Wet ‘n Wild
Bryan Pullen wants to show me his toilet. He leads me through the Summit Spring bottling facility in Harrison, Maine, past the floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with cases of bottled water, past the clipboards on the wall and the cleaning supplies propped up in a crowded corner, and into the small employee restroom. He approaches the tank, wraps two meaty hands around the lid, lifts, and tells me to take a look. “I know your toilet looks nothing like that,” he says.
He’s right: the tank, like the bowl—which has been cleaned, Pullen assures me—is bright white and filled with clear water. There is no residue ringing the sides, no rust stains or mineral deposits. Pullen tells me that the toilet is 15 years old. That’s the point of this little exercise: he wants to emphasize how clean the water is here, and how much better it is than my water at home.
I live just an hour away, in a wooded, rural part of inland Maine that doesn’t look terribly different from Harrison. Like 40 percent of Mainers, I drink private, and unregulated, well water, but many people in the state get their water from springs, which are plentiful throughout the region. Pullen insists that his spring, located in the northern Appalachian Mountains, is different from the roadside springs that service campers, and from the big, borehole-encouraged springs that help line the coffers of Nestlé, which owns the nearby Poland Spring bottling facility. The proof, he says, can not only be seen in a toilet, but felt in the mouth.
Pullen and his business partner, Seth Pruzansky, bottle Summit Spring water and sell it under the brand name Tourmaline Spring. Their product is known as “raw water”; unlike my well water, which is basically just groundwater from rain and snowmelt that has been pumped up through the soil and into plastic pipes and iron pipes, Summit Spring water flows freely without any mechanical assistance. Unlike municipal water, raw water isn’t filtered, and it hasn’t been treated with chlorine or fluoride—processes that are required by the government for the municipal water consumed by an estimated 86 percent of Americans. Summit Spring water bubbles up through the earth into a stainless-steel enclosure, before flowing along stainless-steel pipes and directly into plastic bottles, all emblazoned with either the Tourmaline Spring logo (for untreated or raw water) or the Summit Spring trademark (for water that has been filtered to remove iron, bacteria, sulfides, and manganese). Their water, Pullen insists, is very special.
Ancient Greeks believed that springs were the home of water nymphs, daughters of Zeus and Pan, and that to worship these springs was to honor the highest gods. When passing by a rural spring, it was traditional to leave an offering—a piece of meat, a bit of fruit, a coin. Early Christians linked springs to the worship of the Virgin Mary. Paleolithic people living in what is now the United Kingdom built altars around springs, and tourists still travel to visit springs known as “Clootie wells” in Ireland and Scotland.
The earliest written record of Summit Spring comes from 1792, but the spring didn’t become known for its healing properties until the 1860s, when the land was sold to a wealthy farmer named Francis H. Whitman. According to a 1908 history of the region, Whitman—who was in poor health—became convinced that his spring water “possessed valuable medicinal qualities,” and had it analyzed by chemists who determined that his water was “equal in value to any of the various mineral waters that were then on the market.” In 1875, Whitman began to offer his water to a thirsty public, shipping 35-gallon, water-filled wooden barrels down the narrow-gauge railway from Norway, Maine (population: around 2,000), to New York City, where it sold for 40 cents per gallon—equivalent to over $100 per gallon today. At the time, Whitman’s water was more expensive than alcohol, more precious than coffee.
Pullen, 60, has sunk millions of dollars and years of his life into his business. He purchased the spring from a retired schoolteacher in 2004 for $2.5 million. In order to purchase the property, he had to sign an agreement stating that he wouldn’t sell the spring to Nestlé or any other beverage giant for at least 15 years—a promise he says he has no trouble keeping.
He had spent most of his adult life up to that point working as a pilot for American Airlines, an experience that taught him how different tap water could taste in different parts of the country. “When I left Maine for the first time, I wanted to vomit,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘Really, New Jersey? I can’t drink this water.’” Pullen was used to softer water, water that had been naturally filtered through the earth rather than treated at a plant. So he began bringing bottles of Maine water with him everywhere he traveled. (He still does: when he travels to California to speak on daytime TV, he packs gallons of Summit Spring water—“as much as I can,” he says.)
“When I left Maine for the first time, I wanted to vomit. I was like, ‘Really, New Jersey? I can’t drink this water.’”
In December 2017, the New York Times ran a piece on the raw-water fad which was supposedly taking over Silicon Valley. Some of raw water’s fans believe it has more probiotics than municipal water, while others drink it to avoid additives such as chlorine and fluoride or possible contaminants, including birth control hormones or other soluble medications. Tourmaline Spring was mentioned briefly in the Times piece, and Pullen and Pruzansky became the subjects of online ridicule. The company’s inbox quickly filled with expressions of mockery, accusations of elitism, and death threats. (The consumption of untreated water is a controversial subject, as it has the potential to contain bacteria or pesticides. For what it’s worth, Pullen says he has spent thousands of dollars over the years getting his water tested and retested to ensure that no bacterial or chemical contaminants are seeping in. In the spring’s 150-year history as a bottled-water supplier, he claims that there hasn’t been a single complaint about the water.)
