That Which We Depend On

An interview with Julene Bair, author of The Ogallala Road

After spending two weeks on a farm in southern Sicily last October, I became so accustomed to carrying my daily ration of water from the river that any sort of waste was an affront to my personal labor. Each morning it was my duty to fetch three 5-gallon buckets directly from the river that flowed north along the western side of the property, rushing at points over small rapids and then settling into deep pools full of tiny fish and crabs. It took me two trips back and forth from the river to the farmhouse to carry the heavy, sloshing buckets.

The water in these buckets served as our main source of sanitation in the house, used to wash filthy hands, dishes, and surfaces that had been covered in the usual grime familiar to any farmer—soil in all of its forms: dust, dirt, and mud. Our drinking water came from a spring in a neighboring town, where we would take weekly trips, collecting the water in 20-gallon tanks. This water was held in stainless steel about 10 meters from the house, and was used very scarcely, strictly for drinking, occasional hand washing, and rinsing salad greens and other uncooked produce. The process of rinsing anything in the drinking water involved finding the smallest practical vessel, filling it with the minimal amount of water possible, and reusing the water until it became unappetizingly cloudy. Despite our frugality, the number of times we filled and refilled the carafes that transported this water to us was exhausting, and we often bickered about who would go to fetch the next round. By the time I was ready to drink my first morning espresso, I had carried 17 gallons of water to the house from, albeit, a relatively short distance. Every bit of water needed represented a bit of energy I had used to carry it from its source.

In order to clean myself after a long day of digging trenches or training the unruly donkeys that wandered through the property, I could either jump directly into the river, or else go through another long process of carrying heavy loads of water. I almost always opted for a refreshing dip in the river, which in October was so cold that my heart would race, and my lungs would constrict dangerously each time my head plunged under. This feeling was simultaneously uncomfortable and undeniably soothing. The physical intensity cleared my head and body of any lingering stress or exhaustion, and I would resurface energized and elated to continue the day. But as the days began to grow shorter and winter started settling in, the water was just too cold for most of us to stand. After four days of us all working without bathing, we joined forces to collect a number of buckets, which we carried up to a propane camping stove inside the farmhouse, using each precious heated gallon while waiting for the next to warm up. The whole ordeal took so many hours that I, once again, could not help but be struck by the amount of labor that goes into living without a tap. We had just enough time to eat dinner and get to bed before beginning work—our rituals of water collection—the next morning.

Julene Bair, author of The Ogallala Road, says “‘blissed out’ depicts my usual joyful state when wading in the Ogallala-fed Republican River.”

Credit: JAMES JONES
Julene Bair, author of The Ogallala Road,
says “‘blissed out’ depicts my usual joyful state when wading in the Ogallala-fed Republican River.”

Water needed to be hauled to the vegetable garden, to the house cats and dogs, to the laborers who were working tirelessly to reroof an ancient barn. Just about every daily activity required thoughtful consideration about water. Is this dishwater suitable to use in the vegetable garden? Will my body soap potentially pollute the river? Do we have enough drinking water to cook dinner with? Proper sanitation required continual care about when, where, and how to wash in order to avoid spreading bacteria.

Dealing with human waste on the farm was a daily reminder of the conundrum of modern sewage systems, where the magic of sanitation is constantly met with frivolous improvidence. The farm had an outhouse far from the river whose pipes led to a septic tank. Next to the toilet was a large 50-gallon tank that we would dip into in order to manually flush our waste. This tank periodically needed to be refilled. Many of the farmworkers would simply walk into the woods to relieve themselves under a rock or tree. After a few days of hauling water about the farm, I reflected upon my own wastefulness as I poured a liter of water down the drain to remove about a pint of urine. The absurdity of using so much liquid to rinse away another nearly sterile liquid that could harmlessly be released into the soil struck me, as did the actual physical weight of each liter of water and how much time and energy I had expended carrying that water there in the first place. I never used that toilet again in my time on the farm, and instead became intimate with the hidden nooks in the neighboring woods. Squatting in the underbrush, I became familiar with the snails and grasses of the region. Birds cawed overhead, and I could hear the river rushing on its path north through our cavernous valley. Enjoying my “loo with a view” became one of my favorite daily rituals, a humbling and peaceful break from the constant labor on the farm.

