Wet! Wet! Wet!
By ANDREW McDONNELL
The sprinklers of Notre Dame. Evil? Or just greatly misunderstood? Wretched, maliciously vile, spitting beasts? Or perhaps just a product of their environment?
It is difficult to discern just what motivation drives these nurturers of quads, but one thing seems all too clear. They are out to get us.
Well, maybe that is a bit harsh. Theories abound when campus irrigation enters the main topic of conversation, as it seems everyone has at one time or another been ambushed by the stealthy little sod-bound demons. People cannot seem to help but disagree as to the true nature of these sprinkler encounters.
There are some who believe the University likes to keep its students walking around with moist and supple skin. Yet others think it is all part of an elaborate attempt to keep the squirrels clean.
Still others claim certain unnamed higher-ups in the administration have been seen rocking back and forth muttering, "A Notre Dame sidewalk is a happy sidewalk. A happy sidewalk is a shiny sidewalk."
And still, there are those who would claim sprinklers are an agility-enhancing device, designed with such swift surprise in their craft, in order to keep the student body nimble as the bright-eyed mountain goats that once frequented this region before the glaciers rolled through.
Yet, there is the occasional fellow who will try to convince everyone that the notorios sprinkling is an attempt to temporarily blind students, so that while blinded by the spray of wayward sprinklers, their other senses will overcompensate and grow stronger, and then upon the students recovery from the temporary blindness, their other senses may continue in their new-found strength, and as these "super" senses accrue, Notre Dame will soon find itself composed of a super-human race with amazing "senses."
Other people, and they are numerous, claim it is an attempt by University officials to flush out the Wicked Witch of the West who lives amongst us. They intend to recognize her by the screams induced by an unexpected stream of water striking her in the face or inner thigh — the two most commonly victimized parts of the body — and she will be swept to a distant location until a house can be found to drop on her already battered, half-melted form.
But this is all hearsay.
The truth beneath the perceived chaos is that sprinklers keep lawns green.
The lawn. The great American symbol of successful living. The lawn is the representation of the fact that one no longer needs to use one's land to feed oneself, but can instead afford to go to painstaking lengths to spread the equivalent of outdoor carpeting across one's property. It is all part of living in what those zany 1960s bards The Monkees dubbed "status-symbol land."
Why, a person can have an Olympic-sized pool in the back yard, 1,250 acres of land, two golf courses, 7,800 children and more than $2 billion in the bank, but if he fails to keep the lawn in decent shape, well, the neighbors are going to be seen peering over the shrubbery and nudging their bib-overalled wives to take a break from their incessant bulb planting and come look, saying things such as, "Well, they're not exactly the premier Catholic university we mistook them for. Why, they can't even water their lawn decent-like, let alone start a medical school."
But Notre Dame can keep its lawn decent-like, Mr. Neighbor Man. It takes an enormous amount of work and an intricate plan to keep an area this size as green as it is. According to Bill Thistlethwaite, superintendent of landscaping, 85 percent of Notre Dame's campus is under irrigation. That means more than 1,000 acres of land must be kept in a strong, healthy condition by human-made means.
Now guess, just guess, how many sprinklers must be employed to maintain this much greenery. And don't count the athletic fields or the golf courses. Go on. Guess!
Now guess who's wrong.
According to Thistlethwaite, there are an impressive 65,000 sprinklers on campus.
To put that into perspective, the sprinklers are divided into zones, each containing three to 20 sprinkler heads. A typical American home contains two to three zones. Thistlewaite reports that Notre Dame has thousands of them. That is one way of understanding the magnitude of an operation that initially seems so simple.
During the summer months, the maintenance of the lawn at Notre Dame occupies the labor of three staff members. During the rest of the year, they have additional duties, but during the summer, the lawn is their livelihood.
The summer is one of the main challenges in turf management. "We usually try to run zones for half an hour at a time," Thistlethwaite said. "But it's been so dry and hot that sometimes this summer we had to go over two hours at a time."
An additional factor, one that always hinders the progress of the landscaping crew, is the fact that soil in this part of Indiana is so sandy. The heat and soil quality together necessitate a great amount of water. And with a great amount of water comes a great number of water-related complaints.
"I hate to even count the number of complaints we receive," said Thistlethwaite.
It is to be expected, he admits, because the sprinklers are possessed of two unfortunate features: They can pop up without notice, and they spray across sidewalks.
But spraying across sidewalks is neither as frivolous nor as foolish as it seems. If the sprinkler system had been designed in a manner that avoided all sidewalks, it would then have to employ twice as many sprinklers. The math: 130,000 sprinklers.
One would think that sort of sprinkler count could irrigate Nevada. One would apparently be very, very wrong. And Thistlethwaite also points out that having the sprinklers running across the sidewalks is not the waste of water it appears, because almost all of it runs off the sides of the sidewalk onto the lawn.
But what about the civilians?
The ordinary Joe?
The typical Jane?
The Toms, the Dicks, the Harrys?
The human clay?
The refined monkey-folk?
The Homo sapiens?
The Thinking man?
All God's children?
What about the people, man? What about the people?
Sometimes these things happen. That is really what it comes down to.
"We'd like to not hit anyone, but sometimes it happens," said Thistlethwaite. "There's absolutely no warning so sometimes they do come up and nail somebody."
Thistlewaite has found himself the victim of these ambushes himself, so he understands that some might find it unpleasant.
Another question that comes into the landscaping headquarters fairly often is why the sprinklers run when they do. There are a number of reasons available.
The normal and greatly preferred time to run the sprinkler is from 5:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. However, with conditions as dry as they are, this is not a feasible plan. It is physically impossible to run all of the sprinklers at the same time, and with the greater amount of time needed to quench this parched land, sometimes the sprinklers have to be run at inconvenient times, such as during class changes.
A further factor is that in order to operate a system of this magnitude, much of the sprinkler control is in the hands of everyone's favorite inebriated monkey — the computer. The computer often decides when it is time to run, and time to stop. Time to go and time to hop. Hop on Pop. Hop on top of Pop.
And of course, there are certain sprinklers that can only be turned off by hand, and it takes time to get out to each individual location to turn them off and on.
One quandary that often strikes people is that on some occasions the sprinkler system can be seen running in the midst of a great rainfall. Indeed, it does seem counter-intuitive, but the reason behind it runs back once more to the quality of the soil and the tremendous dryness and heat of the past summer.
The rain is oft times insufficient, according to Thistlethwaite, and even requires a little extra boost from the sprinklers in order to maintain the healthy lawn that Notre Dame has created.
Really, and this is where journalism enters head-first into the subjective, the truest root of the problem with sprinklers comes down to the source of the complaint — ourselves.
When did we lose our sense of fun? Did the ether of time smother the inner-child so thoroughly that he/she is so embarrassed to run like a speed-crazy chipmunk across the grass, and every once in a while get a little wet in the pants? Can't anyone remember the days when they begged their parents to turn on the sprinklers so they might run through the inviting spray with their water wings on? Does the term slip-and-slide mean nothing in this hill-less vista?
Perhaps ... perhaps when the sprinklers are blown out at the end of this month, these are the questions that really need to be asked. Perhaps what is really happening here, is happening on the inside.
All Scene Stories for Wednesday, October 13, 1999