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"Drink deep," said Pope, as regards the Pierian Spring. My Grammy, who was (or fancied she was) of high literary quality quoted this bard Pope to me the first time I quaffed the bubbling spring on the far end of our down-Maine farm. That was 85 years ago and a walk of at least a mile through my Grampy's woods. I was a toddler, a mile was long, and my function was to amuse Grammy while we lunched by the spring and waited for the fox to come out. She said the fox was a vixen and might have some little ones. The den was by the spring.

Grammy used to read Dickens at the breakfast table to improve the literacy of Grampy and their three oldest children, 2, 4, and 6. You can't drink much deeper than that. The vixen did come out, but no little ones. So I was quite small when I first heard about a Pierian Spring, where the Muses bathed, and I never believed it because the water was too cold.

Our farm had many of the bubbling or "boiling" springs supplied from the eastern watershed of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, where Mt. Washington has nothing to do but sit there and accumulate snow all winter and melt it all summer.

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The drainage, some of it, flows underground to emerge pure and clear from cracks and crevices in the granite understructure of Maine and surface as "boiling" springs. They are not hot, but the very cold water bubbles forth as if boiling in a kettle. Take a deep swig on a hot day, and your teeth will ache with surprise. World-famous Poland Spring is such a source, and we had a dozen on our farm, but lacked a press agent.

The one by which Grammy and I lunched brought forth enough water to start a brook, and two-three rods downstream Grammy picked water cress for our roast-duck sandwiches. Water cress grows only in very cold streams, so I didn't believe the Muses bathed. But I didn't know what a Muse was, anyway.

The day was to come when it was my job to go every May to clean out the spring after winter and leave a coconut shell for all who came to drink deep. There was always a pop-eyed green frog in residence; that was a good sign.

Drink deep, said Pope, for a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So why, may I ask, do they call us homo sapiens? Far up in the Great North Woods of Maine, the St. John River rises at the outlet of Baker Lake, and I have quaffed often at a boiling spring close by that is like the one belonging to me, the fox, Grammy, and the bug-eyed frog. There, a mighty river rises to flow hundreds of miles to the Atlantic. Soon it becomes the boundary between Canada and the United States for 70 miles, then it flows down the province of New Brunswick to the Bay of Fundy.

Another big Maine river is the Penobscot, and I've quaffed often at a source spring near Canada Falls where the South Branch starts. Downstream, the North Branch joins, and they form Seeboomook Lake and become the West Branch. The West Branch region is the real north woods and is served by the Golden Road of the Great Northern Paper Company. The equally big East Branch of the Penobscot shows up at a place pleasantly named Passadumkeag, and the two flow to the sea.

Both the St. John and the Penobscot are clean, pure, and respectable for a few feet, until humans intrude. To put it another way, every 15 minutes the Hamilton River discharges at Churchill Dam enough pure water to quench the thirst of homo sapiens for thousands of years, but we build oil pipelines and add chlorine to our water. For the first time in my life, I am living in a chlorinated community and I think on these things every time I wash my face.

Long years ago, my grandfather cleared a piece of woodland and made it ready to plant buckwheat for his bees. He picked the rocks and walled the piece, and then he turned in a sow and her litter of pigs to root the soil a bit before he plowed. He had to pump a hogshead of water every afternoon and take it down with a horse and drag so his pigs could drink.

By the time he got the barrel to the pigs, the water had warmed and was flat. Then an interesting thing happened. Old Mother Pig put her family snouts to work and quickly dug a hole in a damp corner of the field to uncover a boiling spring nobody knew about! The sow, you see, didn't know anything about chlorinating brackish water, and had to rely on native intellect. Like Moses, she smote and the living waters gushed forth, and Grampy didn't have to haul water.

On our farm of many springs, we also had a dug well that gave us excellent water and was the favorite of an uncle, who always dipped a pail for his supper. Just before we sat down, Uncle Levi would go to the well. He had a long pole with a snap-hook, to which he attached his pail, and he'd push the pail down to make it fill. Then, hand-over-hand, he'd bring up the pole and his pail.

One evening the snap hook failed, and the pail came loose. The next morning Uncle Levi rigged a fish line with a mackerel hook and tried to jig the hook to the pail handle and thus get his pail back. While he was at this hopeful maneuver, a tourist came along on the road and stopped, perplexed. Uncle Levi, absorbed with his effort, jigged on. Then the tourist called from the driver's seat, "I say, Farmer Brown, do you catch many fish there?"

"No, not too many."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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