Before I begin, I had better explain that we collect rain water from our metal roofs into large tanks. At night, when we have electricity, we pump water up to a small header tank on the roof, which then supplies a limited amount of running water each day. An open tap on one other tank provides my drinking water, and as one tank is rusty, it is water for washing clothes, etc.
This situation came to my attention Sunday evening. I played tennis in the afternoon and it was cool but dry. For two months, it was wet. The road was mud, and the airstrip was closed for two weeks, which forced school to close for eight days.
My pleasure in the dry weather took a quick plunge. My neighbor's daughters came over and asked for water, saying their tanks were dry. Huh?? The dry season isn't supposed to start until April, and they're already out of water!!
When I arrived last year in July, towards the end of the dry season, I shared some of my extra water with my neighbors. I knew I had a surplus. But now·if they can use all their water in three weeks, they could empty mine·in a month? Then I wouldn't have drinking water!! Concern for my stock of soy sauce or desire for a hot shower became trite.
Have you ever begrudged a pail of water to a sweet seven-year-old? Yesterday, I told my neighbors they couldn't take water from my tank. I was selfish.
The situation sheds light on a cultural difference. I'm a born packrat. My taste for lutefisk may be tepid, but my frugalness is ample evidence of my Norwegian-American heritage. To live here just intensifies my tendency to save. I have to buy certain goods three months in advance and I'm continually rationing.
I have no intention of running my tank dry. I will conserve it for drinking. I'll walk to the river to wash, shave, do laundry; I'll flush my toilet daily; but I'll save water for drinking. There's no way to know how long the dry season will last or how much rain we will get. I'll play it safe.
My neighbors didn't manage their water at all. When theirs ran out, they started coming to my house. The kids have stolen water from me just to save themselves a trip to the river to wash. My other neighbor isn't conserving either. I saw them watering flowers as I came back from the river tonight.
Theirs is a natural tendency to use or share. Maybe they consider laboring to save water during the dry season as a "waste." I see their use as "reckless."
If these two cultural tendencies weren't shaped originally by their natural environments, they were reinforced. Planning and preparations are crucial to survive Minnesota winters. Here saving isn't rewarded in many ways. Fresh fruits and vegetables last a week. Eat them fast or the ants will. Even the modern system doesn't encourage saving. Most jobs are re-assigned every year. My teaching colleagues found out they were coming back to Lumi only a week before school started. They don't know where they'll be next year. This discourages collecting possessions, home improvements, and yard work.
Sharing is security here. You make friends and you have a network to rely on in times of need. They teach me about generosity. I guess I teach selfishness.
That might sound stupid. But I don't want to wait for rain so I can have a glass of water. Robert Pirsig writes, "From that agony of bare existence to modern life can be soberly described only as upward progress, and the sole agent for this progress is quite clearly reason itself."
The "system" may at times feel confining, but it has its advantages. So the next time you want to grumble about your city water assessments or the bill for a new well, imagine how awful it feels to refuse someone water.
P.S. - March 26, 1997
A couple facts compel me to clarify the situation. I over-reacted. My tank is quite full, and my use probably will not deplete it. Plus we got four inches of rain this week.
Still, I'm not inclined to see my tank used by others. I have even rigged up a makeshift lock for my tap. I got tired of jumping out of bed in the morning to stop some kids from stealing my water.
My hesitancy to share may be pure selfishness. But I value that water and I have no inclination to have it wasted. I compare it to being asked by a drunk for money for food. You'd want to ask, "If food was important, why didn't you save some of the money you spent on booze?"
The lack of water planning is a reflection of the general school administration. We have new tanks, sitting empty. Just the other day they started to put a few into position to collect water. Eventually we might have to close because of a water shortage, but that doesn't really hurt the staff. The school truck now takes the staff wives and families to the river to wash. I find that an interesting use of school fuel when 200 students are expected to walk there twice a day, and have been for two months.
My tank remains locked.
(Michael Jacobson was a reporter for the Paynesville Press before joining the Peace Corps.)
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