Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The crucial question of water in Provence

The weather this week is officially a heatwave - a canicule. The countryside is flagging, with crisp or wilting vegetation baking in the sun. It's hot all day and all night - sleeping outside in the forest is little cooler than sleeping inside. It has the advantage though that you fall asleep to stars and moonlight and get woken by sunlight filtering through the pine trees at dawn. Straight away you feel the heat. It's dry - not a drop of humidity in the air. And it feels good. But not to the crops and the natural vegetation. Yes, the farmers have their watering systems. But they cost money and can't always save a crop in heat this intense.
For smaller producers and people with gardens, watering is a constant preoccupation. Everone's seen Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources...
The leaves on the few dozen olive trees here are looking pretty crisp and thirsty now. I've resisted putting automatic watering in, partly because of cost but also because the idea of looking at the (forest) garden and thinking of yards of plastic piping and little whirry motors just under the surface is unappealing. When it comes to gardens, I like nature as natural as possible.
So I lug the hosepipe up the garden, threading it through the trees and plants and drop the end into the dip of a tree and leave the water to run for ten minutes. Then go back and move the thing to the next dip. It's a pain, but olive trees need to drink and there's been no rain for weeks. And hardly even a breeze. Inspecting the olives yesterday they were absolutely still on the branches, like they were holding their breath for a raincloud to develop. A storm is forecast for Thursday or Friday. But the forecasts are often wrong. I've had many J de Florette moments, running out of the house at the sound of thunder, staring round at the sky to see if rain's arriving, only to see dark heavy clouds passing over the hills and dropping their rain frustratingly somewhere else but not here.
Rain, when it comes in summer, tends to come during the night. Often accompanied by dramatic storms and thunderclaps that practically shake the house. The thunder and lightning can be frightening but it's always good to hear the rain fall. (Just breaking in to say a little red squirrel - a family of four live here - has interrupted his morning journey past my window to the water bowl to stretch out and lie down on a branch outside the window. He's just lying there and has been for several minutes. Absolutely flat and elongated along the branch. Almost concealed if I hadn't seen him arrive. So-o cute. He's not eating; maybe he's just having a rest. The cat was on the roof earlier trying to catch one of them, as usual, so maybe he's thinking twice about crossing the roof...)

Where does the water come from in Provence? Rainfall, the rivers and melted Alpine snow. The great thing about the region is that the ground beneath it is saturated with water, in the nappe phreatique, coursing through caves in the rock. At Fontaine de Vaucluse nearby, a very well-known source, water gushes out of the rock in an astounding waterfall supplying the Sorgue river and surrounding towns and villages. Well-managed canals, notably the Canal de Carpentras, also supply water to farmers and householders, and supplement the eau de ville.
Water here has a beauty not seen elsewhere (just my opinion.) It's partly that it's so clear and clean that when light catches it, it reflects and sparkles like a diamond. Flowing in the town and village fountains, passing in the Sorgue, beating down on parched vegetation in scarce storms, it's always present. You're always aware how important it is, and how beautiful. It has a crystal-clarity and a sound and movement that lift the spirit.

Many households rely on well water. At my place, water comes only from the well as the commune has never extended water pipes into the forest here. The pump is at a depth of 40 metres. The house here was originally just a cabanon, a single room built by a gendarme from Marseille who came out here to hunt. Whether or not he knew there was a good water supply here I'll probably never know, but he built right next to a well which, touch wood, has supplied water to the property for around 40 years.
Water diviners are still used here - understandably because if you need to sink a well you don't want to pay a forage company to bring their drilling equipment out to the countryside up dirt tracks and sink half a dozen wells before they find water... Anything that increases the chances of hitting a veine first time is worth trying.
My neighbour arrived at the house one summer morning crying out: "Il n'y a plus d'eau. Il n'y a plus d'eau." He's a big handsome guy who maintains the local plane trees in town and has a ramshackle home over the hill from me, filled with kids and dogs and cats and geese and sheep. I ran to see if my water was still running. Luckily it was. But he had to have several wells sunk before hitting a good seam of water.

My own lesson in not taking water supply for granted came this month. (The squirrel just rose suddenly and skipped off down the tree. Taking the ground route to his drinking water then.) The water pressure dropped one morning. What? There's always been water. It's a heatwave. I need water. Then it stopped running. Panic. What about showers and cups of tea and watering the garden and the dishwasher...? I examined the various tanks and dials which meant, frankly, nothing to me.
And then consulted neighbours. It turned out they were having their own trouble with the pump bringing arrosage water from the canal. However, they allpitched in and gave opinions and advice. (My experience - the French lo-ve to give advice. It seems to be part of the culture. When dealing with anyone in authority, or just anyone really, never complain or challenge. Just ask for advice. You'll be immediately awash with it and it will be helpful.)

So, further to the Jean de Florette water crisis....one neighbour's imagination went into overdrive and moved from his initial assumption that the pump was broken and would have to be replaced at huge cost to the certain conclusion that the nappe phreatique must be exhausted and I'd never have water in the house again.

Let's. wait. until. the. plumber. arrives, I said.

But he and Pierre (plumber, neighbour) & Stephane (neighbour) all had to get involved of course, throwing their arms around, hotly debating the problem - having a little flirt with me on the side, just because they're men and they expect that of themselves. There followed a certain amount of very male behaviour where they all tried to display their superior geological and mechanical knowledge. It could be a veine that had been diverted underground by a rock fall. It could be the pump. How old was it? I don't know. It could be the compresser. Or calcaire might have blocked the system somewhere. (I don't have a filter for the calcaire. It flows into the house along with the water, dusting the taps and sinks, crockery, cutlery and shower curtain with white deposit. People say, variously, that it's wonderful to drink - good for the bones - or that it'll be the death of you. What I notice most is that it turns your hair to straw when y ou wash it.)

Anyway, the fact was, the plumber knew what to do and mended the thing, even though it took all day.

Haven't got the bill yet but guys often take a lo-ng time to present bills here. I've found three months is not uncommon. The last time he mended the water system I asked how much I owed him and he threw his arms wide and said with great (harmless) gusto that he'd accept a hug from a tall blonde. Bill settled.

Good thing too - I've just had a look at Metcheck, THE best weather website in the whole world, and the temperature'll reach 36 today. That water supply is absolutely crucial.

Oh and the last thing. I use a lot of water. It flows underground to the Mediterranean. When some of it is drawn up into the house and used, it goes into the garden via the fosse septique. It waters the forest. And the more I use, the more dilute are the various detergents used in the house. If I don't use it, it will just flow into the sea and turn into salt water.

Very last thing - have a look at Metcheck. If you don't already know it, you'll quickly see why it's worth looking at. So-o many good, useful features.
http://www.metcheck.com

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