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Letter from Isidor – December 2021

Greetings Dear Garden Members! It’s hard to believe that I have been working at the Garden for about two and a half months. The pace of emergencies has begun to slow a bit, and I sense that I am starting to get a feel for the “bigger picture”. We have recently celebrated Thanksgiving, and I am thankful that I get to work with such great people in such a beautiful and fascinating location.

Many of my days recently have been spent looking for or tracing the paths of PVC water pipes — all part of the seemingly unending effort to find and shut down the leaks that drain the cistern in the Great Hall. My phone storage is filling up with photos that would appear boring to most: overexposed images of nondescript vegetation, expanses of grass, and the odd corner of a building or two. However, an obsessive irrigation archeologist (like I am becoming) will note that, in all of these photos, straight white lines appear mysteriously in the midst of the grass. These are water pipes, emerging from the underworld briefly, like leaping dolphins, to tantalize us with clues about the hidden order and structure (literally!) that govern the fate of the Garden. 

At one point, Lucy Cabret (the Garden’s Nursery Manager) and I, traced some of these pipes past the edge of the manicured grounds and into the shade of the rainforest. We rejoiced at finding a valve hidden in the underbrush. From there we continued on, shouting to each other as we spotted the elusive white line breaching in a distant grove. Eventually, we found ourselves standing on the walking path, confused because the trail had grown cold. The white pipe had disappeared. Retracing the last stretches of pipe we had seen, we found that it led right up to us and then seemingly disappeared at the very edge of the path. Looking again even more carefully, my finger followed the pipe in a direction that made no sense: up. As the PVC turned towards the sky, its white color disappeared under layers of lichens, dust, and grime, and it became indistinguishable from the trunks of the saplings around it. My eye traced the tree pipe up and over our heads until…there it was…a spigot, hidden among the leaves of the low canopy. We doubled over in laughter at the surreality of this scene. How many times had we and others walked past this spigot without noticing it? Why had it been put here?

Finding it told us something vitally important. We had been following the pipes into the forest based on two old and partly-contradictory maps that I had unearthed from storage tubes in the Garden Library. The mere existence of these maps was not a guarantee of their usefulness: there was no obvious way to tell, just by looking at them, whether they represented the hidden reality beneath our feet…or merely wishful thinking: aspirational irrigation. Finding the spigot in the forest, hidden up in the leaves, right where one map said it should be, proved, without a doubt, that these were no dream pipes. This map could be trusted, at least in parts.

Building on that trust, and picking up on some additional clues (“Why is that patch of ground wetter than it should be?”; “I thought I heard some gurgling noises over there last week”), we found a long-buried valve documented on this one map only. Near that valve was a corner joint that had been pushed past its tolerances by the slow but incessant growth of the roots of a very healthy and thirsty flamboyan (flamboyant, Royal Poinciana, Delonix regia). Out of the crack at that joint had flowed the lifeblood of the Garden. Over a long weekend, unobserved, the water level in the Great Hall cistern had dropped over two feet. The cistern is roughly square, 34 feet on a side. When the water level in this giant artificial cavern drops by a foot, we lose approximately 1,156 cubic feet of water — which turns out to be about 8,600 gallons of water. We all felt tremendous satisfaction and relief when we finally found and shut down this leak.

Soon I will build a small brick enclosure around the new valve, mark its location with an easily-seen metal stake, and pin it on a digital map. I want to make sure that no future director of horticulture and facilities will have to hunt for it blindly.

In the meantime, I asked our plumber to replace a similar valve nearby. This valve hadn’t started leaking yet, but it had been described as “fragile” and “a ticking time bomb.” This time, I wanted to make sure we got to the bomb before it went off. 

Now I log the cistern levels twice each day, almost every day of the week. I hold my breath as it inches up slowly. We’ve gained back about 8 inches (about 5,770 gallons!). But the dry season is coming. The hunt for leaks continues.

Thank you for everything you do to help the garden. Until next month – 

Isidor

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