A Chilling Waste

I just returned from a weeklong vacation, which included attending the Philadelphia Folk Festival for the 24th time. Besides the music and creative collaboration, one of the most magical features of the event is the way in which each and every person is free to be. The assumed love for one another was a refreshing reprieve from the snobbery and hate most of us are regularly subjected to, and this immediate acceptance of each other renewed my faith in mankind, just as it does every year.

You can imagine then my conflicting despair when I watched what was happening at the water fountain.

My friend eloguently described this year’s weather as “the seven pits of hell.” It was hot. Very hot. The scent of nearly smoldering grass mixed with that of sweat, pachouli, and suntan lotion. Held in a farmer’s hayfield, with the concert grounds mercilessly sloped at a perfect angle to sun and the camping area layered with heat-trapping tarps and the entire scene filled with 40,000 hard-breathing people, one cannot escape the blazing effects of a cloudless sky. To watch a concert is to endure, and relief only comes with water.

Drinking water. Spraying water. Soaking your feet in water.

Thankfully, the festival is supplied by at least six, high-pressure fountains scattered through the concert area and campground.

Yet, my heart ached. Everywhere I looked, throughout this hippified proclamation of peace, love, and connectedness, people abused the precious resource.

For instance, the watering holes consist of fountains for drinking as well as downward-facing pipes for filling water jugs. At all the fountains, in all the years I have been going, among all the people who pride themselves in having returned annually to the festival for decades, the pipe has run for a good five seconds after the faucet is turned off. The result is about two cups of water released post-off. Yet never did I see someone hold his or her jug under the pipe until the water ended. They removed it in synergy with the off twist and let the two cups fall to the ground. Every. Single. Person.

Children have always played at the fountains, even when it rains. I can’t fault them; it’s fun to fill a balloon and squirt out the contents and fill the balloon again. But never did I hear a guardian say, “Don’t waste the water, dear.”

Adults came to wet their bandannas at the fountain, wringing the colored cloths and wetting them again to create a cool tonic to wear on the head or neck. I can’t fault them; this technique really works. But rarely did I watch someone do this with care. The water flowed so easily and quickly from the faucet, more hit the ground than the cloth. And the longer one held it under the running water, the cooler the material would get, so each bandana wash consumed about one-half gallon of water.

Strong men came to the fountain to fill 10-gallon tubs destined for plastic swimming pools, makeshift shower houses, and temporary kitchens. Too heavy to manage, a quarter of the contents sloshed out before they could lift it back on to the wagon for hauling.

At one concert, a little girl was happily turning the faucet on and off to help fill everyone’s cups and water guns. “I’ll do it,” she exclaimed with splashing glee. I held my four-cup container under the pipe. As she got halfway through it, I said, “Stop!” With hand still holding open the knob, she starred at me in alarm, her eyes saying “why?” the water overflowing, every one of the 15 waiting people around me looking with same “why?” There was no time to explain; there seemed no point in trying. More water was wasted by my attempt than if I’d remained quiet.

I wondered what would happen if the well ran dry. People would be mad. They’d demand correction. They’d blame the farmer or the festival. They’d talk about finding a new location for next year, one that could adequately meet their needs.

I wondered about the message of connectedness and friendship, because I felt a continent apart from our friends on the western shore, the ones fighting drought and fire and thirst.

Meanwhile, the fact that these faucets exist is a cherished part of the folk festival. How many events can you go to these days where drinking water is free? (Restricted access to water at events is a condition that I advocate should be illegal, but that’s a rant for another day.) And frankly, the Old Pool Farm’s is the best-tasting well I’ve ever sampled. In fact, I hated to go home for I miss the deliciousness of what pours from that spigot.

At the end of the festival, after the sites were torn down and the garbage piled high, I saw full cases of 12-ounce bottles of water in the piles, left behind either because the owner didn’t want to carry them home or because he or she didn’t want to risk drinking the plastic that had likely leached into the fluid. The precious, life-dependent liquid, hauled in unnecessarily was now trapped in packaging and headed for the landfill.

A few people commented about the senselessness of bringing bottled water to place with such a great and accessible well, but for the most part, no one ever said a word.

Even more than the waste though, my judgment of others amidst bliss and friendship saddened me. I know in my heart that my eyes simply did not see the conservationists. They had to be there. They had to notice, too. I thought about sitting by the fountains to watch for them, to see if anyone would try to change the mindset. But I had to look away, had to walk away. And that made me saddest of all.

Back at the concert, I prayed the fallen water would recharge the aquifer. I guzzled what was in my cup, refilled, and turned back to the good time. I was taking measures to survive alongside my fellow festival goers. But my concern couldn’t be plugged. This is the painful reality of caring, of seeing what other’s do not. Like the knob on the faucet under the little girl’s control, some things just refuse to be turned off.