Then, I moved on to our little mountain farm and the water that I drink every day comes trickling out of the hill behind my house. We've been told that the spring has never gone dry and, so far, we are grateful that our experience has been one of abundance.
Springs are mysterious. They tap an underground reservoir of water that we can't see or trace very well. My spring bubbles out of the hill behind my house and the first settler to find it sank a round tile into the ground to better contain it. Then he built a spring house around that tile and the overflow ran through a trough where butter and milk were kept cool. Although the spring house was gone by the time we started work on the house, the indentation in the ground where it was built is still visible.
When we were re-doing the house we were told not to mess with the spring as any disturbance might change the course of the water and we could lose our source. So, we simply built a little hut over the brimming tile, knocked a hole in the side so we could insert a pipe, and sent the water from there to a 500 gallon tank which we buried a short distance away. I am always thankful, when I drink a glass of this pure, unfiltered, unchanged water at the gift of clean water rising up from the ground.
Today, I walked the mountain behind our house and discovered another spring flowing from the side of a hill. We've had lots of snow and rain, so the ground is saturated and the water table is high.
Not only was water flowing fiercely up from that spot, but it was also bubbling up in mini artesian springs in the meadow below.
The land around my farm is the mother of a river, the mother of a bay, the mother of an ocean. I am connected by way of it to sharks, tunas, rays and whales and they in turn are connected to me, my cattle, my house.
The conservationists are telling us that farmers are the main polluters of the Bay. Well, not farmers exactly, but our cattle and sheep. We are told that their poop is the major source of algae growing uncontrollably in the Chesapeake.
My cattle do poop in the river. I've seen them. But, so do the deer and years ago, when each valley in our area was home to large herds of buffalo, so did they. I suspect that there were far more of them than the present number of cattle in our valleys, and they existed at a time when the Bay was clear.
In school I taught the students about point source and non-point source pollution. Point source pollution is when you can identify clearly where the pollution begins. Non-point source is when you know it's there, but can't really tell exactly where it starts.
Cattle are non-point source, but because farmers don't have huge lobbies to say otherwise, they've become point source, as in fingers are being pointed at them, and farmers are being asked to fence off their rivers and streams.
Fencing off rivers and streams in the mountains is like trying to drop a net on a bird. You have to have a very large net. To fence a mountain stream or river, you have to have a lot of acreage on either side of the banks. That's because mountain streams and rivers rarely stay in one place for long. Evidence of that can be found in the valley meadows which, no matter where you dig, yield layers of river jack, deposited over thousands of years as the valleys were carved. The rivers writhe and shift their beds with every high water.
So, I want to be a good steward of the land. But, I cannot fence enough land around my rivers to ensure that the fence remains standing after the next high water moves the riverbed east or west. I also suspect that most of the nutrient damage to the Bay is not being caused by farmers with cattle in the fields. It's being caused by homeowners who, quite frankly in the quest to be greener than their neighbors, over-apply fertilizer to suburban lawns which washes, unfiltered, down to curbs which lead to underground pipes which carry the effluent to streams, to rivers, to the Bay. I also suspect that the city sewage treatment plants which overflow when water is high, into the rivers below them, have something big to do with nutrient pollution. These plants also have politicians defending them. because they service hundreds of thousands of voters who do not want another tax to fix the problem.
Farmers love land and water because they live on it, walk it, tend it, feed it, depend on it and yes, use it to grow animals which then feed people in cities. I am sure that large farms in the piedmonts and deltas do need to create and maintain some buffer zones and use best management practices. Many of them already do. And, large scale poultry or hog producers, even in the mountains, must report regularly to the government the steps they've taken to ensure that nutrient pollution is mitigated or contained.
But, asking small mountain farmers to fence our streams and rivers will put us out of business. We will lose too much grazing land in our already narrow valleys in the creation of the huge buffer zones that will be necessary to contain a river determined to carve a new route. We will lose too much income in maintaining fence lines that are washed out every time a river changes course. Our small family farms will become extinct. Then, when the Bay is still polluted because of the larger non-point sources, it will be too late to bring them back.