There is something compelling, almost magical about the collection of rainwater. Like many human concerns it is a work that is tied to biological need and dates from so far back in antiquity that we have little information about our distant ancestors who strove to capture the freely given water from the sky. There is much talk about ice and the Shackleton expedition, and the many names of snow spoken by the various indigenous peoples in the north, but except for the desert people of the world, in the Gobi, Sahara, Kalahari and Atacama, water is merely taken for granted, the inevitable and disregarded socks under the Christmas tree, the sudden bloom of affection in a crowd.
It is raining now in the cabin, and as the drops streak over my skylights and down the roof, I am struck again by the feeling of accomplishment that merely righting a barrel under the drip can give a person. Many years ago, those who stood just beyond the cave entrance on the otherwise dry cliff, would have wished for, and no doubt quickly designed a system to gather and store the water, just as those in California today, bound by legislation, are forced to watch dumbly as the infrequent rain sluices over their land and they are unable to gather it into ponds or cisterns.
I have no such restrictions on my proclivities here in the forest, although it was a long time before I learned to bring the water to me rather than carry water in two litre soda bottles over my rough trail and up the hill. When I was first building the shack, as I called it, and sleeping in my car, I drank from the bottles that my friend had supplied in a nearby village. I was rushing through the building, having access to almost no materials and pushed by the increasingly cold winter to finish it quickly and get under cover. Finally, after three days of hard labour in the cold, I was sleeping in the shack in the woods, the fire keeping the snow outside at bay, and if my water froze in my bottle on the floor, it merely served to remind me of how others use a refrigerator to do the same. I was in the shack for a few weeks when I found a half barrel at a local illegal dump and brought it to the shack with an eye to turning it into a water barrel.
I had brought some eavestroughing, or rain gutter, from my friend’s house in Toronto. It had proven to be too beat up by ice storms and age to be of use to her and, like me, she never wants to see something go to waste that could be used. I cut it into ten foot lengths and piled it into my car, guessing that although I had no building on the land at the time I might have need of it in the future. I strung one of the pieces up behind the shack and, as if on cue, a heavy rain poured down around me that night while I fed moist wood to a reluctant fire.
The next morning, when I went behind the shack to check on the water barrel, I was taken aback by the wealth the full and crystal clear barrel represented. I no longer needed to carry water. I could supply one of my own needs without the outside world. The water was cold and clear and tasted delicious. That began various refinements to the system that continue to this day.
I tightened the eavestroughing so it was snug under the roof, and then channelled the water to the front of the building to where I had moved the barrel. In order to avoid the odd insect and leaf from landing in the water, as well as making sure mosquitoes would not lay their eggs in the still pool that was my drinking water, I covered the barrel with a screen.
I never carried water again. When I built the larger building that became my cabin, I formalized the water systems until now I have both hot—depending on the sun—and cold running water inside that feeds my stainless steel sink and faucet. Another hot and cold line goes to the shower, where I have two handles which control the amount of each temperature that feeds the shower head I installed in a shower in the corner of my attached greenhouse. Both of those systems are fed by a small extent of roof at the peak of my saltbox style cabin. The rainwater is gathered by the gutter, delivered to a winemaking barrel and when that is full, the overflow goes into my hot water tank. That half barrel is the same one from when I first started setting up the system. A sheet of glass covers the tank, and its black sides assist in garnering the heat from the sun. That is not sufficient to heat the entire tank, however, so I have a coil of black hose, some three centimetres in diameter, that delivers the water to the shower nozzle. By midday, the water can get so hot in the hose that it can scald my skin, but with the adhoc mixer tap, which takes water from a point above the coil of hose, a more equitable temperature can be achieved.
The overflow from the hot water tank, and here it rains often enough that I have overflow despite taking a shower nearly every day, dribbles onto the porch roof where it mixes with what rain the upper roof didn’t catch. This is gathered by another eavestroughing—which my friend in Toronto would recognize—and taken to another tank which hangs on the front of the porch just below the eavestroughing outlet. This tank is somewhat larger, and often does not have a use. It feeds both a long hose I hook to a tree so it doesn’t spill onto the ground, and a set of double sinks I have outside for washing hands, vegetables and dishes. The overflow for that tank is a long length of spliced together garden hose which leads to the pond I dug two summers ago and has yet to hold water for any length of time. I didn’t want to use any plastic or pool liner, and so I was reliant on the natural world to provide clay or rotting leaves to seal the bottom. In lieu of that, I have some of the water systems feeding the pond.
The north-facing roof is quite large, and the water from it is collected by a continuous piece eavestroughing I spliced from the lengths I had. The length is more than ten metres, and the expanse of roof provides a lot of water for the largest barrel I have. It is a full forty-five gallon drum which I cut the top off, and I mostly use it for an emergency fire barrel, as well as to refill the shower bag I keep as a backup—depending on temperature—to the main system. The overflow from it joins the hose going to the pond.
Perhaps the reason I am so interested in my water system right now is because I just added another piece in the water jigsaw that makes the whole cabin work as a unit. I have long wanted to do more that merely let the rain spill on the ground that comes from the long roof of the cabin that joins the greenhouse roof. My times I had a bucket on the ground to collect the water, and occasionally used it to water the garden, but more typically it merely grew algae. Just yesterday, I resolved to change that, so I pulled out all my various plumbing pieces scavenged from other parts, and plumbed a hole in the bottom of one of my forty litre pails. Then I put in an overflow hose and lifted the assembly to the small stand I had built to have it hang just under the eavestroughing. In the recent rain, it was gathering water, although it never managed to fill enough to spill through the overflow valve. The lower hose comes through greenhouse wall in order to provide a way I can water the plants I have in there without carrying water. In the future, I have even thought of a way to make this automatic. For now, the hose will suffice.
My water system is not particularly complex or even unusual, but when I watch the water spout into the barrel from a downpour which fills the eavestroughing, I am struck again by the magical nature of the enterprise. Many people around the world do not have safe drinking water, some suffer from the lack of any water, Chile and Israel are both in the forefront of desalination plants, while I need do more than hang out a bucket and I soon have far more than I need. I had friends when I was young, now forty years ago, who didn’t have running water inside, while I am living in a forest and my cabin is plumbed and has drainage. They didn’t have a bathroom and I have a shower with hot—at least when the sun shines in the summer—and cold running water.
Where once I was one with a billion others who carry water on their backs or shoulders to their house, now mine is delivered while I sit inside watching the rain sluice off the roof. It is a form of magic, a kind of wealth, and more basically, one of the ways in which I interact with the world around me and we find a place that we can meet.