Monday, May 12, 2014


June is fast approaching, and I'm pondering whether the summer months on The Mountain here at Sewanee will be dry ones this year. It's a thought to ponder because water is scarce here when droughts occur, and we don't own any rain barrels or cisterns to help us through the hot periods.

The lawn became parched and my flower garden perished the second summer we lived here because we didn't water—the first summer we naively watered our vegetation, and the bill for June came in bearing the news that we owed the local utility company $237! Ouch! This notification brought forth a poem entitled "The Cost of Water" published in Just Passing Through in 2007. I'll include it at the end of this blog.

Meanwhile, I read in our local newspaper, The Sewanee Messenger, that a UT extension agent is sponsoring a seminar on rain barrel gardening, a program that will provide information about how to collect rainwater and use it to irrigate lawns and gardens. Because I'm not the most informed person concerning conservation measures, this was a bit of news I'd never considered, even though I know that water conservation is important to preserving our water supply here on The Mountain.

It seems that the water collected in a rain barrel could flow off the roof or through gutters on the roof and down downspouts into the barrel, then used to water non-edible plants like flowers or lawns. Mind you, the water you catch using this system is not potable. Sometimes water from the roof can contain bacteria from birds and animal waste that might be on your rooftop, and this would contaminate the water supply.

Rainwater barrels were preceded by cisterns, which date back to antiquity and are frequently mentioned in the Bible. Ancient sites contain many cisterns, small catchpits attached to a private cistern and provided with an overflow channel leading to the cistern. Public cisterns were large rock-cut ones, and there were great water caverns used for water storage under the Temple at Jerusalem.

Over one hundred years ago, Louisiana residents used cisterns to capture rainwater, and this system prevailed until yellow fever struck and a law was passed forbidding this natural water supply. Fines up to $1,000 were imposed. I remember that my paternal grandmother in Lake Arthur, Louisiana had a cistern house, as we called it, but it had been abandoned as a method of supplying water, and she had installed a toilet in the aboveground rainwater catcher.

My old friend, Jimmy Wyche, Jr., now deceased, converted his aboveground cistern house at Belmont Plantation into an office and penned his famous "Letters to the Editor" in that space that had once been used for the plantation's water supply.

For a long time I thought that Mehitabel, the alley cat featured in the poetry of Don Marquis, kept her kittens in a rain barrel, but when I read the book Archy and Mehitabel again yesterday I discovered that the feline residence was an empty garbage can in an alley behind a made-over stable in Greenwich, Connecticut. Mehitabel lamented that if a heavy rain came, the kittens would be drowned.  However, a day later, following a heavy rain, when she was talking with Archy, the cockroach, and he mentioned Mehitabel's offspring and their home in the empty can, Mehitabel asked: "what kittens? " The humane ending to this poem was that the garbage can probably leaked. Let's hope so.

And back to water scarcity, here's the "Cost of Water:"


The water bill arrived,
a small green card,
$237 glaring at me,
high price for privilege,
living on an exalted campus,
rubbing elbows with entitlement
of scholars, writers who ignore
the high cost of growing green lawns.
Two hundred dollars,
my eldest daughter screams into the telephone,
they charged $200 for public water
in that one pig, snobby Tennessee town?
Where do they get their rate scale?
from the Water Commission of the Mohave?
I don't understand all I know
about your situation, your life there.
The shrills are an octave above ear-piercing,
better come home to Louisiana, she says,
where water isn't a problem.
Remembering the inundations of Rita, Katrina, Andrew,
I counter Did you actually just say that?
What I left behind is a brick home
with two baths on ground I owned
to live in a stucco, one bath cottage,
leased property,
a regular sharecropper now,
so that I can lamely explain to my daughter:
water rates are no criteria for culture.

No comments: