Thanks to a hillside spring and a strategically placed bathtub, we rarely have to worry about watering the animals we keep on the pasture field east of the barn. Elsewhere on our 80 acres, water is available most of the year from an intermittent stream, and during the wettest months from a sporadic seep along a gully where the big back pasture grades to forest.
Toward the end of the summer, the seep and stream dry up, and the animals out on the back pasture have to come up to the barn tank for water - in our case, city water.
Because our dairy farm sits directly opposite a county grammar school, and because both are within two miles of town, we enjoy the convenience of a hookup to the municipal water supply.
But the pipeline stops here. Farms that lie further out from ours rely entirely on surface water, cisterns, and wells.
Of course, city water comes with a price, so we use it for the animals only as much as necessary. It hardly ever is for those pastured in the east field, where the hillside spring surfaces. It breaks ground just yards from the road, and eventually trickles down a steep, wooded ravine. Along the way, it pools in the old bathtub set under the cedars, an ever-ready watering hole for thirsty cows.
This is a slow but remarkably steady spring; even in the driest months, the tub is rarely empty. It does require maintenance, however. Without occasional cleaning, fine sediments build up in the tub, gradually limiting the volume of water catchment available.
Lately, we've gotten lazy about its status. We've kept the cows out of the east pasture for many weeks, letting the grass there grow long for a luscious, late-in-the-year treat for a few of the heavier milkers. Nothing compelled us to check on the spring and tub - until today.
AFTER morning milking, we turned eight happy cows out onto the thick green carpet of ungrazed growth, and just before noon I walked down to see what was up with their water supply. Sure enough, a thick, deltaic mound of fine sediment had accumulated in the tub's center. Shallow rivulets of water ran on either side of this deposit to spill away over the lip of the catchment.
The tub had become a beautiful little microcosm of geological processes at work - and it was well past time to clean things out.
What better way to spend a half hour on a warm midday poised between summer and autumn? I hadn't brought a bucket or scoop, but rather than walk back up to the barn, I indulged an old childhood urge to sink my hands in mud, glorious mud.
I emptied the tub with a leisurely, unhurried rhythm, enjoying both the feel and the scent of the soft, earthy slurry in my cupped hands and pouring out over my arms.
As I hadn't yet changed after milking, it was all to the good. For company, I enjoyed the steady incoming trickle from the spring mingled with the sifting of leaves, the whisper of a breeze through the cedars, the bleating of the calves, and the answering lows of the cows.
In my experience, cleaning out a spring- fed catchment pays twofold dividends. The water deepens and clears; and there comes a sweet, steady purging of the mind. In working with earth, animal needs, and running water, one sheds all but the quietest and most generous thoughts with which to proceed with the day, the season, and the year.
As fresh water crept up the sides of the cleaned-out tub, I thought it looked good enough to drink myself.
And so I did, even though I already had.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society