, so at least a portion of the rain that fell on every roof would be captured.

Then, just a few weeks ago, something wonderful happened. We started getting rain.

Late in May, we started getting regular rains. June kicked off with a low-pressure system that moved in and took up residence, and for what seemed like several weeks, it rained day in and day out, interrupted by short, intense downpours laced with thunder and lightning. The ground took it in, replenishing supplies that hadn't been topped off in literally years. Moss and mushrooms grew on everything.

The deficit has been erased. We have probably gotten the better part of a foot of rain in the last six weeks.

Best of all, the stream now asserts itself with a constant, full-throated and unmistakable roar from far below our hilltop, rushing steadily from day to day. It has not flowed this way in the time we have been here. The water that fills its banks is not the murky, coffee-colored soup that the thunderstorms pulse so violently from the earth when they rake its surface—it is the clear, cold, sparkling water the earth gives up freely after calming and polishing it, taking it in and purifying it through its heart.

It is a gift to us, and we hear it singing as we watch the river run.

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