Archive for the ‘Water Resources’ Category

Family builds underground ‘Earth Ship’

©1996, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Okay, guys! Here’s another oldie but goodie from the remainder of my stack of feature articles and columns—this one from the Alpine Avalanche. It was a fun story for me to interview for and write about because it had so many unusual, fascinating elements in it, which you will discover as you read.

Of course, the events related are 19 years in the past now—ancient history. I have not had any subsequent contact with David and Rebecca Hart or their daughter Abby since the day I interviewed them. And I don’t recall where their home is (or was); nor are they listed in the phone book, naturally enough these days, since cell phones are ubiquitous now. However, I am preparing this post on January 31—a week before it is to be published—so perhaps I will find some way to reconnect with them before next Saturday and I can obtain a brief update. <<See comment at bottom of page.>>
— BL

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There’s a house being built southwest of Alpine that would warm the cockles of any diehard recycler’s heart.

Looking more like a metal lean-to/storage-shed from a distance, the home of David and Rebecca Hart is mostly underground — four feet below ground level — with only about three feet of structure above.  And it’s built almost entirely of old car tires and aluminum cans plastered with adobe.

“Michael Reynolds (a national expert on solar passive architecture) calls this type of structure an ‘Earth ship’,” says David. “It’s in tune with its surroundings and it takes advantage of the sun to heat the house and of the earth to keep it cool.”

David Hart grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and lived in Borger, Texas, about five years, where he earned his living first as an architectural draftsman and then doing drafting for the Department of Transportation.

On vacation once, the Harts visited Balmorhea “and just drove around” until they discovered Alpine. “We saved our money so we could come down and I could build the house,” David recalls.

After buying the four acres on which they wanted to build, the Harts returned to Borger wondering what kind of house they wanted.  “On the way back to Borger we picked up a Mother Earth News,” Rebecca adds, “and there it was in an article by Michael Reynolds, so we found it serendipitously.”

The couple moved with their daughter Abby, now nine years old, to Alpine in 1993, and David started working on the house while Rebecca got a job as teacher at the Alpine Montessori School.

Johnny White dug out the area for them with a front-end loader and a backhoe and then bought the dirt from them, so they broke even on the excavation, David says.

They managed to accumulate the tires —all 1,700 so far — and aluminum cans for free, too.  “Once you start with one size of tire, you want to stay with that size,” says David, “because, as you fill them with dirt they expand.”

As he got each tire placed, David used a sledge hammer to pound the dirt into its air space.  “Each tire weighs two hundred to three hundred pounds once it’s filled,” he points out. “We averaged about nine or ten tires a day.”


“Mostly just me, but occasionally a friend or my brother would come over.”  (And his two sisters and his father, all of whom came from Albuquerque to help David hammer dirt into old tires.)  “We did nothing but pound tires for about six months,” recalls David, “so it’s really labor-intensive.”

Also, some friends in Alpine poured the concrete slab floor, mixed with a dye to match the reddish-brown color of the adobe-plastered walls.

The aluminum cans were used to fill in the curved spaces between the tires and for short walls.  Holes and tabs were left facing outward.  “They were left outside so they can serve as a lath, like the metal mesh that’s put over walls before plastering,” David explains. “Also, the tires — if they have any tread — that acts as a lath, too.”

After the walls of a room are complete, the tires and cans are covered with the adobe plaster which comes right out of the Harts’ front yard.  Eventually, the house will consist of six rooms — counting the kitchen and living room — but the family moved into the existing two rooms a year ago.

The slanting metal roof will allow them to collect rainwater “if it ever rains” in a planned cistern as a supplement to their water well.

They have in fact figured ways of meeting two aspects of West Texas’ moody weather.  Besides the planned cistern to collect needed water, they have already built a 2-1/2-ft. dike around the house and dug a deep hole outside it where water can be pumped in case it rains too much.  “Friends have told us this place can get flooded,” David notes. “Normally this type of house is built on a south sloping hill, but we just have to make do with what we’ve got.”

The metal roof is still visible from inside the house.  “We don’t know what kind of ceiling we want yet,” says David. “Probably sotol or stalks of wood.”

Their more pressing need is a shower stall outside.  “The walls will be aluminum cans and mortar columns with sotol stalks to block the view and the wind,” he explains.

Rebecca lifts a black plastic bag that resembles a hot water bottle but is in fact a “solar shower bag” that can contain five gallons of water.  “You set it out in the sun to heat up,” she says, “and you press this lever to let out water, so you can soap up and then rinse it off (without needing a continuous spray as in conventional showers).”

The Harts’ home is hooked up to a natural gas source which powers their refrigerator and kitchen stove for about $10 a month, but their lights, television and VCR are powered by 12-volt batteries which receive their energy from photo-voltaic cells.

The solar-powered batteries are adequate most of the time.  “About Christmas we had seven cloudy days when we thought they might run low,” David recalls, “but we do have a generator for backup.”

The Harts have adapted to their two-room lifestyle well enough that they don’t feel any pressure to complete the house quickly (except for the shower stall). “Target dates have come and gone,” says David, smiling.

Alpine Avalanche, April 18, 1996


Divining Gift

SPECIAL GIFT -- Howard Collier, a Reeves/Culberson Counties Rancher, demonstrated dousing or "water-witching", as it is often called, in 1986. Collier accepted  the ability to find water with a douse as a gift.