As my awareness and appreciation of the river I depended upon grew, I found myself wondering about the nature of the river itself. Was it fed by rainwater, snowmelt, or underground springs? Did it dry up periodically, like the rivers of my home in California, or did it run heartily year round? Was it blocked somewhere by dams, or used at some point by one of the petrochemical plants that were popping up in valleys all over Sicily, sending plumes of smoke to intermingle with the billowing, picturesque clouds overhead? How had the ancient inhabitants of this land managed the river?

The river flowed past a series of caves that all contained evidence of human settlement: altars carved into stone, piles of animal bones. The banks of the river proliferated with edible and medicinal plants: wild fennel, spinach, valerian, nettles, walnuts, figs. All around the property, old water channels were carved into the limestone bedrock. One led to a well, carved deep into stone. The well was adjacent to the remains of a mill, used perhaps for processing wheat into flour or grapes into wine. This river had provided for human settlement long before my friends had decided to try their hand living off the land. We were able to exist there because the river existed there, and because the people who had lived alongside that river for thousands of years had not destroyed the ecosystem that they, and we, depended upon.

Julene Bair, author of The Ogallala Road,

Credit: JAMES JONES

For many people today, our inherent dependence upon water is hidden from view. Many of us in the industrialized world may never see the natural source of our drinking water, nor the water that feeds the crops we eat, the fibers for our clothes, and the materials we build our homes with. It is near impossible to conceptualize the amount of water that goes into something like a laptop, where water plays a role from cradle to grave: Water is used throughout the process of mining and processing the materials used to build the computer, then used to create the energy to power the laptop. Finally, the laptop is sent to an electronic recycling center or tossed irresponsibly into a landfill, and the heavy metals and toxic compounds inside the laptop will likely be carried away by another body of water. We have made our relationship with water infinitely more complex than it has ever been. Our lives are touched constantly by water molecules from thousands of miles away. Sophisticated water infrastructure and international trade have in some ways simplified our day-to-day lives. We no longer need to carry our water from its source. Our muscles no longer ache under the strain of the bucket. We also no longer worry about our direct impacts on water: We dump paint, drugs, and household cleaners down the drain without worrying that they will kill our crops or poison our livestock. We can take baths during droughts. Has this convenience diminished our desire to conserve this precious resource? Are we aware enough of our water resources to remember to care for them? How can we develop an ethic of conservation for the infinite number of water bodies we depend upon when we can hardly name one of them?

Julene Bair deals with these questions in her newest book, The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, published in March 2014. The romance and heartbreak implied in the title of the book transcend the realm of interpersonal drama. Instead, Bair weaves a number of her personal romances together into a sort of tapestry that centers around her love of water. Raised by farmers in western Kansas, Bair is born and bred on water from the underlying Ogallala aquifer, the largest underground source in the United States. Water has always seemed an abundant thing, sparkling as it spouts from her family’s wind-powered pump and appearing in “magical” streams and pools around their farm property. But after spending some time living in the Mojave desert, where she has to haul her cooking and drinking water from a source 2 miles away from her home, Bair develops a deep appreciation for water as something deserving of reverence and protection. She moves back to Kansas with a new baby in tow and finds that over the course of her life, her family’s dryland wheat farm has become more and more dependent upon pump irrigation, chemical pesticides and herbicides, massive machinery, and government subsidies. Bair leaves Kansas again to pursue her career in writing, but is eventually drawn back by responsibility to her family, a love of the land, and a new romantic interest. Her family must make a series of difficult decisions about the farm, and as Bair struggles to redefine her identity in the world of modern farming, she is drawn to studying the Ogallala. The story is introspective, romantic, historical, and political, also offering a narrative about self-discovery through a connection with nature. I recently spoke with Bair, and we discussed some of the ideas brought up in her book: our interdependence with nature, environmentalism on the Great Plains, and the definition of home in our quickly changing world.

Ivy Anderson (IA): What was your original inspiration for writing this memoir?

Julene Blair (JB): Guilt over the aquifer was my original inspiration. At first, it was very difficult to figure out how I was going to interweave all of these threads. I knew I needed to tell a personal story, and I think over time there was no real division between my story and the story of the water. It was all very integrated for me. That water made it possible for us to live there; it gave us a life in that place; it gave us an income, eventually. Meanwhile I had become this water nut, living out in the Mojave desert, going swimming in a stock tank. I love nothing more than diving into a cold lake on a hot summer day, so I think there’s a sort of allegiance there to water. It’s all very personal to me.

