The well brought up silt

water.jpgThe well at the edge of the strip mall brought up silt finer than talcum, almost as fine as face power, and pearly gray when it dried. The well fed into the distribution system directly (after a protective dose of chlorine), so early risers in the adjacent neighborhood called the city when they made coffee that morning and saw that the tap water wasn't transparent.

The well was taken out of service and, for a while, left to run into the street. The gutter along the north side half filled with drifts of wave riffled gray dust.

Later, the well was abandoned - a lengthy process regulated to prevent contamination of the aquifers from which the well had drawn water for more than sixty years. The bore, in which a submersible pump hung, had been drilled to irrigate the fields and truck farms that once covered what is now a grid of streets and homes. It had quietly served both the fields and the grid.

Much older were the dark landscapes the well penetrated to reach the band of water it drew from. The well brought up silt because the underground environment there had changed. A dune or perhaps a creek bank upstream had leaked its finely sifted sand into the water flow drawn to the pump over the years.

The abandoned well was a time machine, let down into the past to bring up water that was, itself, old, to wash the bodies and slake the thirsts of today's citizens who do not care if every glass and bath is filled with the past.

Our aquifers flow with historical water - years to decades old - contained between layers of gravel, rock, and clay that are tens of thousands of years older. What happened a million years ago in the middle Pleistocene is still here, if you go down deep enough. A flood, a dying lake, a field of windblown sand, a river's new bend - each of these facts is inscribed many times over on the invisible topographic layers under the city.

The silt clogging and closing a well that had done good service showed that we act in the past that lingers beneath us.

The fine, gray silt that glistened briefly in the gutter that morning, until it dried and drifted in pale wisps, had pooled in the backwater of some slowly meandering and nameless stream more than thirteen thousand years ago. And when more gravel and mud came down from the San Gabriel Mountains and covered the stream, it persisted too, as an aquifer conveying rain and snow melt from the foothills beneath this nondescript spot on the Los Angeles plain where its flow was brought to light again to water lima beans and then lawns.

Such durability is not what we expect. And yet we draw ceaselessly upon the past to make our everyday lives here.

The image on this page was adapted from one taken by flickr user the Joost J. Bakker. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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