April 30, 2017

Empire Mine
Rock wall with red roses at the Empire Mine, Grass Valley, Spring 2004 (watercolor and colored pencil on cold press illustration board)

Water in California

Spring is an amazing, and all too brief, season in California. Since we get our rains in the winter, not in the summer or really any other time of the year, the greening up of our hills dotted with oaks turns brown pretty quickly by the end of April. And there are spectacular wild flower displays in early spring that cover our deserts and woodland areas, but you have to look fast because those blossoms disappear all too soon. (I understand that the wildflower display this year in Anza Borrego was intense because of the year’s intense winter rains. Some of the desert areas that bloomed hadn’t had rain for 10 to 20 years.)

Water is such a precious commodity here and so many people share it (and tragically waste it) for so many reasons—agriculture, drinking and washing, recreation and gardening. Oops, did I say recreation and gardening? Well, yeah, I said gardening. Sometimes winter rains fall on California’s wildflower seeds, with unintended colorfully beautiful consequences. And sometimes people intentionally direct water onto plants that flower, with intended colorful beauty. So it is with these roses that grow up and over the walls of the Bourn Cottage garden at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. They are watered and tended with great care, but really serve no practical purpose at the mine or in any other garden for that matter unless you are a bee or other kind of pollinator. Viticulturists traditionally plant roses at the end of rows of grapes. And I understand that the reason they do this is to watch the roses for disease. If there’s insect damage on the beautiful roses, they would look to take care of the “grape” cash crop that was in the rows behind it. Kind of sad to look on a rose bush as a harbinger of disaster instead of enjoying it in all its colorful, robust, scented and thorny glory. Nothing worse than looking at a rose’s shiny new green leaves covered in powdery mildew, big black spots, large round holes and/or stems and leaves covered with aphids.

There is a lot of water under the ground in Grass Valley, especially under these red climbing beauties at the Empire Mine. The 367 miles of tunnel (5 square miles) of the mine is completely filled with water. When the original Cornish tin miners came to Grass Valley in the mid 19th century to dig for gold, they had to run pumps continuously to keep the water out. The Bourn family, who owned and operated the mine in the early 1900’s, made millions of dollars from their gold mine. They weren’t particularly interested in the water in the mine tunnels of the Empire Mine (other than to keep pumping it out), but they did have a definite connection nearby. Mr. Bourn was president of The Spring Valley Water Company near San Mateo. And the Spring Valley Water Company supplied water to the city of San Francisco. Crazy, huh?

I bet every community and/or county in California has a crazy story about getting water to people and places in the state, past and present. The history of getting fresh water to people in early Los Angeles is pretty crazy and water is still on people’s minds around here. But now people look to keep their swimming pools filled with fresh water and some seem to be obsessed with watering huge green lawns all summer. It’s pretty crazy to watch the water in an in ground pool slosh from side to side like a mini tsunami during an earthquake.

Note about our gold mine: One day my son discovered a 5 foot in diameter hole about a foot under the soil beside a large camellia shrub next to the side porch of our 1863 house in Grass Valley. Soon, my dad, my son and I were staring down into what seemed like a bottomless black pit. And as my dad lowered the 100-foot extension cord (with light attached) straight down, the three of us were quiet in thought. My dad told me later that he thought this might be a coyote hole (a deep shaft, similar to a hole for a well) that someone had dug trying to reach an existing mine tunnel. (There is an Empire Mine tunnel under the Safeway grocery store that’s a couple hundred yards from that very spot.) So, once the light touched the bottom (75 feet down), he was looking for little bags of gold. My son did not remain quiet very long, after all he was the one who found the huge perfectly cylindrical hole and was very excited. But he was really disappointed that we didn’t have an 80-foot ladder so he could get down there and have the coolest fort ever. As for me, I wasn’t thinking about gold. I was thankful we didn’t have an 80-foot ladder and wondered why no one hadn’t stepped down into that coyote/rabbit hole and vanished, literally. It seems there can be small blessings to be found in other’s disappointments. (Happy Birthday dad–April 25, 1928–miss you)


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