Chop wood, carry water, wash dishes

06/02/2021

How are you managing in these times of water scarcity? What is your experience? Do you have any tips to share? I’ve been observing my own ways through this latest twist in the great resilience challenge of being alive right now. It’s good to compare notes.

Though the Commonweal Garden where I live is in its own (tenuous) watershed, we are feeling the same pressures as our fellow residents of Bolinas who are facing the possibility of rationing. Living the rural life here in Northern California is increasingly an invitation into self-reliance and interdependence, two sides of the same coin. It is also an opportunity to awaken to how precious and sacred every drop of water is.

Although that’s a valuable lesson, I would not have taken it on voluntarily. I felt pretty good about my baseline practices—showering about three times a week, using a porta-potty, never letting the water run while doing dishes or brushing teeth. 

Yet as our little community in the garden watched our potable spring slowing to a trickle usually seen only in late October, and then stopping, we’ve had the opportunity to pull together and tighten our efforts: The conservation each household achieves is a way of protecting our shared precious resource. We are mustering a resourcefulness I think my ancestors who lived close to the land would recognize. It is a level of conservation and honoring of the sacred that I hope will make those who come after proud of me as their ancestor. 

As I move ever more deeply into living as though every drop of water is precious and sacred, my relationship with those activities that use water almost becomes ceremonial. My new morning bathing ritual is lovely: I bring two cups of water to heat in the kettle while harvesting a few leaves of drought-tolerant rose geranium and lavender. After steeping them a bit in a basin, I have an aromatherapeutic cleansing. It is almost better than a shower. Washing my hair no more than once a week also has its benefits: My hair has more body and shine from the natural oils produced by the scalp to keep hair healthy. A little “dry shower” herbal powder takes care of the excess. No need for conditioner to replace the oils stripped away by shampoo. It’s a revelation. 

This scarcity has sharpened our focus on our water systems here in the garden, as I know it has for so many in the greater community. We have routed our (also precious but more plentiful) irrigation water through our water-conserving washing machine and our low-flow shower. I am washing dishes with boiled irrigation water. We are preparing to catch more rain next year so that we have a greater reserve to sustain us through the increasingly long dry season. In this mature permaculture garden, swales and berms have long served to slow the runoff of what precious water does land on the landscape, allowing it to sink into the ground and recharge the groundwater. We catch our greywater and return it to the land. We dedicate ourselves again and again to conservation, and we quantify each household’s use of potable water with a seven-gallon jug we draw from instead of the sink. We are pretty hardcore. 

This all takes work. Bringing water to heat on the stove takes extra time. Placing exacting attention on the dishwashing process was, at first, daunting and draining. Catching each little bit of water we use for handwashing and using it for a second purpose takes constant attention. This work is imbued with a rarified remembering of what we, in our extravagant culture of convenience, had forgotten: Water is life. Aligning our lives with this reality and applying our human ingenuity to earnest conservation and wise discernment is central to sustaining life here in the western United States. It is deeply meaningful work. 

There is also a deeply spiritual way of holding this conservation work. If we acknowledge that water is life-giving and sacred, treating it as a convenience that can be simply poured down the drain becomes shockingly incongruent. Flushing our toilets with drinking water? Our children’s children will be appalled. Even leaving half a glass of water undrunk feels wasteful. Bringing appreciation to each and every sweet sip quenches a thirst we all have to be attuned to that which is life-affirming and regenerative. 

A Zen koan has been on my mind of late: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I think of (mostly women) around the world who walk great distances to carry water back to their homes—on average, six kilometers roundtrip over often difficult terrain, carrying on average 20 liters weighing 44 pounds of water on their heads. Multiple times a day. I think of the girls who help their mothers in this task, missing school. The water may be polluted, contaminated with animal waste, or so scarce that they must dig holes down to it. Their work around water is so much more difficult than ours. 

In Africa, the average household water use is 12 gallons per person. In Asia, it is 25. In the United States, it is between 90 and 190 gallons per person per day. Astonishing. It makes the new household goal in Bolinas of 100 gallons a day seem completely manageable; indeed, many of my friends on water meters in town have been able to keep it to around 40 gallons per household per day. Not only is it completely possible, but it is essential to do our part to ensure our communities will be livable into the future. It also honors the “fair share” principle we seek to instill in our children, which, sadly, is rarely exemplified by any American pattern of consumption or behavior. 

Perhaps our intensive, collective efforts at water conservation here in West Marin may serve in our enlightenment—in the realization that we are all connected here on this planet, that the deer and birds have as much right to the water in our watershed as we humans, that wasteful practices are not life-supporting and not something that nature or a conscious human does, and that each and every action we take matters. Chop wood, carry water, wash the dishes, all with mindfulness and gratitude for what we have and reverence for the sacred nature of it all. 

 

Anna O’Malley is an integrative family and community medicine physician at the Coastal Health Alliance. She founded and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden. This Sunday’s Ecological Gardening course in the Commonweal Garden will be focused on water systems; for details and to register, visit naturainstitute.org.