HARVEST THE RAIN
How to Enrich Your Life by Seeing Every Storm as a Resource
Water as Stimulus
"Don't forget your history.
Know your destiny:
In the abundance of water
The fool is thirsty."
—Bob Marley, “Rat Race”
When the ancient orchards are in bloom in the valley of Velarde and people are stepping out at first light to discover that their fragile buds have made it through the night, the high desert of northern New Mexico becomes one of the prettiest and most hopeful places on Earth. Here, the upper Espanola Valley bumps up abruptly against the bottom walls of the Taos Gorge as a snow-packed mountain backdrop puts life in perspective, slows thoughts down, and allows any soul the space to ponder one’s role in the universe.
Half of my life I’ve lived in Santa Fe, the city of “holy faith,” an hour’s drive south. It’s the oldest European-settled city in the United States, founded four centuries ago by conquistadores drawn toward fabled cities of gold and wealth. The Spanish found no gems or precious metals, but they stayed to till the verdant reaches of the Rio Grande highlands. Back then, tall grasses used to tickle the bellies of their horses, but due to many forms of cultural expansion and human “progress,” few healthy grasslands still exist across the basin. The “big river” spreads out and floods naturally almost nowhere anymore. Progress, no longer synonymous with the proof of human greatness, is only a siren of change: sometimes for good, often for ill.
We watch our rivers diminish in volume while simultaneously increasing in levels of pollutants, turbidity, and sedimentation as they course from numerous headlands to the sea. Governments, farmers, ranchers, builders, environmentalists, utility companies, and all their lawyers fight over water rights that translate into drinking water, food, land, homes, endangered species, gas, oil, minerals, and jobs. Above all, we are witnessing how water will make and shape our futures, even as we watch overused water resources coming up short and water tables dropping across entire bioregions. Almost everywhere, this scenario replicates around the globe. Water, the stimulus of life, is the new gold.
Sometimes a side trip down Velarde’s dusty roads reminds me why I’m so invested in issues of water, land, and sustainability. Such detours dare me to dream of a bountiful future when rivers and their peoples are respected. Other times I’m lured back to the fresh waters of my childhood when my grandmother used to take my older sister and me fishing down by the causeway at the bottom of Old Huckleberry Road at the southern edge of old rural Connecticut.
These good times still call out to me with pleasures children relish forever. After grabbing our rods from the garage and hitting up the compost pile for a cup of live worms, at daybreak Anne and I would shuffle off a few steps ahead, while Gramma stayed slightly back to keep an ear out for cars. On these short, steep treks she’d make us tote old shopping bags for collecting roadside trash. “A fisherman should always protect his watercourse,” she’d proclaim as she yanked a dew-laden beer bottle from a gangly stand of grass.
Fat bass, muscular pike, and plenty of skinny sunnies devoured our bait. Now and then we’d save a chunky specimen for the evening meal, but almost everything we caught, we thought, was too much trouble to clean, so we’d grit our teeth and do our best to gently unhook the squirmy, supple, terrified vertebrates before quickly chucking them back into the dark water.
Later, up at the house, we’d squeal about those that got away and follow Gramma back to her piles of compost, where we’d help load her big red wheelbarrow. Then we’d drive it down the path to her dazzling flower garden. In front of an aged picket gate and simple lattice archway, Anne and I would swing, play, and giggle in the shade, while Gramma, trowel in hand, smiled in the sunshine.
At dinner, if we didn’t eat fresh fish, I’d get Grampa to slice me a second “hunk of horse,” as he once famously called Gramma’s roast. With permission to be excused, we’d quickly scrape our scraps into a sink-side milk carton, rinse our plates, and dash off. After the grown-ups had their MacNeil/Lehrer fix, on the west-facing porch we’d drop gently into story time as the sun prepared to sink behind a precipitous ridge. As the last refractions of daylight dove out of sight, it was time to climb the steep stairs toward tooth brushing and bed. While she tucked us in, Gramma would whisper a simple prayer in French about the dreams of little angels, a mantra passed down to her by her father. Sometimes one of us would ask for a translation, but we didn’t really need to hear the words in our native tongue. The deep love in our grandparents’ voices transcended words and lulled us to sleep.