After the tour, I sat at home with a bottle of Tourmaline Spring, ready to sip it slowly and really consider the flavor. I poured some into a glass and regarded it as one would a wine—sniffing it, swirling it in my mouth, chewing it. It might have just been my imagination, but I think I detected a slightly different mouthfeel than that of regular tap or bottled water. It did seem softer somehow—very smooth and wet. What I really wanted was to wash my hair with it. It would give me summer hair, I imagined, like lake water. Shiny, soft. I finished the glass and went about my day, feeling more or less the same, a bit more hydrated than before.
Poland Spring bottled water is perhaps the state’s best-known export. The company’s campus is located in the town of Poland, Maine, less than an hour’s drive from Summit Spring, which in Maine means it’s just down the road. What started as a small, family-run business is now part of the Swiss conglomerate Nestlé, the largest food-and-beverage company on earth. If you drink bottled water, you’ve probably tried a Nestlé brand. It owns the largest share of the global bottled water market (11 percent) and sells 51 different brands, including Nestlé Pure Life, San Pellegrino, Perrier, Deer Park, Ozarka, and others. Henri Nestlé, a German-born Swiss candymaker, started bottling water back in 1843. In 2016, sales of bottled water outpaced soda sales in the United States for the first time in history.
Nestlé has come under repeated fire for its predatory practices. In the 1970 and ’80s, doctors around the globe advised the public to boycott the company’s infant formula in response to an aggressive marketing campaign by Nestlé that advised women in third-world countries to give up breastfeeding in favor of buying formula and mixing it with local water, which was often untreated and unsafe. In 2017, Bloomberg Businessweek published a report detailing how the company had made billions by going into states with “absolute capture” laws—such as Maine and Texas—which allow private landowners to pump as much water from the ground as they want, and sell it for however much they want. According to Businessweek, Nestlé has “come to dominate a controversial industry, spring by spring, often going into economically depressed municipalities with the promise of jobs and new infrastructure in exchange for tax breaks and access to a resource that’s scarce for millions.” In 1994, the company’s former chief executive officer, Helmut Maucher, told the New York Times that springs are “like petroleum. You can always build a chocolate factory. But springs you have or you don’t have.”
Nestlé aims to own every spring it can. The company buys what should be a public resource and sells it back to the public, while paying minimal extraction fees. (In Michigan, Businessweek reported, Nestlé pays just $200 for the privilege of bottling and selling the state’s clean water.) The company has also been known to buy water from small municipalities—Fryeburg, Maine, for example—and sell it under its private labels, meaning that the same water flowing through faucets in Fryeburg for free is distributed in convenience and grocery stores throughout the country for around $1.99 a liter. One of those private labels is Poland Spring.
The employees at Poland Spring would, of course, prefer you forget about all that and focus on only the good stuff, like the jobs the company provides—some of the higher-paid positions in the region—and the spring’s fabled history. Poland Spring community relations manager Heather Printup, who has lived in Maine her entire life, relays the tale of Poland Spring’s discovery in the 1840s in a tone that implies both the appropriate skepticism and company pride.
Long before Poland Spring fell into Nestlé’s hands, in 1992, it was owned by a group of crusty old Maine pioneers. According to the legend, the Ricker family, who controlled the spring, had an unruly herd of cattle that kept sneaking off into the woods, day after day. After a time, a few curious farmhands began following the herd into the forest, where they discovered a bubbling source of water that the animals had been attracted to. The farmhands began to drink.
“Apparently, a magical power came over them, like they could do anything,” says Printup. The farmhands informed their boss, Hiram Ricker. All his life, Hiram had been beset with abdominal troubles. Once he began to drink the water, the story goes, he felt great. He looked great, too. His doctor, thrilled by the change in his patient, began prescribing the water—which Hiram dubbed “Poland Spring”—to others. Word spread far and wide, and in 1859, Hiram began bottling and selling it on a commercial scale. By the early 1900s, a hotel built on the site had become a hot spot for socialites, celebrities, and even presidents. After the Ricker family lost control of the company in the 1930s, it passed through a series of different owners before it was snatched up by Perrier in the 1980s. In 1992, Nestlé acquired Perrier, and thus, Poland Spring officially became one of the big guys.
I detected a slightly different mouthfeel with the raw water than that of regular tap or bottled water. It did seem softer somehow—very smooth and wet.
