My daughter lives in a small cluster of houses in a little valley nestled into a fold in a series of arid hills cloaked in sagebrush. Above her house there’s a narrow, horizontal track etched into the slopes.
Investigation revealed that it had once been a flume.
Flume—an open irrigation channel constructed to let water to flow, by gravity, from a distant source to a location where it’s needed.
Some flumes are just ditches dug directly into the hillside; sometimes they’re built out of wood planks, on trestles, to get around cliffs or canyons.
Traditionally, flumes were always built by hand. Local farmers worked cooperatively to survey the route, build the flume itself and organize distribution of the precious water.
I haven’t been past the village of Wallachin for years. I suspect that the wooden flumes winding along the red bluffs north of the TransCanada Highway have largely rotted away.
Once upon a time, Wallachin was a prosperous community composed mainly of British upper-class immigrants. When war broke out in 1914 Wallachin’s young men responded en masse to the call of their home country.
Few came home.
Lacking men to work the orchards and maintain the flumes, Wallachin withered away.
I used to watch for those flumes as we drove past. They’re not necessary now, as governments provide systems that make water abundantly available to all.
But I still find myself fascinated by the way people worked together for the common good to build flumes.
It also seems to me that a flume makes a good metaphor for the sacred writings of any religion. They all try to convey wisdom from some distant source, through the aridity of intervening generations, to people who need that life-giving source now.
The Hindu Upanishads, Islam’s Qur’an, the Hebrew Torah, the Christian Gospels and Letters, all tap into the insights of long ago. The words that express those insights did not miraculously appear, fully formed, on pages. Humans worked together to inscribe those words onto some lasting medium—clay, parchment, paper, digital disks…
In that sense humans built the “flumes” that transport religious insights through time rather than distance.
But even the best flumes leak. Precious water seeps into the ground. Some spills over the edges, damaging the channel. Debris clogs ditches and impedes the flow.
Much of current biblical scholarship tries to remove debris that has fallen into the flume over time. It tries to clear the channel back to the original source.
As populations grow, flumes are asked to provide water for uses the original builders never imagined—lawns, hot tubs, dishwashers, grow ops. It does little good to insist that an old-time flume is good enough; always has been, always will be.
So some seek additional sources—physics, biology, psychology—that can supplement the original flow.
Others refuse to rely on traditional flumes any more. They turn to governments and corporations, to science and economics, to consumerism and even hedonism, to fulfill their deepest needs.
But the old flume is still there for those who are willing to expend the energy to trace it.