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for people who care about the West

Excerpt from “The Ogallala Road”

An author returns to a family farm in Kansas to explore drought and depletion.

 

These were called the High Plains because they were 4,000 feet above sea level. I could feel the altitude in the way the sun sheeted my skin. It was like standing too close to a fire with no means of escaping, unless I dashed back to the car and switched on the air conditioner. Instead, I trudged through wheat stubble that used to be the south end of our pasture, my shoes filling with powdery dirt and my socks with stickers.

This western Kansas land had belonged to the Carlsons, my mother's side of the family. When I was 16, my parents traded their share in it for land elsewhere in the county. Like many other successful farmers, they built a new house in town. More than three decades had passed since then. Although I knew there wouldn't be water in the creek here, I wanted to walk down its dry bed as I had in childhood, picking up every shiny piece of agate I saw, hoping to discover an arrowhead.

"In the dry places, men begin to dream," wrote Wright Morris, who grew up north of here, in Nebraska. "Where rivers run sand, something in man begins to flow." I thought I knew exactly what he meant. The sandy beds of dry creeks unfurl evocatively into the beckoning distance, inscribing their faint script over the land. They entice the exploring spirit.

But when I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt. Weeds grew where there had once been smooth sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.

Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct, telling us that a place can sustain us for generations to come. I'd always known this in my bones, but it wasn't until many years after I left Kansas and discovered my passion for wilderness that the intuition became conscious. This creek was now ugly. That didn't bode well for the underlying aquifer's ability to support life in the future. Rain and snowmelt couldn't filter into the ground as efficiently through dirt as it could through sand. And sandy creek bottoms were critical to the meager half inch of recharge that the aquifer received each year. It needed all it could get because irrigation farmers were allowed to pump 40 times that amount.

At least the north end of the pasture remained in grass. Standing here as a child, I often pretended that this was the original Kansas, "pre-us." The low-growing grass stitched itself over the ground like a woolly tapestry, accented, especially in the spring, by other pastels. Blue grama grass. Apricot mallow. The yellow and cream waxen blooms of cactus and yucca. Prairie dogs chirped alarms from mounds of whitish clay, and meadowlarks sang from their perches on yucca spires, their notes climbing and dipping like winding ribbons. Instead of cows, I imagined buffalo grazing the hills.

The Little Beaver made a horseshoe turn here. Our old windmill stood on the spit of land formed by the bend. When I paid visits to the windmill as a child, my father's ewes and their lambs would be drinking out of the low troughs. They would scatter as I approached, their hooves sounding like water riffling over rock. But today only a few cattle grazed the hill above the bend, moving in and out of the shadows of cumulus clouds.

I used to climb the windmill and sit up there for what seemed like hours, transfixed by the shadows. They might have been cast by lily pads or boats on the bottom of a lake. From that height, I could also see our big house's red roof rising above a shelterbelt of elms. But if I climbed the windmill's narrow ladder today, I knew too well that I would not see our roof or even the trees.

My grandfather Carlson had built the house high on a knoll. With stately trees and a huge red barn beside it, it had been a landmark, visible for miles around. Now it was as if all evidence of our existence had been erased by the wandlike arm of the center-pivot irrigation sprinkler I'd parked beside. Like all the sprinklers that circled these plains, this one was made from an eighth mile of pipe strung between steel towers. Along the pipe's length, hoses hung down with spigots on the ends, spraying a uniform mist over a 130-acre circle of six-foot-tall, fully tasseled corn.

I could hear the pump engine's growl, pulsating on the morning's mounting heat. It hadn't been like this in the mid-'60s, when we left this place. It had been quiet then. But now in this second year of the new millennium, you couldn't escape that sound on the High Plains. Our current farm, only about 10 miles from here as the crow flew, was no exception. We had five irrigation wells, some of which ran all day and all night during the growing season.

We drew the water from the most plentiful source of groundwater in the country. The Ogallala Aquifer was the hope and promise at the center of the nation, the source of life that had made habitation possible for millions of years before the words "United States," or any words, for that matter, had been coined. On geologists' maps, it was roughly the shape of a tornado, wide at the top where it lay under parts of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska, and narrowing to a funnel in Texas, where farmers had been irrigating longest. The maps indicated depletion rates in colors ranging from blue, in much of Nebraska where water was still plentiful, to brown and almost black in some parts of Kansas and north Texas. Meaning gone. Pumped dry, or at least to below usable levels. Those dark freckles of high decline were spreading like cancers, gradually enlarging and taking over hundreds of square miles.