Though the label and the brand name have stayed the same over the years, Poland Spring no longer draws from one bubbling source. Rather, it utilizes the flow of water from springs across Maine. According to Poland Springs geologist and natural resource manager Mark Dubois, who manages and monitors the company’s eight spring sites, Nestlé is looking for new sources.
It’s hard to find a spring that meets the specifications of both Nestlé and the Food and Drug Administration, but that hasn’t stopped the company from trying to (forcibly) expand. Unlike Summit Spring water—which, Pullen says, only takes “what Mother Nature is giving”—Poland Spring drills boreholes into the ground near existing springs in order to harvest more water. According to Dubois, this is a safer way to collect spring water, because it allows the company to have complete control over the purity of its product. “A lot of springs have beaver activity and other animals that drink from them,” he explains.
The FDA allows Poland Spring to label its water “spring water” because, according to government standards set in the 1990s, it is spring water: sourced from the same aquifer as the water that bubbles to the surface outside of Poland. The only difference is that it doesn’t come to the surface naturally. For people like Pullen, this is an important distinction: while Poland Spring water could eventually make its way to the surface without assistance, many people think that the intermediary action of drilling boreholes should disqualify this product from being defined (and marketed) as “spring” water. Spring water, they say, should emerge from the ground naturally after moving its way through layers of silt and sand and soil. This is, after all, what makes a spring: the word comes from the Old English springan, which means to “leap, burst forth, fly up.” Spring water should move, not be moved.
Multiple lawsuits alleging mislabeling of water have been brought against Poland Spring over the past 20 years. A 2017 class-action lawsuit argued that “not one drop of Poland Spring Water emanates from a water source that complies with the FDA’s definition of ‘spring water.’” The 11 plaintiffs, who, according to the New York Times, come from “various northeastern states,” believe they have been misled, and that Poland Spring has been selling 1 billion gallons of well water to Americans each year.
Nestlé tried to get the lawsuit thrown out, issuing a statement that same year that called the suit “meritless” and saying “Poland Spring Brand natural spring water is just what it says it is … 100 percent natural spring water.” In March 2019, a federal judge in Connecticut ruled that the complaint could proceed in eight states, including Maine.
The lawsuit also claimed that the famous Poland Spring, the one found by curious cows and patronized by American presidents, “ran dry nearly 50 years ago.” But when I visited in March, the original Poland Spring appears to still be running. Located in the middle of the company’s groomed grounds—which include a Victorian mansion originally built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a half-timbered gothic stone chapel that can be rented for weddings—the spring itself is easy to miss, surrounded by marble tiles and columns, which visitors can glimpse only from the comfort of wicker chairs set up behind glass walls, like a museum display. A tour guide tells me that when rich guests would come to Poland Spring in the mid-1800s, they would be presented with a chalice of spring water and given a tour of the factory, where all the workers wore white linen and showered in Poland Spring water before every shift. It sounds, I can’t help but think, a little too good to be true.
There is no marble observation area at Bond Mountain Spring—no fancy plaques, no decorative signs. This spring is located on the side of a mountain on the side of a road in a little Maine town near the White Mountains called Newfield. It took me 45 minutes to get there from my house, my white Subaru trailing Justin King’s hunter green Dodge pickup though back country roads lined with five-foot-tall snow banks, around sharp turns that revealed long-dormant fields and lumberyards with felled trees piled higher than my head, ready to be milled. In the back of King’s truck sat several three-gallon jugs and one eight-gallon jug, containers to hold enough water for King and his wife, Kasey—who live in Windham, a half-hour outside of Portland—to drink for the coming week.
Bond Mountain Spring is free and open to all. Drinking from spring sources is an old tradition in Maine: Poland Spring’s Printup remembers when her parents used to visit a local aquifer before going camping, and there’s a section on the Maine.gov website that explains how to properly patronize roadside springs, and warns about the dangers of contaminated water. (“Often people use roadside springs as dumping grounds for car waste,” the site advises. “Drinking Water Program field staff have found diapers, garbage, and other waste in close proximity to some springs. One spring had earthworms living in it.”) When it comes to private springs, it’s up to owners to get their water tested; King assures me that Bond Mountain Spring’s current landowners are “old school” and want to keep their spring free and open to the public.
I’d expected King, who works as a butcher in Portland, to be a fervent believer in the magic of spring water. I half expected him to come at me with conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, particularly given the media coverage around the “raw water” trend and how it intersects with doomsday-prepper culture. But he didn’t. Unlike Pullen and Printup, King isn’t trying to sell me anything or protect his employer’s reputation, and is therefore able to discuss his water choices freely. King explains that he doesn’t believe that Bond Mountain Spring is healing, or more hydrating than regular water—though he has met people who hold such beliefs. He just doesn’t trust public water. “I do believe that municipal water is harmful. Especially chronically. The chlorine and fluoride that’s used in a lot of supplies is terrible for you,” he says. “Not to mention issues that arise, like in Flint.”
