the perc test that launched a thousand dreams

slow beginnings

The thing delaying all the other things related to living on my newly-purchased mountain land was the road. The thing delaying the road was finding an excavator. I’d spent most of the winter months trying to get a road guy — any road guy — to answer or return my calls to no avail. My neighbors supposed they were all over-worked, and weather delays didn’t help matters. Whatever the reason, my comparison shopping wasn’t going well, since I couldn’t get a first estimate, much less one with which to compare it. Finally, just as winter leaned into spring, one of the most highly-recommended excavators, called me back.

After listening to what I wanted and where I wanted it done, he asked if I was talking to other excavators.

“Yes,” I told him, “I’m trying to get several estimates.”

“Well, if you’re calling other guys, call this one. He’ll do a good job for you.”

In other words, he didn’t want — or couldn’t take — the work.

So I called a man named Sam on the recommendation of a recommendation. Just as winter surrendered its icy grip to spring’s slow warming, Sam and I walked the property together, planning cut-ins and debating the location of the home site. As we talked, I realized I couldn’t have made a better choice. Sam had grown up in the area and loved these mountains, seeing our presence on the land much as I did: as one of stewardship.

“I think the reason we got such good air up here is all these trees. I want to leave as many as possible so they can keep making good air for us,” he told me, pulling at his short, red beard as he spoke. I immediately liked him.

We finally settled on a site that I’d “want to wake up looking at,” in Sam’s words, and I asked when he could begin work.

“Not until you get a perc test,” he said. “I can’t go driving big equipment all over, compacting the soil, until we know where your septic is gonna go.”

even slower progress

Getting a percolation, or “perc,” test required filling out an application, providing a rough site plan, and sending in a payment. The county inspector for the Environmental Health division of the county health department would then contact Sam to make an appointment to perform the test. The test itself required digging small pits so the inspector could test the quality of the soil below the surface where the septic lines would run away from the tank. In some cases, Sam told me, they’d fill the holes with water to see how long it took them to drain: too slow meant the soil wouldn’t absorb liquid waste, leaving it to pool just below the surface; too fast meant unfiltered waste could get into the ground, potentially polluting wells and underground springs.

It was all pretty simple, but I wasn’t yet sure I wanted to install septic — I was still hoping to find a county-approved way around it (since my composting toilet idea was not county-approved). I also wasn’t sure just what I’d be putting on the property, outside of the yurt, which would likely become a guest space in the future. So, how  would I complete the site plan part of the application? What would I tell them that wouldn’t trigger a lot of red flags, prompting inspectors to hang over every move I made and mucking up my plans for slow, affordable progress?

It took weeks, but after poring over online building codes and much agonizing, I sketched a rough site plan and sent my application (and my check) to the county.

Then I waited some more.

home site sketch
Last spring’s best guess for what I’d put on the home site.

a soil scientist, a road builder, and a dreamer walk into a forest…

Jamie is a woman of small physical stature, but her reputation looms large in the county. She’s one of only three inspectors for Environmental Health and the one who was to conduct my perc test. Described, variously, as “tough as nails,” “unbending,” and even “a real pickle,” I’m not sure what to expect. Sam just tells me, “She’s real nice. I like her.” But, you know, Sam likes almost everybody.

I climbed the path Sam and his son, Samuel, had recently cut through the trees to give Jamie easy access to my future home site, following the sound of the small track-hoe Samuel was using to dig the pits. The machine’s engine cut just as I crested the first rise, and I heard Sam’s chain saw whine. When I arrived at the top of the hill a small, wiry, chestnut-haired woman with a yellow safety vest was up to her neck in a good-sized hole. Her head was down, her attention focused on a clipboard and a phone app she was using to make calculations. She glanced up, unsmiling but not unpleasant, when I reached the edge of the pit.

Samuel waits while Jamie works in the pit.

In an attempt to break the ice a little, I called down, “So, is this the most fun you can have without involving bacon?”

One of her eyebrows flickered, and I wondered if that app she was using had calculations for measuring the quality of humans as well as soil. “Something like that,” she replied evenly, climbing from the pit to stand in front of me, expressionless but for her piercing eyes. I tried to appear confident under her scrutiny.

“I’m Denise,” I said, holding out my hand, which she shook firmly as she introduced herself. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” I said and was answered with a slight smirk and a twinkle in her eyes.

“Hmmmm,” was her only reply before turning to Samuel, Sam’s teenaged son, still perched in the seat of the miniature track-hoe. “You did real good, Samuel!” she shouted, giving him a small smile. “Think you can put another one right…there?” she asked him, pointing to a space between a trio of saplings. Samuel gave a quick nod — unlike his father, he’s a boy of few words — and started the machine again. I liked how Jamie encouraged him — I could tell he was happy by how deeply his slight smile dimpled. She’s a keeper, I thought. Sam shouted a few instructions to Samuel before walking over to chat with me.

“She’s a mountain girl — real smart,” Sam said, keeping an eye on Samuel’s progress while Jamie made annotations on the paper on her clipboard a short distance away. “What people don’t understand is she went to college for this, so she knows what she’s doing. I can make guesses about what’ll perc, but I ain’t no soil scientist.”

A soil scientist? Cool! I’d met a few in school, but I’d never seen one in the field, outside of Lee Barnes, the water dowser. (And his contribution from the field had mostly been soil surveys.) I had no idea this was one of the ways they employed themselves. My respect for Jamie joined my appreciation for how she talked to Samuel.

Sam had Samuel make a few adjustments to the second pit — more off the one edge, a sloped ramp to make it easier for Jamie to climb in and out of the pit — and Jamie clambered down into it. She used a tape measure to mark how far from the surface the lines would be buried, then pulled a small, clawed hammer from her vest pocket to dig some soil from the side of the pit. She rolled the dirt between her fingers, referring to her phone app before jotting down notes. Then she smiled up at me.

Soil science in action!

“You’ve got real good soil here,” she said. “It’ll perc just fine. Almost no rocks and not too much clay. It’s perfect.”

She climbed out of the hole to stand beside me and finish her notes, chatting with Sam about tank size and line length as it relates to the number of bedrooms I plan to have (only 2). “This is a pretty piece of property,” she said, admiring the woods. “I have what I need for my report so you can go ahead with the purchase.”

I stifled a nervous laugh. “Oh…uh…I already bought it.”

Both Jamie’s eyebrows went up, this time in surprise. Sam overheard us and added, “I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah,” I explained, “based on what everyone who’s been on the property told me, I was pretty confident it would perc.” Jamie chuckled a little, shaking her head and, with a few more encouraging words to Samuel and a friendly wave to Sam and me, left for her next appointment. I reflected for a moment that not everyone got good news from Jamie, which might have something to do with how they perceive her. Her gentleness with shy, sweet Samuel was enough for me, but hearing my land would perc was definitely a bonus.

“Well, now, Denise! We can start on that road,” Sam enthusiastically noted as Samuel filled the pits back in with the track-hoe.

“When can you start?” I asked him.

“How about Monday?”

I stood, deeply breathing the mountain air, slowing my spinning mind to a pleasant hum. This was going to happen. It was really going to happen.

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