This I Believe

John - Yellow Springs, Ohio
Entered on November 24, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: hope, nature

I believe that there is water, flowing, somewhere in the limestone beneath my garden. For twenty years I’ve been chasing that water, chiseling and hammering my way down. We had first moved into this house, and I was digging a hole for compost, when I discovered that there was bedrock just a foot or two down, like an endless concrete parking lot, spreading out in all directions, for hundreds of miles.

“Duh,” I thought, “Of course.”, in Glen Helen, a few hundred yards downhill from me, that same stone juts above the forest floor–like bones through flesh–and everywhere springs trickle forth from fissures in the rock. Those springs gave our town its name, in the 19th Century, when people flocked here to bathe in their iron-rich mineralized waters. The remains of those resorts are scattered throughout Glen Helen: the vanishing lines of foundations, the breached and now crumbling dam, slowly surrendering to the seduction of water, and frost, and moss and ferns and tree roots taking hold in the accumulating leaf litter. I believe that if I tunnel deep enough I will intercept one of those springs, and then my garden will always have water.

There used to be a stream, a brook, running through here, you can tell by the lay of the land, and the fact that there’s a two foot diameter storm drain bisecting the shallow soil. Sometimes that forgotten stream resurrects itself, after flooding rains, pouring in a torrent like an arroyo down Union Street and surrounding my house. When I began to uncover the limestone in a systematic way I found grooves and channels and potholes carved, and filled with rounded pebbles. Once exposed to the light, seeds that had been lying there for over a century germinated: cattails, water plantain, compass plant.

The rock is like Swiss cheese, it could contain caverns. The crevices, and gaps between stratigraphic layers are packed with clay and white limestone sand. In the ice age this must have been a gurgling clear trout stream, plunging into Glen Helen; now a quiet, rock-walled, forested valley but then filled bank to bank with boiling blue rapids.

I’ve moved tons of soil to get to the rock, then quarry it with spud bars and wedges and sledges and block and tackle. As the parable says you should build on rock and so I do, sinking rebar into the living limestone and creating winding walks and retaining walls. For the first 16 years I built without mortar, but after 9/11 that changed. The only salve for my sense of vulnerability was to construct things that felt indestructible. The walls contain raised beds holding bananas and agapanthus, alongside apple and nut trees and grasses and wildflowers.

In the winter the water rises in the limestone, sometimes persisting into August. People tell me it’s just groundwater but I tell them, “What do you think a spring is? It’s just groundwater flowing downhill till it reaches a cliff face.” -or, hopefully, my garden.