IA: It comes across in the book that you have somewhat enlightening experiences when you are interacting with water in its pure form. Can you elaborate?

JB: Well, I find it beautiful to look at, first of all. I find it inviting, irresistible. Once you dive into a large body of clear, icy water you discover how exhilarating it is. The body adapts relatively quickly, and you fall into a sort of ecstatic state. And, when you get out of the water, your skin just tingles, and you feel alive in a way you’ve never felt before. All of the troubles you’ve had have been driven out of your mind by the shock, basically. Endorphins kick in. It puts you in a heightened state.

IA: The difference with a thing like an aquifer, though, is that you can’t dive into it. It is hidden; it’s not a visually beautiful thing you can identify or dive into. How did your obsession with the Ogallala begin?

JB: The obsession began when I was back in Kansas in my mid-30s and working with my father; this would have been the 1980s, and we were flood irrigating then. I had been living in the Mojave desert prior to that. When I was living in the Mojave, I had become super appreciative of water because I had to haul my own water from a neighbor’s windmill supply and make it last a long time. Back in Kansas, just seeing all of that water coming out of the ground in our semi-arid climate in western Kansas and hearing those irrigation engines running all day long, each of them pumping anywhere from 600–1,000 gallons a minute. I started doing the water reports and realized that we were pumping on average 200 million gallons of water each year, which troubled my conscience. I had developed an environmental ethic while living in the desert; I was surrounded by wilderness—and I liked the idea of preserving the beauty and the resources that we have. I knew that we were wasting the one resource that had made life there possible since Paleolithic times for humans, and for millions of years before that for nonhumans.

IA: Do you think that the hidden nature of aquifers makes them more vulnerable to abuse?

JB: Absolutely. Also, the Ogallala falls in that western part of the central states where environmentalism is not an ethic that is very widely shared. There’s also a sparse population where there are fewer people to care about it. So farmers have been given free reign over the water for a long time, and though they may not have free reign now, they are still allowed way more water than can be legitimized, and they are primarily using it on crops, like corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and cotton. None of these crops belong in that region. They do not do well as dryland crops, but they do grow well elsewhere without the aid of irrigation. If we’re talking about water efficiency, it doesn’t make much sense to spend the nation’s largest aquifer on crops that cannot be naturally sustained in that region.

IA: Isn’t it also a system that has always required government aid to make it viable, either by enticing homesteaders out to turn wild buffalo grasslands into farms, and then enacting subsidies to turn dryland farms into irrigated corn factories?

JB: The historian Prescott Webb defined dryland agriculture as the science of farming where rainfall is deficient. When I was growing up in the 1950s we had become proficient at that. We had experienced the dust bowl as a major setback in the 1930s, due partially to the sort of farming practices we had used, and so different methods were adapted. But by the time I was born, we were good at dryland farming, and we were prosperous. And, many of our neighbors were prosperous. It is a myth that you need Ogallala water for agriculture to survive on the Great Plains. We were surviving quite well, and since then many more drought-tolerant plants have been developed. There’s just one problem: We now have climate change, so the droughts are probably going to last longer, and the heat will be more severe, causing even more evaporation. So crops that grew there traditionally without the aid of irrigation will now need some help.

That is what the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change is telling us. Their latest report is telling us that we need to preserve our aquifers, because they offer some of the few ways that we can offset the impacts of climate change. When we challenge farmers to change their practices, they often say that they need to feed the world, but it seems tragically inefficient for us to feed the world by processing corn through livestock. Most of the corn grown in this region goes to feeding livestock, cattle primarily. Much of the land in the plains are grasslands that are so marginal that they often should not be farmed in the first place, but this land is perfect for bovines. Bovines are the ones that evolved on this land, the buffalo, and so it makes no sense to use all of this water to grow corn to feed cows. And then, another 40% of the corn being grown is going to the production of ethanol. You can’t say that you’re feeding the world if that’s where your crop is going. And there are very few scientists these days that will defend the use of biofuel, as it requires just about as much fossil fuel, gallon for gallon, as it does to produce ethanol. So none of this seems like a very efficient way to spend our water.