Fast forward a few years to an East Coast region-wide drought. I’m an eighth grader and our New York City sliver of an apartment is seven stories up, deep within a forest of steel, concrete, glass, and brick. Mom and Dad had recently surprised Anne and me by deciding to squeeze two more kids into our previously predictable family unit. With brother Jack now climbing the kitchen counters and soon-to-be sister Liz kicking around Mom’s belly, I remember being relatively freaked out about the prospect that if it didn’t start raining, we’d be part of a citywide, drought-induced exodus. I knew we were lucky to have our grandparents a quarter mile from freshwater, but I remember wondering: if those westerly storms kept dipping south and the rain kept missing us, what would our 20 million neighbors do?
Then one night on the phone I heard my grandparents say they could not recall a time when the reservoir had been lower. There would be no more fishing for a long time.
“Fishing,” I gasped, “prohibited?”
When I later realized that almost all adults seemed disinterested in the water crisis, like any frustrated, self-respecting 13-year-old, I began to get genuinely righteous and sometimes livid as I mounted a water-conservation campaign. Serendipitously, my homeroom teacher handed me the reins at our school newspaper, so I let fly an editorial tirade designed to shame people into changing their lifestyles.
“It will not kill you to cut down on water consumption,” I raged in conclusion, “but it may kill you if you don’t.” My campaign didn’t much succeed, but soon the weather changed back to soggy and the habits of the tri-state area reverted to its typical state of relative nonchalance towards water issues.
Today I find myself having lived in a very arid land for over two decades. Here, the reservoirs are off limits. Forget fishing—you can’t even get past the fencing and warning signs that surround Santa Fe’s surface-water supply. During the spring snowmelt and sometimes during our short summer monsoon season, the usually brown, sediment-filled Santa Fe River rages wildly, but for at least 300 days per year the river’s watercourse is a glorified trickle that meanders gradually out of town, looking more like a road than a river, toward the Rio Grande. I don’t get angry anymore at people who lack my anxiety about water, but I often think of an old and true line about how it is always time to try to make a difference even if the big picture seems beyond any of us: “It is the most ridiculous of all mistakes to do nothing because you think you can only do a little.”
Maybe it’s the thin air I’ve been breathing at 7,000 feet above sea level, or it could be the high traces of lithium rumored to pervade parts of our local aquifers, but my decision to do what I can do on the water front, while maintaining a relatively calm composure with respect to a growing water crisis, could simply be a basic survival strategy at work. Over my long career as a water-conscious landscape designer, I learned early on that I could not force change on anyone—especially anyone who might be writing me a check. As a conversation topic, “our role in the environment” is always fair game during any landscape consultation, but it’s hard to know exactly when another person will be open to seeing their property in the context of an intricate web of concepts like “a healthy water cycle,” “seven generations in the future,” “aquifer independence,” and “your local foodshed.”
Even though my company, Santa Fe Permaculture, attracts a certain mindful clientele, not everyone is always ready to dive into the world of precipitation collection, conveyance, storage, and distribution—much less to delve deeply into the metaphysics of sustainability or a hands-on biology lesson provided by a little bucket full of kitchen scraps. Lately, however, people seem more than willing to get deeply green in personal, meaningful ways that improve their lives, their homes, their neighborhoods, and the well-being of our planet. Somehow inspired by the current economic meltdown, more of our clients are unabashedly articulating a brand-new commitment to environmentalism. They understand that shifts in their individual perspectives and personal lifestyles are required, and they are expressing a much deeper desire to make the necessary changes. Landowners at every scale are seeing their property more as an investment they must nurture, overcoming financial hardship with a focus that begins at home and points to the future. Within the confines of having, as always, limited time and, more recently, a lower-than-expected budget, many of my clients are now seeing gardening, landscape design, and water harvesting as opportunities to embrace rather than as options to avoid.
