Sunday, August 14, 2011

Heavenly Waters

At the off-the-grid DIY homestead where I have staked my corner of paradise, all things proceed at the breakneck pace of a banana slug, and any piece of equipment may break or blow up at any given time.

Five months after turning my back on civilization, I take stock and find myself living in a 200-square-foot building with a spousal unit, four rescue cats, a part-time jury-rigged power system, a postage-stamp-sized RV fridge that reliably spoils milk, a cell phone that can’t pick up a signal unless I drive a mile away (and which is “supported” by technicians who can’t even find our property), and no running water. Think Beverly Hillbillies, before the oil strike.

Why (you may ask in a horrified tone of voice) would any sane woman choose to live this way? Simply put, my mate and I are stargazers, avid amateur astronomers who need dark skies to pursue our passion. We have staked our claim at the side of the road-less-travelled because that’s where we can escape the light pollution that has taken over the night sky above cities, suburbs, and even semi-rural areas. It’s a straightforward equation really:

No neighbors = No line-of-sight lights

At the drop of a hat, we can go outside, throw up a telescope or grab a pair of binoculars, and be ready to visit the bright lights of our home galaxy, the Milky Way: planets, globular clusters, nebulas, and brilliantly colored stars. Not to mention entire other galaxies far far away.

Living in the high desert—with its reliably transparent, steady skies—is how we ensure maximum access to our celestial playground. If skies are cloudy and don’t clear up until after midnight, no problem. There are no cars to load with equipment and no middle-of-the-night expeditions to get to an acceptably dark site. We simply wait it out like patient game hunters, and pounce when the stars emerge. We don’t even have to change from our camouflage-print pajamas if we don’t want to.


Desert dwellers understand better than most what it means to do without. (Have I mentioned we have no running water?) When you choose to live among arid grasslands atop a windswept mesa in middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, water is a luxury and becomes more precious to you than the Hope Diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, and the Great Star of Africa combined. A girl’s best friend, as it turns out, is a flush toilet.

In this poverty of creature comforts, water seems like something from the realm of myth and magic: something that surely could be conjured if only I knew the right incantation. It flows unseen beneath my feet at a depth equivalent to the height of a 52-story skyscraper. In our well casing—or Big Drinking Straw, as I like to think of it—hangs a three-horsepower pump and enough copper wire to send ripples through the commodities markets. Sadly, can’t start a fire without a spark. The propane generator—a.k.a. Big Spark-Maker—sits silent, broken by a careless contractor and waiting for a replacement part that surely must be coming by stagecoach.

Water gathers unseen above, also. After a brutally dry and windy spring and early summer, the monsoons have finally arrived. Spectacular thunderheads, laden with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern Pacific Ocean, travel northward from Mexico, bringing the summer rains that represent up to 70% of New Mexico’s annual precipitation.

We watch the storms’ northward progress with equal measures of hope and cynicism. Often they simply break apart on the southern prow of our ship-like mesa, dumping their juicy payloads in the river valleys on either side. Our skin cracks like the tessellated adobe soil lying just under the blow sand. We grow as leathery as the resident spiny lizards.

Occasionally, though, the rain clouds sail straight overhead and we receive a direct hit. Recently, like tears of joy, a half-inch pelted the parched earth, the thirsty mesquites and junipers, the dusty cattle, and all the enduring creatures of land and air.

That night, a strange sound came to me in the dark from across the mesa. It took me a few minutes to pin it down: a chorus of spadefoot toads, harmonizing. How long had those intrepid amphibians burrowed in the desert floor, waiting for the elixir of rain? How many generations ago had their ancestors shipwrecked on this desert island, when the inland ocean receded?


Any good Southwestern stargazer knows that a freshly-scrubbed, transparent sky follows monsoon rain. Freshly-scrubbed. Gee, that sounds good. Did I mention we have no running water? But I digress.

Tonight I looked for omens of water in the sky. The Moon rose shortly after sunset, and its nearly full face was filled with large dark splotches called maria (MAH-ree-yuh) or seas, easily seen with the naked eye. Their watery name derives from an early belief that they were bodies of water, lunar oceans. We now know they’re craters that filled with lava when the Moon was volcanically active. I tick off their names like charms: Sea of Serenity, Sea of Tranquility, Sea of Fertility, and my new favorite, Sea of Rains.

I find that when the Moon is close to full (in this case, one day after) with most of its face illuminated, it’s easier on the naked eyes to look at it before the sky gets dark. I can see more surface features when its brightness is muted against the blue sky of twilight. But when the sky grows dark, whammo, the Moon becomes as blinding as a searchlight and hard to look at. Check this out for yourself on or near any Full Moon that rises when the sky is still light.

Is it an especially good omen that tonight the Moon was in the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer? While I take a moment to imagine myself standing in the endless stream of water flowing from his jar, enjoy this portrayal of Aquarius from John Flamsteed’s 1729 star atlas:

Courtesy of Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology

A few hours after sunset, I spy the star Fomalhaut (FOAM-uh-lott) in the southeastern sky. The brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish, Fomalhaut shines through even in a sky washed out by moonlight. From the Arabic for mouth of the fish, Fomalhaut marks the open mouth of the rather thirsty fish, into which pours the cool stream from the Water Bearer’s jar. Heavenly.