IA: It is odd to me that people from the rural countryside of America, people who live their lives intimately connected to nature are less likely to identify as environmentalists than people who live in dense urban areas.

JB: It is strange, isn’t it? I suppose when you grow up in the Plains you have a family history of a difficult existence. Your grandparents broke that land with horses and plows, and so any new machine—anything that makes the work less labor intensive—is considered progress. And I think we also inherited our grandparents’ notion that the world is limitless; I mean, the place looks limitless when you’re out there: the idea that the grass goes on forever, the water goes on forever, and we are so small and insignificant that it would be impossible to destroy it.

But of course, everyone is realizing now that is not the case. I think there is a lot of despair out there because of what is happening, what is changing. It is not as beautiful as it once was, and there is certainly a lot of despair over what is happening to the water. Everyone knows that the water won’t last forever, and that measures need to be taken to protect it. What is going to happen to the poor farmers when the aquifer is gone? A whole ecosystem is being destroyed. Farmers everywhere will tell you how they used to skate, fish, or swim in the surface water, and they just can’t do it anymore.

IA: You do, at one point in the book, interview some organic farmers in the Plains. Do you see evidence of a developing environmental ethic in the area?

JB: I think it is developing. I think the facts are forcing consciousness to develop about the drawdown of the aquifer, the fear. There are more organic farmers appearing, one of whom I interview in the book. He claimed not to have a strong philosophy driving his decision to go organic, but that he realized there was a greater price premium on organic crops. I do think perhaps he may have had more of a philosophy than he was willing to let on, but it can be tough discussing these ideas out there.

IA: Part of your development of your environmental ethic stemmed from leaving your home and from gaining perspective through travel, through cutting your ties from tradition and farming. Through leaving you learned to love the land, but you also lost the privilege of learning how to run a farm and being able to pass down that knowledge and that love for that place to your children. This is one of the great tensions in the book: how does one define home? The same trajectory of technological advancement that changed the farm and is destroying the aquifer also allowed you the choice to leave the farm and go to school—to develop a different perspective than that you were raised with.

JB: A major theme in the book is home. On the one hand, a lot of us built these big houses—these big two-story houses with nice refinements, beveled and leaded glass, nice woodwork, and bay windows. Every building on the farmstead was large, and if you looked at this from an aerial view, you would see that whoever had built these houses intended to stay there. And I know that my father wanted me and my brothers to stay in that area and marry farm people, becoming farmers ourselves. But we were getting a mixed message, too, because our father wanted us to do well in school, and though he believed that being a farmer was the only way of life, he also wanted his sons to become doctors. And I mention this in the book, but it’s very different from the Hopi [an indigenous, agricultural tribe centered in Arizona, southern Utah, and Colorado], because what they tend to value very consciously in their culture is staying in place, staying rooted in the place where they have been for 600 years, and maintaining the life forms around them and the life-giving substances—the soil, the water—so they could continue living there for thousands of years. We just didn’t have that environmental ethic, or a spiritual belief that we were synonymous with our land. We didn’t feel that, which made it possible for us to move despite the fact that we had built these giant houses.

IA: You tell a story in the book about a Hopi myth that states that there have been three different cycles of humans, each of which killed themselves off by overstepping ecological limits.

JB: Yes, and what I love about this is how they feel a sense of gratitude for living in the desert because the aridity does not allow them to overstep their limits. They cannot forget and mess up again. They can see this so clearly. They still have the same sort of struggles we have, young people who would rather move away, live elsewhere, and leave the culture, but the fundamental ethic there is to accept what is, which I think is probably the fundamental spiritual ethic that allows for peace in the world and the peaceful cohabitation with all of nature. We never accepted the High Plains; we wanted to change them, and that to me is too bad, because early settlers figured out techniques to live on this land. To reference that same historian, Prescott Webb, he discusses in his book, The Great Plains, how the first settlers adapted: There was no wood, so they built with sod. There was no water so they developed windmills to pump it. But I think they forgot to plan for the long haul. They were just trying to figure out how to live there for now. They weren’t thinking about a thousand years of descendants that would want to live there. They thought about the West as the land of possibility; well, we’ve taken that land, and we’ve mined away all the possibility.

IA: And undermined our own ability to stay there.

JB: And what we’re really doing is undermining our own identity as Americans when we do that.

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