When I was a boy verging on gangly teenager, a thunderstorm of unusual menace advanced one day from Nebraska toward my grandparents’ farm. She had not, she announced later, seen a cloud so dusky for nearly 30 years, when a Dust Bowl storm had deceived chickens into roosting at midday. My mother’s remembered dark days of drought were also of the Great Depression, when her classmates earned a paltry 75 cents a day prying prickly pear cacti from the prairie pastures.
This explained the plastic straws that accumulated in the kitchen after trips to McDonald’s, the brown paper bags from Safeway that were always saved, the pencils that never got short enough to discard. Much later, during my mother’s final illness, it explained her indignation when I tidied her kitchen without her consent. I found several dozen, carefully preserved, flimsy aluminum pie pans, and I appropriated three-quarters of them for the recycling pile.
A product of the 1960s and ’70s, when excess as well as creativity defined the times, I am only secondarily a product of the Great Depression, of the Dust Bowl, of a drought that was a benchmark for hard times.
Yet now, that 20th century drought is being eclipsed. Hydrologists and paleoclimatologists say the drought that quickened in severity last year was measurably worse than its predecessor. In parts of the West and Great Plains, it may be the most severe drought in 150 to 300 years. But instead of dust, this time we have smoke.
One day last year, in early June, I stood atop a mountain. A behemoth of smoke from a fire called Hayman was eastward. Westward was a fire called Coal Seam. Farther south was yet another, on Missionary Ridge. After shuttling around the state by air, Gov. Bill Owens turned toward television cameras and said, “All of Colorado is burning today.”
For the governor, a man of instinctive caution, the remark was out of character. Strictly speaking, it was also false. Only a miniscule portion of Colorado was truly ablaze. But he told his gut’s truth: It did seem like all the state was afire. Still, the governor was widely ridiculed for discouraging tourists.
In any case, even if all of Colorado wasn’t on fire, smoke still hung over us the way a sulfurous stink wraps itself around a sewer plant. The late-afternoon sun cast a diffuse orange hue. Once you see forest-fire smoke, you never forget it.
That smoke came from fires, the fires from drought. Reminders of that drought were constant. Reservoirs shrank, leaving giant shorelines of mud that dried into dust. Hiking one day above a mountain reservoir — a place usually crystalline blue in midsummer, dotted with white sailboats — I watched a zephyr spiral a dun-colored swirl of dust.
When my mother and her mother talked about the Dust Bowl, they focused on particulars. The spindrift dust blew in through cracks, doorjambs and even keyholes. They recalled stories about people losing their way in those great storms, suffocating in the sand. There is the story of a mother hanging herself in the barn, weighed down by the sandstorms, poverty and perhaps more private torments.
So far, nobody seems to have hanged themselves because of this new, worse drought. I explain our apparent lack of despair by our greater remove from the land. Like me, most Americans are now at least a generation or two off the farm, less directly connected to weather. Drought is less intensely personal; most pastures and gardens are hobbies, not livelihoods.
But you don’t have to run a plow to feel scraped raw by drought. When a July rainstorm drenched one mountain town in western Colorado after weeks of desiccating sun, people pranced outside in the wetness of it. When snow fell so heavily in March that tree limbs broke around my house, I shoveled my neighbor’s walk, less out of kindness than for the sheer joy of the moisture. In May, as the temperature again dived toward freezing, I gratefully got out a thick jacket.
“Let it rain, let it snow in July,” I tell my companion. “We haven’t had nearly enough.”