Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Water, Deserts, and Homesteading

Well, this post is going to be full of irony, considering that in my last post I talked about how humans don't really belong in drought-prone areas--and now I'm thinking I want to move to the desert. I've been doing a lot of research lately and I'm starting to believe we can actually live sustainably in desert regions and perhaps even have a restorative impact on the land. Not, obviously, the way we currently live in deserts--gobbling up fossil-water, overgrazing the land (and otherwise exacerbating erosion), and living far more densely than the land can support. To live sustainably in arid regions requires us to live simply--most would claim primitively--by first and foremost practicing extreme water conservation.

What do I mean by extreme? I mean not drilling wells. I mean surviving on rainfall--yes, in the desert, I know! All my calculations tell me this is actually quite reasonable as long as you build adequate water catchment systems. A 3000 square foot metal roof can capture almost 18,000 gallons of rain per year in a place where there's only 10 inches of annual precipitation. Okay, 18,000 gallons is nothing if you're living the standard resource-guzzling lifestyle. I'm sure there are families out there consuming 18,000 gallons of water a month, particularly if they have large lawns that are dependent on irrigation. But 18,000 gallons is a lot of water if you live simply. If you have a sawdust toilet. If you soap up before you turn on the water and (gasp!) if you don't necessarily shower everyday. If you drip irrigate and/or use dryland techniques on your gardens. If you only wash clothes when they're dirty. If you don't have a lawn. If you don't wash your car. If you filter your graywater to reuse on your orchard.

I really like the idea of being so dependent on Mother Nature. Sure, it's incredibly risky. What if you get two or three years of no rainfall whatsoever? Desert precipitation is notoriously unpredictable. My current home is in what's considered high desert. Our region averages about 12 inches of precipitation per year. Yet that's not a consistent 12 inches. Last year we had 17.42 inches of rain. In '02 we had 3.74 inches. In '97 we had 18.18 inches. In '06 we had 6.32 inches. Fortunately here the bad years have tended to be surrounded on both ends by good years, but that won't be the case everywhere or always. To successfully live in the desert you need to be able to store several years' worth of water and still be prepared to move on if the rains never come. I like that! Something about that extreme dependency on nature thrills me. How much respect and reverence we would have for the natural world if we lived so dependently. And the truth is, we are dependent anyway, even those of us totally immersed in resource-guzzling lifestyles. We just cling to our various life-support systems and never acknowledge that the natural world even exists--so we certainly don't acknowledge our dependence on it. To allow ourselves to be utterly dependent on nature to provide our water--think how attuned we would become to the natural world. We would learn to pay attention--to the shifting clouds and winds, to the building thunderheads, to the peculiar smell of water. We would regain a sense of reverence and respect for nature and understand our puny place in the scheme of life. There would be no more hubris, but humility and awe instead. That kind of visceral existence is what I desperately crave.

I'm not sure why I'm feeling so pulled to the desert lately (and by desert I mean true desert--like the Sonoran or Chihuahuan desert). I guess I'm sensing the desert would have a lot to teach me. It would keep me on my toes. But another realization I've had in exploring this is just how much more sustainably we could be living anywhere. Shouldn't we all be harvesting rainwater wherever we are--even where precipitation is abundant--instead of drawing down the aquifers? Shouldn't we all be treating water with reverence? One-third of the land mass worldwide is desert and it continues to spread. Water is increasingly a major concern worldwide, yet we continue to use water extravagantly and wastefully. There aren't many of us who couldn't dramatically reduce our water usage even without adopting the primitive lifestyle I'm envisioning.

1 comment:

  1. The desert just isn't me. I'm a water baby. I love the rain, I love rivers, lakes, springs, streams and more. I love the green trees and all the abundance of wetter regions. I lived in the desert and truly felt like a fish out of water despite the desert's rugged beauty.

    Now, having said that, I TOTALLY agree with you about living more in tune with nature and the primal satisfaction that would bring. Divorcing ourselves from the natural cycles and circles of life leaves us deprived in ways I can't begin to express. Knowing, understanding and living within the natural cycles of our area would be quite fulfilling and challenging in my opinion. I love the idea!