Freesias bask indoors in the sunlight on a chilly January day.

Freesias bask indoors in the sunlight on a chilly January day.

Few things in this world are as fascinating to a small child as a rain puddle. That scintillating, shimmering, rippling, miniature sea beckons to them in ways other things don’t, inspiring them to walk or run through it, or stand in its shallow depths splashing away to his or her heart’s content. Come to think of it, you really don’t have to be a kid to appreciate the visual appeal of a puddle, or, for that matter, of any body of water, large or small. I’m sure this has a lot to do with why, as alleged grownups, we are so attracted to lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, and to the ocean itself, spending millions of dollars to live near one and availing ourselves of all the activities possible on or around them, if only to merely stare at them in childish wonder when all else fails.

 

 

Recently, a weather report predicting heavy rains and high winds also included warnings about possible flooding. That seemed strange, considering the fact that we had no snow pack to speak of at the time here in southern Maine. So where would all that excess water come from? But there was more to the prediction as the report went on to state that, because the ground is now frozen, any rain that falls cannot seep into the soil as it generally does during mild weather. It does what water always does: runs off to the nearest lower point and continues as such, flooding lowlying areas, swelling rivers, and seeping into basements, much to the dismay of their owners. In other words, it behaves like the proverbial water off a duck’s back, as it has nowhere else to go.

I saw evidence of this the other day during and after the heavy rains. Outside my living room window, among the expanse of tall pine trees out there, the water had collected in several areas to the point where what had been dry and leaf-strewn forest floor now looked like a small wetland. The puddles ran into each other, catching what rain remained in the trees that made soft plopping sounds as it hit the ground. The next morning, the sun came out; and soon after, the puddles became mirror images of the tree trunks on their western edges. All this because it rained too much the day before, and the earth was simply too frozen to absorb it. The earth, which normally acts as a sponge, had sealed itself off to any further intrusions. So the water sat there and sat there, until finally, the puddles began to shrink ever so infinitesimally before the season’s next snowfall covered them up.

But even then, they were not completely obliterated. For as the snow melted and each clump plopped into the water, ice appeared along the edges of the tiny pools, and branches here and there created small bridges across their expanses that the squirrels seemed only too willing to make use of as they scrambled about frantically in search of something to eat.

Water and soil have a very complex and fascinating relationship, if only from the point of view of how they interact. There are plenty of big fancy words to describe what’s going on when rain hits land, but the simple version is that it either sinks in during the process of infiltration, or it runs off. In winter, the uppermost layer of soil freezes, creating a barrier that remains impermeable to rain or melting snow until temperatures warm enough for it to start thawing. This can happen whether the ground is bare or not, as snow insulates the soil to the point where it can thaw beneath a thick layer of the white stuff.

Once water does manage to move down into the earth, it then starts to percolate, which refers to what happens as it makes its way into the tiny spaces between the soil particles. It’s not unlike coffee gurgling up into the tiny glass dome of a percolator. The water bubbles as it works its way down through a vast network of millions of soil capillaries, or tiny veins. Some water is stored there, some levels off and becomes part of the aquifer, and about 50 percent is absorbed by plants. The sandier the soil, the more rapidly the water moves through it, pulled by gravity and by the shifting action that occurs among the irregularly stacked soil particles. In heavy clay soil, little percolation occurs. And it doesn’t take long for the water to find another place to go, thereby eroding the upper layers of soil and taking lots of minerals and plant life along with it.

The best scenario occurs in soil that contains a high level of organic matter in the form of decaying vegetation and animal waste. The soil is both porous enough to allow water through and dense enough to hold onto what it needs to distribute to the plant roots making their way through it. This is the type of soil that gardeners strive for, the type that produces those luscious beefsteak tomatoes and huge Swiss chard leaves that spill over from farmers’ market bins each year.

I’ve watched the puddles behind my apartment for a few days now, or what little is still visible of them since this latest snowfall. Each day, they seem to be shrinking a bit, which is due most likely to the sun’s action pulling the water up by evaporation. It’s a wonderful process that has operated since time began without anyone’s help, and that assures not only the survival of all that grows around us but ours as well.

— Rachel Lovejoy, a freelance writer living in Lyman who enjoys exploring the woods of southern Maine, can be reached via email at [email protected]


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