Tennessee Mountain Stories

See, here is water

You don’t need me to tell you that water is essential to life.  Our bodies are almost three-fourths water and failure to drink will kill you in just three days.  The Bible mentions water 396 times; we all know the analogy of washing away our sins and water baptism is given as the image of that supernatural cleansing. 

I’ve mentioned here before that running water is probably my favorite modern convenience and I might reiterate that now.  But a story from a friend recently got me to thinking about how people must have thought about water in years past.

My pastor’s family had a bug going around the week before Christmas.  After it hit the five year old boy and Daddy, their eighteen month old daughter came down with it.  Mama held her a night and a day as she repeatedly threw up and her Mama spooned water into her little mouth.  By the afternoon it became obvious that they weren’t winning the battle to keep her body hydrated so the short drive was made to the ER where an IV quickly pumped life-giving fluids into her veins.  Wow, volumes of articles could come from that little paragraph, even historically-minded articles.  After all, how long have we even known about IVs, when did they first start giving fluids intravenously and then there’s the recurring discussion of readily available medical care.

But I couldn’t help but think about the wisdom my friend had in patiently trying to get water into her little girl.  The image of a mother holding an ailing child is both heart-wrenching and familiar.  You don’t have to be a mama for long before you’ve spent hours rocking, walking, and crying right along with babies while they fight their way through everything from teething pain to nightmares.  Very often it’s hard to know just what to do.  Sometimes we wait longer than we should to get expert help and sometimes we rush off to the doctor only to be told it’ll run its course.  Have you ever asked yourself how much harder it was a century ago?  I guess families were much larger so maybe young girls learned as their own mothers face childhood issues and every community seems to have had a “granny-woman” who was the expert they turned to when something was wrong.  Yet even those wise women had few tools at their disposal save local herbs.

The need for water is surely one of those things God put into man from the beginning.  Yet I wonder whether just a couple of generations ago folks really understood how quickly the body becomes dehydrated and how debilitating dehydration can be? 

In thinking about this subject and doing a little research, I was surprised to learn that some dreaded diseases can actually be treated almost exclusively by rehydrating the body.  Plagues of Cholera have recurred since the early 1800’s.  As recently as 2009 there were over four thousand deaths in Africa due to the infection.  While antibiotics will shorten the duration of a bout, really all that’s needed is to sufficiently rehydrate a patient.  Of course, contamination of drinking water is the prime cause of Cholera outbreaks so those conditions would leave little hope of treatment.  I suppose a basic understanding of that particular disease – which didn’t come about until the mid-1800’s – and a knowledge of whether your water supply was pure would be imperative to preventing and curing it. 

A good source of water has always been a settler’s first concern.  When you happen upon old home places you can often still find the spring that delivered that family pure water.  Sometimes you have to look a little bit because families were accustomed to carrying water a long way and a spring might be shared by several families. 

My great-grandparents, Billie and Ida Key, lost a son to Typhoid in 1926.  With seven children in the house, when they were told the well was infected the family abandoned their home.  Despite no one else coming down with the fever, it surely couldn’t be risked that the whole family would take sick.  Whether a residual fear or just bad memories but after a few years working in Harriman the Keys returned to Martha Washington but never again to that home even though they kept and worked the farm.

People who live close to the land always appreciate a good source of water - whether rains for crops or collected water for stock or fresh water for the family.  Springs that haven’t been plowed and destroyed are still prized and many of you will remember as I do stopping in the woods for a drink of the coldest, clearest, best tasting water you can ever find.