Water Flowing Underground

No one complains about the convenience of getting water from the tap, but there is something deep within us that loves drawing fresh water from the ground, the way generations of humans have done. Is it the special taste? The cool moistness of that spot of ground? Or is it the wondrous mystery that hovers around a well?

Photographer Kay Westhues of South Bend, Indiana, became so entranced by the continuing appeal of artesian wells — water that flows naturally from the ground, and usually routed through a pipe — that she created a website, Well Stories about "our relationship with the water we drink." The sites features photos of old artesian wells in the Midwest, and gather stories from the people who make their own personal meccas to gather water from the wells.

As Westhues explains on her website:

“It was a revelation to me that anyone in the 21st-century United States would drink water that comes from a pipe in the ground and would choose to make a trip to gather water rather than turn on a tap at home. I wanted to find out more about people who get their water this way. Some say they make the trip simply because they like the taste of well water, while others tell me they do not have access to good water in their homes, due to where they live, or to environmental contamination.

Artesian wells have a tendency to become venerable cultural landmarks — a place where people have gathered for time immemorial, to refresh themselves, to be sociable, and to rest before traveling. A well often marks the spot where the earliest human settlements arose, because there was a reliable source of water.

For denizens of modern life, a visit to a well can be something of a pilgrimage, a way to connect with something deep in the past and perhaps deep within us. Retrieving water from the well is a timeless ritual that generations have practiced; the well itself becomes something of a shrine to the murky history of a place. Gathering water is in other ways a tribute to the miracle of life itself: Somehow the water flows from the Earth, a gift pure and simple.

Westhues’ project was recently profiled in the New York Times. Reporter Erick Eckholm described the Indiana wells as "living relics of an era when communities shared wells and when travelers, first Indians and then pioneers, planned journeys around such watering spots."

There is folklore that has grown up around certain springs, like the one that was the reason for a resort hotel (now burned to the ground) where gangsters Al Capone and John Dillinger once stayed. Other wells were resting spots of Indians. Now, ordinary people drive for miles to fill up gallon jugs of the well water. They swear it tastes pure and clean, and that their pets and gardens do better with the well water.

For me, the strong appeal of artesian wells today says something about our need to connect with older ways of living. When multinational companies privatize great pools of groundwater for their investors, treating water as a commodity that must fetch the highest possible price, it feels very wrong; a sacrilege. It offends the natural order of history, tradition and community to claim water as private property — to disconnect water from its local ecosystem and local community, and presume to value it by price alone.

Water is an elemental gift that we all need. It binds us together and sustains life in ways that we don’t fully appreciate. By reminding us of this basic fact, Kay Westhues’ photographs exert a quiet but unmistakable power.