Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Long Memory of Water

We are mopping up after a gale. The wind drove rain under shingles and through well-sealed windows and whistled and sang through it all. Windows were opened and shut again at the will of the wind as it shifted sides of the house. At one point, we could no longer stand up in the back of the house to bail the water that was running at the back door.

The part of the roof of this more than 200 year old house that had been overlooked when the rest of the roof was reshingled sprouts so many leaks that the buckets, pans, and saucers to catch them left the corridor looking like a footballer's training camp as we tread through them. With the second wave of heavy rain, the drips and drops in the plastic, glass or metal containers make a symphony of percussion to accompany the wind.

A heavy rain challenges the drain in the close behind the house, that is one of the house's idiosyncracies. When I saw water three inches deep and rising, I grabbed the heavy brush and went to clear the drain, but the drain was clear and still overwhelmed, and the water was rising fast. I went to the garage for a bucket and as I did so, the props holding the garage door in place were blown away. I leaned into the door to keep it from falling on my car and yelled for Morris. Even if I could have screamed above the wind, I could not shout through three foot thick stone walls.

I let the wind take my bucket, leave the garage door and wade through now 6 inches of water to get Morris, car keys, or a brief respite from the shrill harangue of the wind. Morris arrives. We steady the door, I move my car out of harm's way--from the door at least, and then concentrate on the water which is now up to 8 inches, swirling in the corners of the close, and running into the back door. Morris goes for a pump; I go to the inside to try to stay the flow of water.

There appears to be about an inch of water on top of the linoleum, but as I step I realize that there is at least as much water under the linoleum as on top. I use up all the newspapers left for recycling to soak up water. They become a sodden mass with no apparent abatement. I empty out an airing cupboard full of sturdy, thirsty towels and they float briefly on the surface like Aladdin's magic carpet before sinking into the water. I stomp them into place and pluck them up and wring them out again and again. At first I have a regular rotation of wet to dry ones, but soon they are all wet faster than I can wring them out. I muddle through which towel is the right one until I realize that any towel will do. I try not to think about the futility of it as I wring and re lay towels.

Morris creates a kind of dyke at the back door, and the water stops coming in. Thus, I begin to make some headway against the water. The tractor is in place and as soon as the engineer gets back from lunch, he'll rig up the pump. I sigh, stretch my back, get into dry clothes and make a bit of lunch. As I pass by the back door, I hear the sound of treachery, running water. I cock my ear and look to the ceiling, the windows, and then to the door. The dyke has given way and the water is coming in again. Now it is only a trickle, so I wade in again with mop and towels but the water is coming faster than I can even think of putting down towels, so I take my bucket to go and bail the water to get it back below the level of the dyke. I have to go through the front door because the wind is now so fierce I cannot open the back door.

Before there were drains or houses or fields, the water ran freely through here and it wants to go home again. I struggle to keep my feet in the determined water as I bail and fill anything that will hold water: a large, wheeled trash bin is quickly filled, and the water seems no less determined or full than it was. Jeffrey works with the pump. I see the glint of the spanner in his hand and the steady, serious look on his face. I find the empty mineral tubs used for the cattle. They float capriciously on the surface and threaten to fly away until one bucket full of water steadies them. I fill four tubs, about the size of half barrels and convince myself that the water is lower. I need to believe it to go to the garden and find two more tubs. I begin dumping water into the lawn beyond the close, fighting the wind and the slippery water underfoot. And then like the sorcerer's apprentice, I stand bemused. My jeans are so full of water that they are heavy against my legs. My legs are so cold that I no longer feel the wetness of the jeans, only their weight. I look at the water. It is just lapping at the edge of the dyke.

Now it is all up to the pump. The tractor kicks over, spewing diesel fumes into the air, but it is a welcome smell to me just now. Jeffrey, Ranald, driving the tractor, and I all look expectantly at the end of the hose pipe lost now in the water in the middle of the close. Nothing happens. Jeffrey pours water into a pipe jutting out of the back of the tractor. He tightens some fasteners; he and Ranald exchange some words lost on the winds, and then the pump starts. It pulls water from the close and then spits much of it back where the pipe connects. Slowly, the hose connected to drain the water down the driveway onto the farm road and out of harm's way begins to swell with the water inside it. For now, technology has prevailed over the willful water.

Down the road, one of our neighbors has recently erected a mighty fence, a security fence. With the hubris and short memories of man, this fence was installed at the end of a road. Before it was a road, it was a mill course, and in the rain it remembered the old path and ran over the tilled fields picking up stubble and straw and ran through the fence. And then over it.

Sometime in the night as we huddled in the warmest room by candlelight waiting for the power to return, we felt the wind ease. In the first light of day, the wind had the soft harsh tone of a voice made harsh by shrieking. "The storm is settling," Morris says. I imagine the stormscape like a bedsheet unfurled over a bed in that instant before it then settles amicably around the contours of the bed.

There is a hole in the dyke that runs along the field closest to the sea. When I walk the farm road, I can tell the mood of the sea by the height of the spray through that hole. The hole was created during a gale some years ago when the sea remembered that it had once owned that field. It sent a tongue of water through the dyke. "It didn't push the stones out of the way, " Morris explained, which would be remarkable enough considering the number and size of stones in even a small piece of dyking, "It exploded right through them as if they were not there." The little assault at the back door was a comparatively gentle reminder of the long memory of water and its willingness to reclaim what it considers its own.


At 10:38 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

a wonderfully vivid picture - sounds like it was a harrowing battle!

At 8:40 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

You have a new photo! I like it. Yes, it was quite a battle and the weather after a bright spell has turned a bit surly again. So we may get to do it all over again!

At 7:36 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...

A powerful account of a powerful storm.

This is one of those North Sea storms they were worried about with the oil platforms?

And your house has been in the path of an occasional watercourse for 200 years? Wouldn't you think that one side or the other would have given up by now?

And about the sheep -- from the last comments -- my (admittedly limited) observation of sheep persuades me that these may be the dunces of the animal kingdom....

At 7:59 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Yes, Curmudgeon, exactly what they worried about with oil platforms and what mnade the locals laugh at the first attempt to harness wave power up here. I don't think the device lasted a week after being towed out to sea.

Yup, again. Sheep could wear dunce caps with pride.

200 years is an eye blink up here, but I love the image of the house and the sea going head to head like two combatants. There are some viking or pictish houses that the sea has already claimed and one or two castles. Also rumors of medieval monasteries. People have been living up here for a very very long time.


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