The Water Feature

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with water. Raised a few blocks from ‘the mighty Niagara’, as kids we swam in it, hydroplaned on it, and crossed over it, seduced by the siren song (and 3.2% beer) of Buffalo. Its currents stole our skis and very nearly claimed my mother. Its waters provided the stage for any number of rights of passage, jumping from rail bridges, spearing carp, swimming its breadth to touch ‘the American side’, then back, far downstream. No surprise then that water should become the defining element, the push-pull of life for me.

No more evident than water’s relentless and (usually) insidious intrusion into real estate. ‘Dug’ wells, to distinguish this weak sister from its more reliable and respected elder sib, the ‘drilled’ version, are notorious for their poor water quality — being little more than accidental repositories for surface water run-off (and all that implies for the country house) — and penchant for drying up when the dog days drag on. A little covert Clorox down the shaft and a UV light under the sink were the ‘adjustments’ required to seal the sale of an early days school house — and a great escape to citified plumbing.

Silly me. Trusting that fluoridated, strained, sieved, and otherwise purified and regulated municipal sourcing of same would also filter out water’s sinister dark side. Next house, a late nineteenth century cottage built on the shoulder of a hill — well, truthfully more on the hip or ‘lower’ body part — several feet below grade of the street behind and overlooking the banks of the Avon. One would have thought that proximity to one river would have been a sufficient teacher. A well known fact, water — as well as other matter — flows downhill. No truer than, as Geoffrey would say: ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote’. . .What Mr. Chaucer failed to point out was that said showers also ‘perced’ the rubble foundation and spawned an annual indoor pool — on their relentless way to mother Avon. Not to mention dragging along several cubic meters of top soil happily migrating to less lofty climes. Swales and sump pumps, drainage tiles and storm sewer connections mere rhetoric to allow another midnight flit and sale of an ark in waiting to the next Noah in line. (By the way ‘hot water is wetter’. . . but that’s another story.)

On to high(er) ground. Pill Hill in the local parlance. A little reminder that penance had not been fully ponied up, water’s poltergeist had arrived a day before us to remind that we’d missed a (now breached) water heater’s BBD by that self same day. But we were learning. Swamp-friendly flora, irrigated landscape (the dark side is drought), and sloping paths to usher those same ‘shoures’ to neighbouring turf felt for all the world that water had been sufficiently placated to allow an exhale.

And so round the corner to the current digs. As noted ‘the Hill’ sat on significantly higher ground than this wee bungalow, a block north — how soon we forget! A mid-60’s gem, recently renovated, it sat beside (and below), well, everyone. Taking possession in Chaucer’s favourite month, the berm separating house and sometime patio from the remainder of the backyard began to make sense as the rains came down and the yard filled up — happily receiving all contributions from East, South, and West. And thus began another ambivalent chapter.


With plans for a carriage house where Lake Glendon now lapped gently ‘gainst said berm, a more permanent solution was required — and surfaced (as it were). I cared little for the country of origin, but a French drain and some regrading seemed to be the order of the day. A subterranean pit the size of a small garage took shape in the ‘low corner’, filled with ‘aqua boxes’ — bearing an eerie resemblance to grad school book cases / milk crates; and camouflaged with a foot of top soil. As with all good therapies, the trick was to redirect — not resist or attempt (futile) control. As needed, a pump submerged in an access vault and a (significant) length of garden hose returned our element to source — with enormous satisfaction. Coexistence displaced frustration and wet basements. A happy detente.

But, oh, the waste. Gallons and gallons of (now) perfectly good water pumped away, unappreciated. The unsettling drip of a tap at night, the stubborn gurgle of a stopped sink, ice dams, leaking sky lights morph into the soothing sound of water flowing gently over rocks, masking, calming, lulling to sleep. The water feature: cycling and recycling, reincarnating — how gratifying is that! Simple. Tap into our stored resource, salve our conscience, and muffle the squawks from neighbouring pools.

The truly amazing piece is the level of artificiality, frank contrivance that is demanded in the creation of a ‘natural feature’. True, the water doth fall from Heaven. But that’s it — the rest is plumbing, pumps, liners, return rates, pre-drilled ‘bubblers’ (real rocks, if possible — but sprayed styrofoam will do), and a terrifying array of valves, stops, hose, and lighting. In the end though, the water gods are appeased, the carriage house is no longer yet another ark in waiting, our green genes are pacified, and our sleep is sound.