Posted by: Mark Nielsen | April 24, 2007

Consumption Junction II – “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”

Just too much money being spent to let it all go unnoticed and unblogged, people. (Btw, the subtitle above is stolen from a classic Frank Zappa song of the same name…)
Water Music -falls photo

Let’s look at this whole business of paying for water. A few weeks back, as visitors to the older MySpace version of Marking Time know, I was up in Ely, Minnnesota. While there, working to fix a building’s foundation at Wilderness Wind Camp (near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area), we had no indoor plumbing. To be more accurate, we had it, but what with the permafrost still being present and us being out in the woods more or less, it was not plumbing we could use yet.

We were prepared for this situation (all except my lovely sister Karen, who I forgot to tell till the last minute… thanks for coming anyway, hon’). So to meet our water needs, our six adult/three child party had a 10-gallon construction jug to fill and refill by going into town, plus a few smaller containers to supplement. At Dan’s request, I made the first water run of the week.

On the way, I was thinking about how many people around the world have to go to a faraway river, a public well, or something like it, and don’t have a car to carry a large amount back home. I had even noticed earlier this spring that up near our cottage in Wisconsin, there’s a well and pump near the town hall for one of the tiny townships in the farming community there. I saw one elderly man actually making use of the pump, and wondered if this was who they meant when they talked about the “rural poor”.

But back to Ely: I was instructed by Dan to go to Zup’s, the local grocery store, and ask them if I could just fill the jug from a hose or tap in the back. He said it in an offhand way that suggested it was no big deal, but I wasn’t sure whether there was any precedent for this or not. But that’s what I did, and the manager and employees were nice and helpful, and I got my water (plus some potato chips and a few staple foods, except those were not free.)

It was only later in the week, when I made a second water run, that I saw that free water in large quantities was not a “slam dunk” up there (pun intended). I was running another errand at a machine shop, so I asked for water there first, but all they had was a bathroom spigot. They suggested the Holiday gas station down the road, where I was refused outright. Then at another gas station, they checked with the manager and I was told they had not started providing this service yet (made it sound like they do it in canoe season, but I don’t know if they charge or not). So, with tail between my legs, I went back to Zups, where a different manager was equally friendly and let me fill our jug. And that was all it took for me to appreciate community-minded small-town businesses, as well as the precious commodity that plain old water can be when it’s in short supply. Here we were just a few miles from the largest collection of navigable freshwater lakes and rivers in North America, and I was reduced to going around like a beggar looking for free water.

When I got back to Skokie, I was watching the Lewis Black comedy special a few days later, and he went on one of his patented tirades about bottled water. One of the best moments was when he poked fun at the people in NYC who leave the house every morning with a full liter of water strapped to their bodies, “…as if they’re trying to cross the Mojave Desert!” He went on to make fun of America’s increasingly ridiculous consumption (over-consumption in some cases, medically speaking) of bottled spring water, or Fiji water, or whatever some poor schmuck who wants to be both trendy and healthy would be willing to pay for. I have always felt this way, so I thank Lewis for legitimizing my ridicule of those who buy bottled water when they don’t have to.

I suppose my point has been sufficiently muddied by now. You may be asking: if water has real value, and costs real money to get access to, then isn’t it okay to pay for it? Or you may be asking: if water was usually free until about 15 years ago, and shared generously by all, even in difficult circumstances, why are we paying for it now? (Not to mention adding a lot more plastic bottles to the landfills and recycling centers than ever before…) . [Side note: Robert Redford’s second feature that he directed, 1988’s The Milagro Beanfield War, was an excellent exploration of water rights and related issues in the American Southwest, and arguably the first “Sundance”-style indie film. Check it out…]

As usual, I’m not entirely sure what my point is. As a seasoned blogger now, I have a right to contradict myself, don’t I? Or maybe I’m just permanently dizzy, chronically dehydrated…


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