"All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."
These words, attributed to Toni Morrison, have been echoing in my mind ever since I heard them in a recent tribute to the late poet. In one sentence she's able to explain the hydrologic cycle, surface water runoff, groundwater movement, flooding, land drainage, wastewater systems design, guttering and spouting, and even spilt milk.
The best I've come up with is "Water never lies". That's how I help our farm interns understand topographic landforms, overland flow paths, drainage and swales.
I've always been fascinated by the way water moves across the land – one of those kids forever playing on piles of soil with buckets of water. I had great difficulty learning to read at school but somehow could read the landscape effortlessly.
When introduced to topographic maps at age 15, I took to them easily as my classmates floundered with the concept. Contour lines sprang into three dimensions before my eyes while peers saw them only as so many squiggles. They scored A's on spelling tests as I scored C's.
For the next decade I spent a lot of time trekking and trip leading, and in one instance relied on my map reading and navigation to lead a group of students out of the Smoky Mountains during a freak spring snowstorm that dumped over a metre in 36 hours.
It was not long after that when my understanding of landforms took a leap forward one evening at a presentation by a local naturalist and university lecturer, Tom Wessels, who had just published a book: Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Wessels helped me understand the role that life plays in helping shape the landscape and specifically the role of trees.
Not long after that I spent my life savings on a small farm in rural New Hampshire that consisted of steep slopes, glacial till, a 220 year-old farmhouse and pit toilet. It was exceptionally cheap, but served as an invaluable tutor over the next eight years as I floundered toward the good life.
These are the memories that played across my mind last month while planting poplar poles on a hillside above Purua Stream in Okoia. Having already planted 125 on our land over the past four years, I was able to take my time and carefully choose exactly where to place these last 15.
Extreme weather events worsened by climate change were also on my mind. The overriding goal for our small farm is resilience to both heavy rainfall and drought. By planting more trees we address both, but this is only part of the equation. The other parts are shrinking our carbon footprint and sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere.
Conservation Comment: Let's do lunch French-style
Conservation Comment: Right time to go native
Conservation Comment: Population politics?
Along those lines we're planning to build a super efficient dwelling along with an innovative wastewater treatment system. Passive solar home design is well recognised so I won't address it here but instead will focus on water.
Much of rural New Zealand suffers from water pollution but it's not just cows. Older septic systems are failing and because of the high cost of upgrading to modern standards many people choose not to. A friend recently told me how bad the situation is.
Regular Chronicle readers will know that I've been writing about eco-thrifty approaches to building and renovating since 2011, and this is no exception. Having studied rural wastewater systems intensively for the past year I've adapted a European design to local conditions that addresses not only treatment for health and environmental standards but also carbon capture from the atmosphere.
In most cases wastewater is considered a pollutant and disposal is all about mitigating negative effects. I take the opposite view: it's a valuable resource that should be harnessed for positive effects. This perspective represents a shift from what designer William McDonough describes as moving from "eco-efficient" to "eco-effective".
Eco-efficiency is about being less bad while eco-effectiveness is about being good. Which would you prefer?
Additionally, the wastewater design is more affordable to build and has a much lower carbon footprint than others. That is the type of win-win-win approach the world needs in these turbulent times, because water never forgets and nature bats last.
Nelson Lebo enjoys playing in the mud with his children.