Farmers said they had no choice in how much water they pumped. Use it or lose it! my father used to say whenever I complained about how much he drew out. Kansas, like most dry Western states, had a law requiring that those holding water rights take advantage of them to their fullest, or lose what they didn't use so someone else could access the water before it flowed, or seeped, into the next state. It hadn't occurred to early legislators that water could be lost through too much use.

The windmill's fan whirred and the well rods creaked up and down, making a tinny, lonely sound. Water spurted from the pipe into a tank. These, not the growl of irrigation engines, were the sounds I equated with water while growing up. The rhythm was systolic, soothing. I washed my arms and face in the transparent rope, which fattened and thinned as the windmill breathed. I drank. "The best water in the world," Mom used to say. She was right. Going down my throat, it felt as cold and bright as the sunlight was hot and bright.

I removed my cap and put my head under the pipe. When I stood up, ice-cold rivulets ran down my back. I took in the vista, looking north into the neighbor's pasture, at unmarred distance. Too steep to plow, the hills above the Little Beaver were still simple beauty. Grass and sky. I imagined that the green rolled over the valley's rim and continued unfenced until it disappeared around the curve of the earth.

I found the pond lying still and innocent, a receptive, vulnerable reflection of the sky. This wasn't rainwater. It hadn't rained in weeks. My brother, Bruce, had been managing our farm since our father died – four years ago now, in 1997. He had told me he was worried that the ground would be too parched to plant dryland winter wheat this September. No. This pond was what the pioneers and early settlers had called live water. It had found the surface by itself without the aid of rain, or today, a rancher's pump. It came from the aquifer, exhaling into the bed of the Little Beaver.

I dragged a stick, clearing algae away, and laid my palm on the sun-warmed surface. The water wasn't bracing or clear like in a mountain lake. But it inspired tenderness in me because it was in danger. How large had the pond been 40 years ago, before we started irrigating? Had the creek run all the way from here to the Republican River, a distance of about 30 miles?

A puff of breeze rippled through the cottonwood's upper branches. The leaves sparkled and fluttered, making the sound of rushing water. Thousands of thirsty plainspeople, be they Indians or pioneers, had probably taken heart as I had today, seeing the shimmer of those leaves in the distance, then hearing that sound while drawing near. This place ought to have a tall fence around it, I thought. A monument should be erected.

Squatting in the shade of a cottonwood tree, I took such liberal gulps from my father's jug that dribbles ran down my chin. Mom had filled it with iced tea for me that morning, the way she used to do for Dad. It tasted of chlorine, terrible compared with the water I'd drunk a couple of hours ago directly out of the ground in our old canyon pasture.

This is who I am, I thought. It had been too long since I'd last done this type of solitary exploring. Motherhood, for one thing, had prevented it. I heard a familiar clanging noise. I looked up to see a white pickup coming down the hill pulling an empty metal stock trailer behind it. Great! I thought. Now I've got to deal with some yokel out here in the middle of nowhere.

Although I doubted that the man in the pickup would rape me, neither was it likely he would appreciate my being on his property. I wanted to vanish, but it would have been ridiculous to be seen hopping into the ravine. So I stood up.

My sudden appearance spooked the blue heeler who rode on the pickup's flat bed. He barked frantically until the truck drew to a stop beside me and his owner shouted, "Can it, Spider!"

"Hello," I said. The dog was keeping me pinned in the gaze of one blue and one brown eye. His lip edged up as he emitted a low growl. "I don't mean to trespass," I said. "I was just looking for springs."

The man got out of his pickup. Broad-shouldered and large-boned, he had the dry, dusty look I expected in plainsmen, his skin sun-darkened, his blond mustache sun-streaked. He pointed toward the creek. "I guess you found this one."

"Yes. It's so hot out, though. The shade looked inviting." He extended a hand. "Ward Allbright."