In 2014, after years of being served by the Detroit water system—which gets its water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River—Flint, Michigan, switched its municipal water source to the Flint River. Local officials had been attempting to save money; as a result, the city’s residents, most of whom are black and many of whom are poor, found themselves with undrinkable tap water. As officials dismissed complaints about smelly, discolored water, Flint residents were exposed to elevated lead levels, E. coli, coliform bacteria, and other contaminants. To this day, the drinking water in Flint is still unsafe for some, and many children continue to suffer from medical complications related to lead poisoning. (Since May 2018, Nestlé has been making a weekly donation of 100,000 bottles of Ice Mountain brand water to community centers in Flint, a program the company says it will continue until August 2019.) It’s unclear exactly how many Americans live without safe drinking water, but estimates based on EPA levels put the number between 9 and 45 million, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine.
Justin and Kasey King started drinking self-harvested spring water four years ago. Then, while living in Maryland, they learned about spring hunters on an episode of the podcast ReWild Yourself. “Most people don’t understand why we go through the effort,” King says. He’s leaning over the PVC pipe that flows down the mountain into a small gravel pit as Kasey looks on. She tells me that they gather spring water for the same reason that they gather bunches of sweet fern and baskets of fiddleheads: it makes them feel good, like they’re in control of their food and of their bodies. It’s not just the water that they like, but the entire process of driving together into the mountains, spending a few hours in the truck, and filling up their heavy jugs. Though they can’t collect enough water for bathing or laundry, they’ll be able to drink it all week long. (They bring metal bottles of it to work so they can avoid drinking Portland’s municipal offering.) As they wait for the containers to fill, they discuss what they’re going to have for dinner. Venison, probably, with tomatoes they canned that summer, and maybe some ramp oil for seasoning.
“So much of modern life feels fake,” says King. “Everything is canned. I go to the store and get a slab of red meat on Styrofoam and buy asparagus from Argentina and it just feels so empty.” Spring water, he explains, is “coming from the earth, and I have to put in the labor to collect it.” Work performed for its own sake, by choice, with no money changing hands, feels spiritual to him. Every time he visits, Justin likes to offer a silent prayer of sorts to the land. “I like to thank the mountain for filtering the water, and the snow for becoming the water,” he says. “It all means something to me.”
My parents raised me to believe wholeheartedly in the following things: Catholicism, public school, and tap water. I never saw a water filter growing up, and we never bought bottled water. We drank from the tap or, if we were outside, my three siblings and I would drink right from the garden hose. We were suburban, middle-class kids in a relatively upscale part of Massachusetts (ironically, we lived in the same county in which the 1982 Woburn water crisis took place, a case that was inspiration for the 1998 John Travolta film, A Civil Action) and my parents often reminded us that our neighbors were richer than us, that we had to be practical. What was good enough for most people was good enough for us.
I no longer believe in Catholicism, nor do I believe in the innate goodness of public schools or the safety of tap water. All these wells have been poisoned—by money, mostly. I know now that all tap water isn’t created equal, that all schoolchildren aren’t given the same books or access to skilled teachers. I wouldn’t learn this lesson until after college. I knew it logically before then—I had read the right books and had been educated about environmental racism at my private liberal arts college—but it wasn’t something I saw, or something I understood, until I started living in cities and talking to people who grew up beyond the suburban bubble, people who didn’t take clean water for granted, who didn’t get to feel safe and coddled at their public schools.
I don’t believe a spring will heal me, nor do I think spring water is necessarily healthier than what comes out of my tap. I don’t really know which bottled water is best—every company claims it provides a superior beverage, the cleanest water with the best balance of minerals to make consumers feel more hydrated or more whole. My well water could be toxic, I know. (We’ve had it tested, but it’s unregulated, as both the representatives at Poland Spring and the owners at Summit Spring repeatedly told me.) I’m visibly pregnant, and Pullen is quick to point out on our tour that well water could be bad for my baby. “All pregnant women should be drinking our water,” he tells me.
I can’t imagine I will. I’ll probably keep doing exactly what I have been doing and drinking from the tap, from the garden hose, from the shower head. But even though I won’t be going to springs to gather water, it’s still the Kings’ belief system that aligns closest with my own. I believe in small rituals of daily labor that allow me to obtain some measure of control over the world—the spring shoots that come up with much coaxing, the successfully mended jeans, the little jars of homemade jam that line the walls of my refrigerator. I believe in feeling self-sufficient. And I do believe there’s magic in the trees and the snow, in the quiet burbling of a brook, in the act of praying to a sky, to a stream, to a place.