Losing a Spring?

I drove up to fetch water at the spring in Cherry Flats the other day, and found a sign there: “Don’t Drink the Water.” Did the gas company post it anonymously, because they’re poisoning the water as they frac and torch our peaceful hills? Did a local water-tester get a temporary bad reading from a dead deer contaminating the water, uphill?

What I know for sure is that I can no longer count on the always-running, clear, cold water in case the house well goes dry or the pump breaks… or in case I just want a fresh look and smell opf a faovrite place to stop and think and watch abundance in loving action pour downhill into the water table my downstate friends drink from, too.

It reminds me how many, MANY other local treasures the people here have lost… which they have to see as they drive by, on a daily basis. Who am I to claim this spring as “mine,” and grieve it?

It brought to mind a piece I wrote a few years ago– maybe all that remains of that spring. Here it is, below, originally from a letter.



Pennsyltucky tried to be cold and gray today but I took my warm heart off into it, to do what my “lost” message tried to tell you about. I’ll try to capture it, I was thinking so much about you while planning and doing it. It was wrote so gude, too!

No– I’m going to save it for a poem. In it there will be sweet-bitter farmer-men who milk a living out of hardscrabble hills, and who haunt the spring in Cherry Flats when the water in the well runs low. There they meet their neighbors, known and unknown, and judge your worth by the practicality of the waterjugs you bring.

You are counted a neighbor if you help them with their water filling, or let them help you, appropriately, according to yer ability. You may be a just-discovered cousin, if you say “Yep” for “You’re welcome” when they thank you kindly for helping them, and if you just smile a man-loving smile when they help you.

And you’re family, if you carry water down to your neighbor when he’s too busy or sick to go himself, and you don’t ask first– you leave your help on the step and go away without knocking. (Eggs and produce appear this way also. No one likes to cause a thank-you note to be owed for basic life support.)

These people who have adopted us… They love deeply and long, wordlessly, in actions humbly done. They anger slowly but violently. They forgive with difficulty, but with true commitment when they do.

Ah, never mind the poem, what I wrote before is coming back. I am drinking the water now… The water is still ice cold, hours later. If I’d had the good jugs in the car (the big, insulated ones), it’d be cold for days. *G*

It was the lovely setting of the spring, a pipe jutting out of a rise in the ground alongside the hill road just up a bit from Zimmer’s century farm. (Century Farms earn a special landmark sign under the front-yard tree, for farms farmed by the same family for a century. Some of the signs are, themselves, very old.) The present Zimmer is at least 6th generation, and the 5th generation Zimmer was well-loved so extravagantly that the neighbors erected the improved outflow pipe and stone housing in his name. He must have been a giant in his time, for no one here takes being honored by name– in public– on plaques– unless they’re dead, if they can help it. They made his plaque awful big.

Now the present Zimmer ekes out a hard living. He’s an honorable, do-anything-for-ya plumber by day and night, and a Christmas tree farmer by season. Last season was tough; WalMart went for the shipped-in “tree bundles” devoid of all moisture. He had nowhere public to set up his beautiful fresh trees, and visit with everyone till they paid and loaded up.

Now if you need a plumber, when you call Zimmer, you get Zimmer, any hour. I don’t recall a Missis ever answering the phone– I hope he has a good one. (Once again I see a flatlander still looking back from the mirror– never occurred to me to ask after a Missis.)

You have lived in Tioga County “long enough” when you can pull away from the free-running water without kidding your car-mate, “Didja turn it off?” (And your car-mate has lived here long enough when, if you ask that, they don’t at least start to turn around to look!) The outflow pipe is about hip height on me, and it has a gorgeously green and always-sparkling beard of moss growing around the pipe. Although weather prunes it, it’s always there, so pretty you want to stroke and squash the fullness and rough softness of it, but I guess no one ever does, it’d wear away.

Until May, the ground is still half froze. When you step on the hard-packed gravel, on the shoulder and where the perpetually repaired, crumbling old tarmac is partly washed away by the year’s runoff, it gives gently before holding firm where it’s still friz.

