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Drought: We Can Learn from Job

By Margy Stewart
Analysis | April 4, 2014

Out here on McDowell Creek there was a beautiful snowfall a few days ago, rain the next day, a cloudburst last night, and now fog today. While runoff is gathering in puddles, our hope is growing: Maybe it won't be a drought year after all.

"A drought has a long tail," my neighbor told me back in 2012, the summer without rainfall. "We're not out of it yet," he told me when the rains came that fall.

He was so right. Even though we had some good rains in 2013 and above average snows this February, we have also had, just about every day for at least three years now--wind.

In preparation for leasing our pastures to a cow-calf operation, we checked our ponds. We were shocked! Our black lab Deci walked right across pools that not too long ago we couldn't reach the bottom of, not even with a canoe paddle stretched straight down. Our prospective renters were people we wanted to work with, but we had to tell them no. Our ponds were just too low.

In fact, all of our water sources--seeps, springs, McDowell Creek itself--are looking puny. The likely culprit--that constant wind. It must be causing evaporation that's greater than whatever amount of precipitation we receive. Things just keep getting dryer and dryer.

So we might be in for it again this year. We dread the thought of lack of water--what it does to soils, plants, animals, and people.

But if it is another dry year we have to recognize that it's part of the package of living on the tall grass prairie.

You don't get the one without the other.

"If there's one thing to be expected in grasslands, it is drought," writes John Madson, in Where the Sky Began. "Drought is as normal to the plains as floods are to the Mississippi," adds Richard Manning in Grassland. Drought is one of the main forces that create a grassland in the first place and maintain it after that, according to O. J. Reichman in Konza Prairie.

If you can't deal with drought, you can't be a prairie plant or animal. Drought is "one of the major environmental sieves through which successful prairie residents must pass," Reichman states.

Grasses, wildflowers, oak trees along the creeks--all have their drought strategies.

People need drought strategies too.

Native Americans in the grasslands learned to be mobile--to move their villages according to conditions. They were horticulturalists but they were also hunters and gatherers, availing themselves of hundreds of food sources, not just a dozen or two, any number of which could fail with a lack of rain.

Nineteenth-century European-American culture, flush with industrialization, assumed that "civilization" meant the domination of nature. "Rain will follow the plow," promoters told homesteaders moving west. This wishful thinking dovetailed nicely with views of the role of farming. Farmers are "the chosen people of God," Thomas Jefferson had written; a Jeffersonian vision of a republic based on small farmers still shaped homestead policy while Kansas was being settled. Plowing up prairie was one of the "improvements" that could qualify a homesteader for title to the land.

But this agrarian vision arose back East, where rainfall was plentiful. It didn't fit a land where drought was a matter of when, not if.

Farmers' hopes for annual crops were dashed against "the hard face of the place," according to Richard Manning. Their experiences, he says, were like the "trials of Job."

Indeed, reading John Ise's Sod & Stubble, a tale of homesteading in Osborne County in north-central Kansas, is like reading the Book of Job. "There seemed no end to trouble and grief," writes Ise. Whenever his family started to get ahead, another dry year would come and set them back again.

But when the climate did not change, the people did. Ise's father "[gave] up the belief that the breaking up of the sod and the planting of trees and crops would change the climate." Meanwhile his neighbors "argued that Osborne County was not a farming country and should be abandoned to grazing."

Here in the Flint Hills, many settlers came to the same conclusion. They went into that "environmental sieve" as farmers and came out as ranchers. Others never made it out at all--half of Kansas homesteaders quit before they could prove up.

But those who stayed became prairie people. They stopped looking to the plow for their salvation and instead began to tell each other something that is still repeated today: "Take care of the grass, and the grass will take care of you."

We yearn to take care of the grass. But some things are not within our power. We have our own kinship with Job.

"Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee?" God asked Job--a rhetorical question, a humbling question. Of course Job could not, just as we cannot. We are part of the cosmos, not masters of it. We didn't create the prairie. We have a lot to learn.

Now as mist drifts over the puddles at the end of the driveway, we hope it is just a first installment. But the forecast for tomorrow is for partly sunny skies and--high wind. Still, the moisture in the air today feels so good--and the fog hiding the hills is so welcome.

Equally hidden from us is whether this spring and summer will turn out to be a good growing season or the hard time of yet another drought.


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