Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reticulation Blues


...is where the water comes from. It turns out that in the country, where water isn't piped to every single house, getting moisture is an issue, and access to water is a key differentiator between properties. Is there a spring? Can you put down a bore and draw from the ground? Do you live near a river and have riparian rights? Or is the hill on whose shoulder you live seeping water day in and day out?

The water comes down the gully you see to the right. We have a pipe that runs upstream about 500 yards from the storage tank you see on the very left, which is about 70 vertical feet and several hundred more horizontal yards from the house. The good news: we have access to all the water we can use--lovely, tasty water--for flora, fauna and family. The bad news: if something goes wrong, there's well over half a mile of places to look for trouble.

You don't want to know all the ways it can go wrong, even if I could tell you, which I can't because, of all the things I'm sure of, I'm most sure that we haven't seen all the ways it can go wrong. But on the house end of things, we've been experiencing a slow-motion disaster that was built into the way the system was put together. You see, we filter the water, using two filters in the garage which collectively remove everything larger than a micron. Which is great, because the drip system in the garden doesn't eventually get plugged as though by an infusion of concrete. But on the other hand, it means that all the faucets in the yard, all the water used for irrigation in the garden, on the lawn and for the trees runs through two filters which, replaced on an annual basis, aren't a big deal, but get to be a serious fiscal annoyance when they slow the house water to an exaggerated trickle on a weekly basis.

So this week's project is to tap into the water on the way down from the tank, distribute it to the garden (with robust new pressure that would allow us to sprinkle more than a couple of square yards at a time), get set up to irrigate the soon-to-be-planted row of wind-shelter trees (that's next week's project), get easy water to the pigs and provide water in two paddocks for the cattle, allowing us in turn to fence off those paddocks, enabling us not only to plant trees along the drive but to free us and all our guests from opening and closing two gates between the road and the house. You can see why it's important.

It all begins with tapping into the pipe on the way down to the house from the tank on the hill. Which means finding the pipe on the way down to the house. Under at least two feet of dirt. Where the ground has enjoyed fecund growth and prosperity. Where there are new fences and all manner of earthworks having accrued since.

Here, this is what I mean. Before:

...and after:

The one feature in common is the gate at the bottom. The right-hand gatepost started both the old and the new fences. The water pipe follows the old fence to its right, then veers left toward the house. What path does it take? Where does it veer? Where does it wind up at the house? i felt confident that the pipe crossed the other new fence...somewhere...probably.

This question haunted me for weeks before the water guy showed up, primarily because I had volunteered to find the pipe before the water guy showed up, so we could proceed with alacrity to install all the nice new water features festooning the plan. It all depended on finding...the damn...pipe. And I had to find it armed with nothing but my wits, my shovel and my grubber.

After much poring over the pictures above, noticing irregularities of growth in the paddock, feeling about for an indentation in the ground and throwing the runes on the full moon, I carefully scraped the grass away from a small patch of ground near the first fence post away from the gate on the house fence. Not a bad guess, don't you think? I agree, and so you can imagine how gratifying it was to notice, in that small swath of ground, that the bare patch revealed earth that had a visible change of color. Cleared a little bit more ground, and the change seemed pointing in the right direction. Cleared a foot or so away, and the color changed back again--and again in the right direction. By god, this looks like a trench.

Let me pause here to remind you of something. I'm 57 years old, and I haven't done genuine physical labor since shortly after high school, an experience which provided all the motivation my young self needed to get into a professional position to pay OTHER people to dig ditches for me. In other words, I'm a thinker, not a digger, and let's face it: 57 is a bad time to start digging ditches. Not to mention the fact that I was less than 24 hours off of a four-hour, 19-mile biking expedition, most of it cross-country. And also: I had two other trenches to dig for the project.

So digging this ditch was hard. My 57-year-old body had been dreading this task for upwards of a week, a dread which turned out to be strangely prescient.

...and in the opposite corner, weighing in at 54 billion metric tonnes, nemesis of farmers throughout the district: Moutere Clay! Moutere is the territory stretching from here to Tasman Bay, and its soil is best approached with heavy machinery, if not tactical nuclear weapons. It chuckles condescendingly at hand tools. The best you can do is chip away at it with a grubber, pausing regularly for the catching of breath and sober reflection on lifestyle choices.

Thus, you can imagine my excitement and rushing relief at how obviously it was the right place to dig, the earth being marginally less rock-like than the surround, the color continuing to be correct. And indeed, it came to pass that when I was about two feet down, my shovel struck a pipe. Could it be true? Could I have nailed it so exactly? Incredulity raced in my head with the joyful anticipation of having this monkey off my back, both whirling furiously about—until, that is, I noticed something peculiar about that pipefall, a certain scratchiness, a hardness, anunyielding metallic quality that, no denying it, was far out of character for the plastic irrigation pipe I was looking for.

But surely not. Surely it's impossible that there would be a metal pipe up here, in the middle of nowhere, agriculturally speaking, in this exact spot, pointed in exactly the right direction for my house pipe. Surely...not...

Well, it was. It was an old, rusty pipe, planted exactly where my grail should have been, its trench a snare and a delusion. I had to pack my celebration back in its bag and face starting over.

I'm going to fast-forward over the next part; you don't want to read it and I don't want to write it. The telephonic huddle with the guy who entrenched the pipe in the first place. The clearing of about 30 linear feet of ground in vain hope of finding a similar vein. The water guy arriving this morning, and the hours of discussion, photo-scouring and rune-tossing with him (which actually made me feel better, because he was just as flummoxed as I). More scratching at the surface a due with him. The late-morning throwing up of hands and running to the rental place for a 1 1/2 ton digger. The better part of an afternoon digging down, and along, and back, over 75 feet now, ever downward through strenuously uniform earth. The thrashing and convincing ourselves that it must be over here, no, over here, no, if we just dig a little farther...

Cut to 3 PM. Frans is dejectedly pawing at the ground with the digger, and I'm taking one last look at the photos. Finally, I become possessed by an iron certainty that the pipe must be running between the first two fence posts. To hell with it, who cares if we break the pipe? Dig, dammit!

And so it was, that about 3:30 PM, at a depth of two feet plus, we struck water. It gushed and sprayed from the pressure coming from the tank, and we gushed in turn, for our open-ended sentence, the mystery stretching out before us, leading who knows where, now had an end.

When the waterjet subsided, and our jubilation with it, it was then that I realized: the pipe we sought? It was right there with the metal pipe I first struck--I mean, less than a finger's width away, and the merest millimeters lower. It had been there all the time.

Aliasing: it's a bear.

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