Summertimes you wait for the hottest, humidest, buggiest day to go fetch your 5 or 50 or 500 gallons of water, so you can enjoy getting your feet wet in ice cold water and take your numb cool toes back to your hot fly-ridden house.

In the winter, you learn quick to fetch your fill on a clear windless day, to get as much sun and as little wind on your wettened fingers as possible, and you hope there isn’t so much ice you slide down and into the pooled runoff. It takes at least two brave souls in winter– one to fill and the other to stow. You run the heater full blast while taking turns filling, so it will toast you when you dive in, shivering.

Much of the water table is contaminated here. For some, like our family, the romance of the spring is not lost in the necessity of going. For, though go we must, we can after all take our best tunes to blast from the hilltop while we work, in our turns.

There is much lusty singalong-ing up at the spring; no one is EVER too embarrassed there. During the years my stepson prayed for our death on a nightly basis, and my blood son languished in his room withdrawn from us all, a trip to the spring involved everyone and a good time could always be had on that special occasion. The best was when we blasted Mary Chapin Carpenter “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” with its fantastic ndow-dow-dow-dowww guitar, and we all joined in on that riff like the fools we were. No one too cool that day.

Fall fetching is the best. It’s in the fall you buy more containers, or clean out the milk jugs (one more time) that have been too dusty to bother with in summer. In the fall, you want as much water as possible. It’s pretty to go, and winter is coming– you want to get ahead and pack as much as you can down cellar against the days the pipes may freeze or the pump go down in an ice storm. And you THINK if you stock up, you’ll have fewer trips. But the containers are on sale as camping season ends, so everyone sports new plastic in bright colors.

Fall at the spring . . . . No need to describe it; unless you’re an idiot, everyone can picture fall, can’t they? Except you probably don’t have the tiny orange-gold blossoms whose silver leaves can reputedly heal scrapes and hurts. I loved them for years not knowing their name or their healing property, until a parishioner I adore (she helped Search us here) went to pick one for a bumped grandson’s forehead at a parish picnic. At last someone could tell me its name. Now I think it was Silverleaf, but don’t quote me. I traded caring about the name for the memory of the kids, the picnic, and the rhythm instruments I’d brought.

We are not of this place, but we are such as can love this place and its hardscrabble, gallant, abusive, inbred, sometimes courtly people– quite thoroughly. I love them as outrageously, in my own way, as I do you, and they giggle and blush most becomingly.

At night, when the stars are out (but too dim by our house because of the big bright farmyard light), sometimes, I go up to the spring. No one else in my family quite appreciates it, at night, so I have learned to go alone.

I would take you. We would take empty water bottles and a loaded .357, because you never waste a trip to the spring, and you never go somewhere lonely here in the dark without making preparations for your share of the possible drunken confrontations that are common here. (I’m a safe and sure shot.)

We would also take a soft mat to lay on the stone pipe housing. We would sit beside each other, with the water gurgling out between us and running away down the hill. (Making us have to pee in the woods, I completely embarrassed and laughing way too loud for such a quiet place!)

We would talk some and most probably snuggle a bit in a friendly and chaste fashion, and you would find out how soft my lips are when I kiss your cheek, and you would hear how loud I really can laugh in the echoing woods. We would talk about the things we like to talk about, and have long quiet moments to really hear each other’s voices before firing back answers long saved up to be shared.

The stars would remind us how small and how grand we are, and the words we would use would respect that juxtaposition. The closest to open disagreement would be the occasional affectionate word of exasperation, expressed only to restore concord.

Then of course word would get out, due to our loud laughter penetrating even the closed pickup truck cabs dopplering C&W all over the peace and quiet. I’d be scandalised, you’d be appointed town guru, and the fun would be over. But I’d never forget it.

I’ll always think about you when I go to the spring again.

(C) Susan O. Hinton, 2000 and 2001


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