Although the economy, global warming, healthcare, illiteracy, the flu, and a number of other serious challenges are important topics for discourse, exposition, alarm, and even outrage, this book mostly avoids fear and loathing as tools for change. My sense is that enough of us are coming to understand our predicament. A tipping point is near at hand. We just need conduits for animating our innate desire to thrive. When I think about all of the energy that can be put toward people who want to be part of “the solution,” I realize there isn’t time to go backward to hammer out blame, anger, fear, or righteousness. Instead it’s time to get to work using the language of convenience, return on investment, empowerment, and pleasure. The ground has shifted.
While our society gains a greater reverence for water, it will be necessary to simultaneously develop deep esteem for all things sustainable: everything from local food and energy production to appropriate transportation and green building. There are countless causes to choose from, but water issues are especially exciting because anyone can relate to the nurturing power of water, and each of us can easily have a positive effect not only on our regional watersheds. As a consequence, everything from our local economies to the health of the planet as a whole becomes better. After oxygen, water (in most climates and during most times of year) is our prime need. Even before food and shelter, water is at the innermost core of any successful group of human beings.
The majority of this book describes a variety of ways to harvest rain—as rainwater, snowmelt, hailstones, sleet pellets, dewdrops, fog particles, and every other form of precipitation imaginable. But before we consider how to capture, save, and use this supply in the sky, I will first describe some of the incentives that come with collecting, storing, and distributing the most powerful and most easily accessible resource around.
1. Water harvesting offers convenience. By using a simple scheduling system that I call “gradual greening,” harvesting large quantities of water becomes a convenient way to do one’s part to save the world while at the same time getting a little exercise, making friends, improving one’s quality of life, and/or investing in oneself and one’s property. Imagine a world where we spend, on average, over four hours per day making our lives and our communities more sustainable. Now imagine such a world where no one really recognizes this time as anything special because it seems like second nature to us. This is all possible if we commit, on average, 10 minutes per day to gradual greening and if we renew this commitment every year (with an additional 10 minutes per day) for the next 30 years.
2. Water harvesting provides return on investment. By using my “get rich slowly” plan, you can turn any property into a relatively high-yielding financial asset over the long term. Beauty, shade, privacy, wind protection, and food production—these are just a few of the many ways you can improve the value of your home while also benefiting your local community and every living creature on this planet. With a modicum of patience, trees, gardens, outdoor rooms, and other landscape features will come to be—will take root, grow, bloom, and mature. Although these improvements are often low cost to install, they provide high-yielding returns.
3. Water harvesting empowers people. Water and water harvesting in particular represent vital issues around which people can organize. By producing water, preventing pollution, and creating green-collar jobs for plumbers, architects, landscape professionals, educators, manufacturers, arborists, scientists, laborers, and many more, water harvesting can be a populist, pro-environment and pro-growth plank to any political platform. It’s hard to imagine an issue on which ultra conservatives, adamant moderates, and radical liberals can so easily agree. Not since the Great Depression has there been such a desire to shift course, to work together, and to use government to benefit societal goals. Seemingly insoluble problems are giving way to a horizon of great opportunity. Now is the time to get empowered in our communities and articulate new visions of water’s universal relevance in a sustainable future.
4. Water harvesting translates into enjoyment. Harvesting precipitation is a pleasurable experience, from straight-on fun to the measured satisfaction of “game changing” accomplishment. From mulching your backyard with your family on a Saturday afternoon to working with friends and neighbors on a seasonal watershed-restoration project, water-saving projects act to facilitate a deep, enjoyable love for life. The creativity involved in landscape design, the physical exercise associated with gardening, the camaraderie generated among folks who come together to plant trees or to learn a useful technique—these are just a few of the countless examples of joy that come with water harvesting. Of the many roads to happiness, there are few as swift and dependable as the path through a healthy garden. In such a place, especially one that you had a hand in creating, delight, the mother of all incentives, morphs into clear reality. Is there anything much more fulfilling than the feeling we experience whenever we make an attempt to improve our world for future generations?