SPECIAL GIFT — Howard Collier, a Reeves/Culberson Counties Rancher, demonstrated dousing or “water-witching”, as it is often called, in 1986. Collier accepted the ability to find water with a douse as a gift.

© 2011 Story and Photo By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS: This feature article first appeared in the Pecos Enterprise in 1986. Shortly thereafter, it was distributed on the Associated Press wire and was published in various newspapers throughout Texas (and I do not know how much further afield). Howard Collier was 66 years old when this article and photo were published. The story he related to me below simply flowed from his lips and thus rendered it probably the easiest writing I have ever done, and the most fun. He was quite a genial man; and I treasure the brief acquaintance we shared.
     Some of you might wonder why the paragraphs are as brief as they are. Well, that is newspaper style: it is a technique for augmenting readability. And, while it is true that I have condensed previous posts, retrieved from my stash of old newspaper articles, by combining paragraphs into “literary style”, in this instance I have retained newspaper style because so much of it involves quotations. Also, I believe that here at least the old journalistic dictum “white space is good” does speed up compre-hension.

* * * * * *

PECOS, Texas — Some people search for a scientific basis for dowsing — or “water witching”, as it is often called.

But not Howard Collier of Pecos.  He just accepts it as a gift

Still, he is aware of the explanations others have come up with for people who profess to have the power to find underground water with a divining rod. “It has something to do with the magnetism in that stick and in your body and in that water vein down there that causes the stick to come down,” he said.

The 66-year-old rancher said that he learned about water-witching and that he had the gift when he was 20.

Collier was working that summer on his father’s Screwbean Ranch in northeast Culberson county.  Early one fall day, he and the foreman rode horseback to a site on the ranch where his father had built a dirt tank.

“It was the tail end of a terrible drought,” he recalled. “The soil scientists had concluded we needed to conserve soil moisture better than we had.

“So the government had come in with the Triple-A program — what’s now called the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service) — and part of that program was the ‘dirt works’ program. There were thousands of miles of terraces in West Texas. And they built spreader dams and dirt tanks.

“Just two weeks before, my father and I had ridden out to see it. The thing was about two hundred feet square and about ten feet deep with sloping sides. There had been some good rains and it was full. The water had backed up about a quarter mile past this dirt dam.

“But two weeks later, when Charlie Greer, the foreman, and I rode out there, there was not a drop of water. Instead, there was a hole in the middle of it where the water had slumped.”

Collier said he was shocked by the sight. “My goodness,” he told Greer, “with all this trouble, all this expense, it might be just as cheap to dig a water well.”

“Yeah,” said Greer, “but it might help if you water-witch for it first.”

“What do you mean?” said Collier, who had never heard the phrase before.

“Well, get down off your horse and let’s find us a greasewood forked limb,” Greer replied.

After cutting two forked limbs, Greer showed the young man how to hold the witching stick. Together they walked over a part of the ranch where the terrain showed promise of good water.

Suddenly Collier’s stick started pulling down toward the ground, so much that he had to use force to hold it straight in front of him.  The experience frightened him, he said.

“I could see it in your face,” Greer said. “Consider yourself lucky. That forked stick doesn’t work for everybody.”

Collier did not make much of the occasion at the time, he says now, “It was just an event in my life.”

More important was the experience of the Dust Bowl, the creation of the terraces, windmills and dirt tanks.  “As a teen-ager in the Dust Bowl days, I learned how precious water is to a rancher in West Texas,” he said. “Since that time, there’s been a lot of water wells drilled and water storage tanks and water troughs built.”

In the 1960s, Collier decided he wanted to locate windmills on his home ranch in Reeves County and irrigation wells at the ranch headquarters on Toyah Creek.  A brother-in-law, Fred Armstrong, did the engineering work, and Collier did the water-witching.

“By 1970, I’d water-witched about ten wells for us and other people,” Collier said. “Of course, that’s not many, but they all turned out to be good wells.”

Compared with some dowsers he has known, most of whom are dead now, Collier considers himself an amateur. “These old water-well drillers, they had that science,” he said. “After you told one of them about where you wanted the well and had staked it off, he’d say, ‘I’d better get a water witch,’ and he might move it over a hundred feet or more from where you had indicated.”

Every water witch prefers a certain type of wood for the forked stick.  Hackberry is a common source, Collier said, as is the peach tree. “I like greasewood,” he said.

Others forgo wood altogether, preferring metal rods. “Some people swear by brass welding rods,” Collier said.

Although most scientists dismiss any physical reality in dowsing, a few do not discount it so readily.  Zaboj V. Harvalik, a retired University of Missouri physicist, thinks it is real.  Harvalik’s experiments have indicated that a person holding a dowsing stick can detect buried electric wires, apparently because the human body is sensitive to small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field caused by the currents flowing through wires.  Since water, ores and other buried substances also affect the magnetic field, Harvalik suggests, dowsing has a physical explanation.

Still, Collier’s accounts of what a few of the “old-timers” could do tests open-minded credulity.  Collier said, “Some people could take a single stick and count the number of bobs the limb would make to the ground and, when it ceased bobbing up and down, they could tell you where to drill the well and how deep it was to water.”

— Pecos Enterprise, November 19, 1986

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