Free and Clear: Gathering at Artesian Wells
[imgbelt img=kay-well-greene-co530.jpg]A photographer’s exploration of artesian wells hears splashing music and finds the springs of society in America’s Midwest.
Which came first, the human community or the water well?
It may be Kay Westhues, one of our favorite photographers, who finds the answer bubbling from her latest endeavor: Well Stories. Kay is documenting old public wells across the Midwest and the cultures that have sprung up around them. Beginning near her home in South Bend, Indiana, she’s already rippled northward into Michigan and south toward the Ohio River Valley, mapping wells in over a dozen counties since last fall.
“There’s a special attraction to these wells,” she says. “I’m starting to understand it the more I hang around them. The water’s so clean. It’s coming from the earth. And it’s free.” The gift of fresh water precipitated many an early settlement. Kay’s discovered that breweries and schools located next to flowing wells, too. Down to today, most of these miraculous spouts continue to be visited and used, often in a spirit of reverence.
Gordon Gilliland, drinking from the well on the family’s farm in English, Indiana, could also recall his mother sitting long ago beside the spring: “She kept all of her milk up here and let the water run through it to keep it cool. And in the summertime, she’d sit up here and churn.”
Artesian wells – where underground aquifers naturally send water upward without need for a pump – are fairly rare, occurring only where the local geology is just-so.
“Porous stone is sandwiched between a top and bottom layer of an impermeable substance, like clay soil or shale rock,” keeping the water pressure high – so high “that at a point below the entryway of the flow there is enough pressure to bring the water up.” As it passes through layers of stone, these waters are naturally filtered, and usually emerge from the ground clean enough to drink.
Kay was raised on a farm near Walkerton, Indiana, and grew up drinking well water. Its distinctive taste (“or maybe lack of taste,” she says, as no chlorine or other purifying chemicals have been added) is a flavor familiar and good to her. People she’s met gathering water at these old wells often say how good it is “for making coffee.” Kay agrees.
She was inspired to investigate artesian wells by customers at a diner in Delphi, Indiana, where she was shooting pictures for her photo diary Fourteen Places to Eat. “They told me, ‘You’ve got to go to Pittsburg, [Indiana, about two miles up the road] and get some water. It’s the best water!”
[imgcontainer left] [img:kay-well-girls-320.jpg] [source]Kay Westhues/Well Stories“Honk if you want to save the earth” — visitors to the well in Pittsburg, Indiana, March 4, 2010