A clear spring bubbling up to the surface of the earth was once one of nature’s greatest gifts to humans, holy wells by whatever meaning you give those words. Having your own clean, unpolluted water “on tap” without much effort or expense was a priceless treasure. Significantly ancient sacred springs honored in “pagan” rituals remained holy even after they and the people who used them were Christianized.
I honor all springs as holy. It is one of the few things I have craved to own all my life, even more than a rather unholy Thunderbird in 1955. I had a better chance of owning a spring too, and came close. In college days, our seminary buildings were surrounded by a huge marsh along the Minnesota River that was entirely fed by clear, clean, cold spring water full of trout and watercress. All our water came from there. We also used it occasionally to cool the forbidden beer we “borrowed” from the faculty’s supply.
Springs to this day ooze up rather invisibly in the bed of the creek that runs through our farm and that is why it does not dry up in August like other creeks in the neighborhood. In earlier days, the land roundabout the creek was a veritable paradise of springs and the creek was full of all kinds of aquatic life, even mussels that only disappeared a few years ago. These springs dried up before my time or were in the process of doing so, but my kinfolk of earlier generations pointed out their locations to me. They are also marked on the old maps. One was right across our property fence line in what we call “Albert’s Woods” and the depression where the water once bubbled to the surface is still there.
I thought of these springs when the news reported recently that Silver Springs in Florida wasn’t so silvery these days because the quantity and quality of its water is deteriorating. The ground water level in much of Florida is declining as increasing human population uses more of it. Also increased use of fertilizer and chemicals flowing off of residential lawns and farmland is causing pollution problems, as are septic tanks and manure from animal confinement operations. As the water table falls, wells in coastal areas are being polluted with salt water. The state now wants to reduce pollution and water use to save the springs but no one of course talks about reducing human population without which the efforts will hardly have much effect.
Do springs in the natural environment perform the same service for us as canaries used to do in coal mines? When springs die should we know we are in trouble? I can answer only from what I see here in my home country. Since not all areas have lost their springs (or haven’t yet), I am fairly sure that ours dried up because of intensive corn cultivation, especially after so much of the woodland that once held the water has been cleared and tile drainage has been systematically installed under nearly all of the land. Without intensive tile drainage, this clay soil can’t be cultivated profitably for corn as profit margins contract. It won’t dry out quick enough in the spring to get all those acres planted within the economical “window of opportunity.”
But I am watching and waiting. The narrow strips of bottom land and the short but highly erodible slopes along our creek, cut through by little but numerous ravines, are making it unprofitable for farming with large-scale machinery, tile or no tile. You can lose money on a hundred bushel per acre yield these days. So some of this land is being abandoned to brush and tree saplings. Will the springs come back some day and all that will remain of today’s reckless farming will be hulks of big abandoned machines decaying away in the woods like dinosaur bones?