"Julene Bair. I grew up not far from here." It surprised me that he didn't seem to recognize my surname. There weren't many people in those two counties, Cheyenne and Sherman, who hadn't heard of my father, Harold Bair. He'd been well known for his large herd of sheep. This was mainly cattle country.

Ward clasped my hand hard enough to register respect anyway, maybe for my freedom to wander wherever I chose. "Don't worry," he said. "I don't think Conway would care. I came up to collect these horses I loaned his daughter."

"This is the first time I ever saw a spring in the Little Beaver. Can you believe that?"

He nodded. "There're plenty of them, but when you're a kid, you don't know anything other than what's out your back door."

"Used to be plenty of them," I said. "I've read that more than 700 miles of Kansas creeks and rivers no longer flow."

"Is that a fact?"

"It's a shame what we're doing to the water."

He looked perplexed. Oh boy, I thought. Was I about to have a political argument with one of those fanatics who thinks that owning land gives him the right to abuse whatever was on or under it? Then I reminded myself that here in Kansas it was I who would be considered the fanatic. I probably sounded like one now. "It amazed me to find this water," I said.

He drew a quick breath. "I know just what you mean. I've got two sections of grass on the Smoky Hill River. Water changes everything."

"You live on the Smoky?" The Smoky Valley was a paradise of unfarmed hills sloping down into cottonwood groves along the river. As a kid I'd dreamed of marrying Roy Rogers and owning a Smoky Valley ranch with him. I said, "One of my father's old sheep buddies lives there. He told me that the ponds are mostly gone."

"The river still runs on my place," Ward said, "but it's no bigger than a crick now."

"If I'd come out here looking for springs 20, even 10 years ago, I probably would have found water closer to home."

"Prob-a-blee," Ward said. "Water always runs downhill." He was referring to the way the Plains slanted downward from the Rockies. Irrigation pumping had naturally dried out the westernmost springs first. "And it is a shame," he added. "I always considered myself lucky I didn't have to farm anything, or dig one of those expensive wells." Lucky? That was my first indication that Ward was truly a grass man, not a dirt man. What a rarity in western Kansas, where almost every square inch of arable land had been plowed and every inch of irrigable ground now had a center pivot sprinkler atop it.

Back home in Laramie after my visit to Kansas, I sat down at my computer. I wanted to see new laws passed that aggressively protected the water, but my argument would have to penetrate the armor of the most dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist. The "use it or lose it" approach had been codified not only by law, but by long practice.

I emptied the pencil sharpener, played with paper clips. If that water I'd seen in the Little Beaver could talk, what would it say?

My father died thinking that he and his farm neighbors were the same people they'd always been, descendants of pioneers adhering to frugal pioneer values. But since his childhood, he'd gone from horse-pulled plows to tractors that pulled 40-foot-wide chemical spray rigs. He'd gone from windmills that pumped 10 gallons a minute to centrifugal pumps that could lift 1,200 gallons in that brief amount of time. He'd gone from intense labor that broke men's and women's backs to intense pillage and poison that broke the earth's.

Staring at me from my bulletin board was a self-portrait that my son, Jake, had penciled on the back of an envelope when he was 10. It was an accurate portrayal of him then. The wide, clear forehead. His trusting gaze and crooked, close-lipped smile. He and his generation deserved far better than what my father's generation had bequeathed mine.

Make that, his children would deserve better. On the geologists' maps of the aquifer, our county, Sherman, was still mostly orange, for reductions of 15 to 30 percent. It hadn't taken me long to do the math, figuring how much water we had left on our farm if we continued pumping at current rates. About 85 years' worth, I estimated. I would be dead. As difficult as it was to contemplate, so would Jake. We would have "gotten ours," as my father liked to say he had.

What I'd written moments before now seemed overblown. It had the same self-righteous tone I'd taken with my father when I was younger. But after inheriting part of the land I had always accused him of abusing, I had quit my teaching job. Thanks to the Ogallala, I was now able to write full time. I had no right to point my finger anymore.

I went back and crossed out all the "he's" and put in "we's."

Julene Bair is also the author of One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter, which won Women Writing the West's WILLA award. Bair also received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. For more about her work visit www.julenebair.com.

Adapted from The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair. Copyright  2014 by Julene Bair. Published by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.