From the mothers of my family, I learned about poverty and drought, experiences so profound they became proper nouns: the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
it rain, let it snow in July,” I tell my companion. “We
haven’t had nearly enough.”