Drought beaten, drip by drip; Conservation: A Harford County couple rely on a spring and collected rainwater to survive the drought with barely a ripple on their 70 secluded acres.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Past the Land of Low Corn, where cows once moaned for a dewy field and farmers still file for relief, a rough asphalt road turns to moist, white stone.

The path leads to 70 secluded acres, where Kirk and Sue Nevin have tilled summer gardens thick with tall cornstalks, vines heavy with delectable berries and plump vegetables ripe for the picking.

During the driest season in 70 years, water has always run through their ditches, coursed through their gardens, brimmed in their sink. It gurgled freely here. It sputtered, drizzled and dripped.

"This drought has been a great blessing," Kirk says, conceding that he might seem a little odd.

Odd like a fox.

This summer, like the 26 preceding it, the Nevins have lived in the Land of Abundance while their neighbors -- from Cumberland to Cambridge --suffered from scarcity.

It may be hard to imagine why anyone would be pleased with a drought.

With Maryland suffering from severe rainfall deficits, the governor imposed restrictions on water use for nearly a month. The state was declared a federal agricultural disaster area, corn crops failed, some pastures succumbed, and Baltimore tapped the Susquehanna River.

But the world the Nevins inhabit would defy most imaginations -- like the sound of one hand clapping or the mountain that is, then isn't, then is again. Buddhist prayer flags flap at the entrance to their land, and behind a clump of black locust trees sits a 750-square-foot handcrafted home where conservation rules.

The practice here has always been to use no more than 3 gallons of water a day, half as much as most people use every time they flush a toilet.

'Caretakers, not landowners'

"We feel like caretakers, not landowners," says Kirk Nevin, a 54-year-old chimney sweep, who purchased the property in Harford County near the Pennsylvania line from his father in 1973. "You can either exist with the Earth or exploit it."

Standing on the back porch, he can trace links in a network of hoses, holding tanks, irrigation channels and plastic pipes that preserve a moist freshness in their land. Obscured by trees and lush foliage, a man-made pond feeds the gardens, another pond catches spillover, and farther back in the woods, down a long trail where the first sprigs of watercress have broken through, there is a cool burbling, the slight ripple of a tiny spring.

The system is simple. Everything begins at the spring.

Up the trail, impeded by thorny bushes and branches, Kirk Nevin reveals the rocky place where the spring originates. It is a run of water no wider than a thumb's length -- more dribble than run -- that serves their needs.

They have placed a collector -- a ceramic flue liner -- just downstream and run a hose in there to direct part of the water downhill to a handsome stone house that the couple built 20 years ago to raise their family.

Beneath the house, part of the spring water collects in a tank, where it can be hand pumped upstairs to the kitchen or connected to a wood stove that heats water for the bathtub, right there on hard ground.

Every day, the Nevins walk over from their "post-children" house and fill a galvanized bucket with one gallon of fresh water to drink.

They divert another part of the water through a hose down a short hill into a pond they dug years ago.

The pond is full of fish and turtles and snakes -- "all kinds of critters," Kirk Nevin says -- and though it stands about a foot short of its usual 8-foot depth, it contained enough water even at the height of the drought a few weeks ago to fill several backyard swimming pools.

From there, a siphon, a final hose with one end plugged, draws water from the pond over another hill to feed their extensive gardens. By creating a vacuum in the hose, they can draw water without a pump, and the plants can wallow in fresh pond water.

Rainwater collected

The gutters on their house direct rainwater into a collection tank that they hand pump into the kitchen for washing hair and dishes.

Two galvanized buckets stand by the back door.

"Here, I'll show you how they work," Kirk says.

Sue laughs at his joke.

Water conservation can be so simple.

In 1973, the property looked nothing like it does today. It was "70 acres of decimated land farmed with chemicals for years," Kirk Nevin says.

The fields his father planted had, in the Nevins' minds, desecrated the elaborate chemistry that supports the ability of soil to hold water. Erosion scarred parts of the property and left large ditches. Denuded property exposed for growing crops let rain and wind strip away layers of precious topsoil.

By restoring natural vegetation and reapplying years' worth of lost organics, the Nevins hoped to reinvigorate the soil's natural chemistry and increase its storage and filtering capacities.

They have planted more than 2,000 trees. Every year they spread up to 20 tons of horse manure acquired from local farmers. Twice a week during the fall, Kirk Nevin rises before sunup, drives their truck to the nearest town, gets about 120 bags of leaves that homeowners have raked up for disposal and hauls them home to spread. "We've rescued thousands of pounds of leaves from the dump," he says.

Rebuilding lost topsoil can take many years, but the Nevins worked patiently and steadily.

Thousands of trees

As a result, the place looks like a well-groomed jungle. Thousands of trees provide shade and moisture and firm up the ground with ever-deeper root systems. The gardens, even during this year's severe drought, require very little water.

"You can go anywhere in this garden where it hasn't been watered all summer and the soil's still moist," Kirk Nevin says, standing in rows of sweet corn, raspberries, onions, asparagus, broccoli, grapes, blackberries, peas, rose hips and blueberries. Tomatoes have popped up freely, like weeds.

He brushes away a corner of a gossamer sheet that covers the ground crops, kneels, sweeps away a layer of straw and scoops up a handful of cool, moist dirt.

"Haven't had a rain or watered here in two weeks," he says, holding the dirt up to his face like a nosegay. "And this soil is alive."

Yes, they were hippies.

In 1970, after National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, the Nevins quit their jobs, turned their back on American culture and left the country. Much of what they learned about water conservation came from the island of Crete, where they lived without water or electricity in a shepherd's stable for almost two years.

In a village four miles from the nearest potable water, where no rain fell from April to December, they learned to appreciate and conserve every drop.

That, in part, is why they believe the drought is good: Marylanders are learning from their losses.

'In a way, it's exciting'

"There will be big changes in our weather," Kirk Nevin predicts. "This drought is just the beginning. Yep, in a way it's exciting. People begin to realize, 'Hey, I never knew my machine spits out 20 gallons of water with every wash. My toilet gives up so many gallons with every flush. ' Each time we have one of these mini-crises, someone else has their eyes opened."

He adds, "I don't think most of our neighbors would see the advantage of this kind of lifestyle. It requires an enormous change in how we relate to the world. But it doesn't cost a lot of money. It's really simple."

They have changed the ground they inhabit.

And they say their little plot has responded with a spectacular return.

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