Author Julene Bair left to be near the mountains and with her went her progressiveness and idealism. She left as many of us do and as many do, she comes back to a place called home. For Julene home is the Great Plains and more specifically the mythic and beautiful Smokey Valley of Kansas.
The Plains are a place of stark beauty often dismissed as flyover country by coastal folks who pack their ski poles or trekking poles and fly to Denver landing in the last vestige of the Great Plains and look westward toward granite monsters. From the Missouri river westward to the mountains, it is a vast and bumpy carpet of tall grass and wildflowers that climbs ever higher eventually reaching elevations of over 6000 feet. It was once the place of buffalo soldiers, wagon trains, the pony express and brush country evoking the imagery of the old west and before that stories of a proud people whose culture was devastated by Manifest Destiny.
Today it is a battleground between idealists and realists, a place of wheat fields, feed lots, government subsidized farming, wind turbines, and maybe soon….a pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to a fuel addicted nation. It is also the home of the Ogallala aquifer, one of the most threatened sources of water on the planet.
In The Ogallala Road, Julene Bair goes back down to the place called home where she hopes her ideas and the ideas of others like her can save an underground ocean. In trying to call attention to the plight of water depletion Ms. Bair writes a story of land and love and how these things may be lost.
The climate of the Plains defies its agricultural use. It is naturally arid and were it not for the Homestead Acts and the aquifer, it would have never become a place of high yield crops. Seen from space the aquifer is evident. Open up a satellite view of the Earth and look at Kansas or Nebraska and you can easily make out thousands of round patches of green, the result of pivot circle irrigation. For sixty years these water wheels have allowed profitable crops and encouraged farmers to give up dry land techniques in order to stay competitive. In the process pesticide use skyrocketed and the aquifer is being pumped dry.
This irrigation represents everything a good environmentalist loathes about changing the natural order of things. It also is an excuse for city liberals to sit back and decry the methods of farmers and the mismanaged intervention of the government. On the Plains the arguments are not so cut and dry and the villains not so obvious.
Julene Bair’s father had to clothe and feed her and wanted to give her a better life than he had as a child. She is aware of the fact and understandably conflicted. Intensive irrigation was ruining the good earth, yet something she and many others benefitted from in the short term. She understands the abuse it visited on the land at the hands of her father and other farmers, but she knows too that beneath the stern exterior of a man who would find it shameful to shed tears was a man who loved her, her siblings, and her mother. To do this, he had to irrigate the land and somehow have confidence in or live in the delusion there would one day be a solution as to how to conserve water or replenish the aquifer. Of all the poignancy that resides in this work, there is none greater than the relationship we have with family, particularly our fathers. (A book with a woman’s POV, The Ogallala Road has a keen understanding of men, particularly the realism that many of face life seeking to watch over those we love even if it is at the cost of justice.)
Bair knows the solution to water depletion is not forthcoming. That is much of what The Ogallala Road is about. The brief synopsis of this work is that a woman comes down from the edge of the mountains of Wyoming to see if she can bring the family farm back in Kansas around to dry weather techniques. In the process, her idealism is admired and challenged by the love a realistic man. In the end, everything collapses as she loses both the land and love.
I will leave it at that, encouraging anyone who sees this post to read her book. I will add that the book had its ups and downs for me, but never left me without thinking. As I wrote this post, I thought of all the ways that I had been conflicted in life and the conflicted actions of my family. I thought too of my love of the land and America. I thought deeply on how I have benefitted from the detriment visited on landscape even as I pine for the beauty of those same geographies. And I thought beyond geography to the people who inhabit the sacred space of a place called love.
Image: Kansas Summer Wheat and Storm, CC License 2.0 James Watkins