Poems by Corinne Lee

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Liquid Fractures: Karst, Gushers, and Absence

by Corinne Lee

From Canary Summer 2012

Corinne lives with her family on seven acres in the Texas Hill Country. Their land is bordered by hundreds of acres of wilderness preserve and undeveloped ranches. Just one month ago, storm runoff created a fifteen-foot deep river in the canyon at the bottom of their property. The entire river sank through karst and was underground within two days, flowing to destinations unknown.

       I live in the Texas Hill Country, surrounded by holes. These karst fissures provide conduits, or portals, to subterranean aquifers and, eventually, aboveground springs. When it rains, water immediately is funneled deep into the earth, usually ending up miles from my home.

       In the canyon next to my house, storms occasionally create a huge, raging river that disappears literally overnight, sinking into subterranean vaults of water. Below ground, the water follows mazes of fault lines––most created by a violent, 3 ½ minute earthquake that occurred 30 million years ago. That temblor created hills, steep cliffs, and an enormous fault line scar called the Balcones Escarpment. Just five miles from my house, the same fault wound can be viewed underground, at a cave appropriately called Wonder.

       The karst on my land is home to nine endangered species: five spiders, three beetles, and one daddy long-legs. Water that sinks into the holes travels in hidden passages that can extend for blocks or even hundreds of miles. Occasionally, scientists drop dye through Hill Country karst and attempt to monitor where it exits. Sometimes the dye appears in a spring twenty feet away. Sometimes it appears in a spring fifty miles distant. Sometimes it vanishes forever.

       Most of the water on my seven acres of karst ends up in the Edwards Aquifer or in San Marcos Springs, believed to be the oldest Native American settlement in all of North America. More than 200 springs jettison from limestone silt, creating habitat for eight additional endangered or threatened species.

       This water historically has been pure, and its temperature remains miraculously stable year-round at precisely 71 degrees. Due to that remarkable consistency and clarity, a Spanish explorer named the resulting river Los Inocentes, but as the centuries passed, the name did not stick.

       Perhaps that was just. The water in the river issuing from the springs is increasingly not pure. It contains caffeine, acetaminophen, BPA, DEET, flame retardants, sunscreen, birth control pill residue, fertilizer, and countless other pollutants. The majority of these pollutants are excreted by human beings. Most of the contaminants cannot be removed from the water by filtration or any other method; they are permanent poisons that are eternally wedded to fresh water. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that 30 American states have highly contaminated groundwater and must remediate it, but there is no process for removing all but a handful of the pollutants.

       This process of permanent freshwater water contamination is occurring worldwide. In Valencia, for example, cocaine, heroine, morphine, and ecstasy permeate the water; these drugs are in concentrations that are actually pharmacologically active. In short, by drinking water, we are consuming our increasingly drug-saturated culture and sharing one another’s pharmaceutical proclivities with neither awareness nor consent.

       As freshwater descends through karst, it collects microscopic dissolved solids in rock, but it does not filter out drugs such as ecstasy. On a global basis, external geography is transforming into internal geography: our bodies are absorbing chemicals from water and are morphing in response. Young girls, for instance, are entering puberty at earlier and earlier ages. Ten percent of Caucasian American girls are developing breasts at age seven. The average American girl now begins puberty at age nine, three years younger than when I was a girl in the 1970s.

       Other species are also being affected. Amphibians are vanishing all over the world. Frogs have malformed sex organs, missing eyes, and extra limbs. Scientists actually now have a difficult time finding wetlands that do not contain deformed frogs. Where I live, mussels downstream from local springs are in crisis: They are considered to be a “canary in a coal mine” species because they remain in one place, continually filtering water, and live long but grow extremely slowly. Some mussels live more than a century. Last year, 15 different species of Texas freshwater mussels were added to the state threatened species list. The federal government is considering officially listing the majority of these species as endangered.

       We should listen to the mussels. A quarter of all human beings worldwide depend upon karst formations for drinking water. However, this water is obviously in crisis, as liquids descend with virtually no filtration and the majority of pollution cannot be remedied. Clearly, subterranean creatures are imperiled, representing more than half of the U.S. Natural Heritage Program’s endangered species.

       According to biologists, karst is our richest path to sustaining diversity: there is far more life below ground than above. Soil is alive, and just a quarter teaspoon contains millions of microorganisms that are indirectly critical to our life on earth. Yet we dread everything under the surface, Hell always boiling beneath topsoil. There are few official collections of subterranean photographs around the world, and films about caves and aquifers typically receive little, if any, recognition. Often, the high point of a horror movie is when a foul hand bursts through a grave and claws at the hero or heroine above ground.

       We deny our increasingly polluted subterranean world perhaps because we fear the ultimate engulfment––death. Instead, we typically celebrate explosive gushers of crude oil and other liquids. Notwithstanding the recent catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Western imagination is saturated with phallic images of towering oil blowouts, called “wild wells.” There are no epic feminine tales of water sinking into ground fissures, roaring rapids suddenly plummeting through karst into silence.

       This subsuming nature of deep earth is not only feared, but also completely ignored. Indeed, the local city council recently approved a 3,400-home development directly on top of the most sensitive karst features in the area where I live. Pollutants from the resulting 10,000 residents will descend almost instantly into the aquifer and springs. This development will include a golf course that will be watered with treated human effluent containing chemicals that will be permanently bonded to the water and descend through karst to an aquifer. The majority of that aquifer’s water dates to the American Revolution; therefore, the consequences of our current pollution upon future human beings are incalculable and potentially tragic.

       The amount of earth’s water is finite. It has been with us since the dawn of time; scientists believe that water is a byproduct of star formation. It is distributed in proportions that speak to issues of colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, scarcity, and bounty. In India, for example, tens of thousands of people have protested American soda bottling plants, which withdraw so much groundwater that the earth is actually sinking and collapsing, polluting aquifers. Worldwide, the pumping rate for aquifer water has recently doubled.

       Many developing nations are expected to exceed fresh water demand by 50% before 2030, yet 97% of earth’s water is saline. Only 1.4% of the world’s fresh water is on its surface. The 1.6% of global water held in karst fissures is therefore critical, as it is the sole source of fresh water for a quarter of humanity. Unless it is mitigated, the crisis affecting this water will result in ongoing, increasing fractures dividing nations, cultures, and even species.

       After Alice falls down the limitless rabbit hole, which is perhaps the quintessential karst formation, the White Rabbit repeatedly checks his watch and warns of time. “[H]ow late it’s getting!” he says. Later, Lewis Carroll adds a comment that we all should heed: “There is not a moment to be lost.”


This essay is also the script for Stan von Miller’s and Corinne Lee’s 2011 documentary “Liquid Fractures: Karst, Gushers, and Absence.” To view the film, go to: http://vimeo.com/18608687

Special thanks: Texas Cave Management Association, San Marcos River Foundation, Guadalupe-Blanco River Trust, Texas Master Naturalists, Joe Furman, Janaé Reneaud, Dianne Wassenich, and Arron Wertheim



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