Used to be you could see the place from miles away—not only because my grandfather built a grand house in 1919, but because he chose the highest land around. High Plains Farm, he painted in white letters on our red barn. Now all you can see is the silhouette of a pivot sprinkler.
About ten years ago the farmer who manages the land for the out-of-town owner bulldozed the house, the outbuildings, the yard trees and the hundreds of elms in our windbreak. He burned the rubble piles and sold all the old implements to a scrap iron dealer, leaving virtually no trace. He did this reluctantly. I know, because the day I discovered everything gone, he happened to drive up the dirt trail in his late model white Ford pickup as I stood gazing in befuddlement at empty air.
Although this young farmer with the clean seed cap and thick red neck and arms, close-cropped hair and clean shave was 20 years my junior and had himself grown up in a different county, he’d married into a Sherman County family, and through them knew the names of my grandparents and father and mother. I was the great-grandchild, he the great-great-grandchild of pioneers, and he could imagine what the old place must have meant to the Carlsons and Bairs. He was apologetic, although powerless. The abandoned farmstead was rendering useless a good flat quarter section that could be planted to corn, a Program crop.
Program crops receive government subsidies, practically guaranteeing a profit. I know this because my family still farms. In the 1960s, my parents traded this home place for land closer to their other holdings. Like many other successful farmers in our northwest corner of Kansas, they moved to town, where they built a brick ranch-style house that would blend well in any suburb. From then until his death in 1997, my father commuted to farm the land we still own.
Every few years, I obey the compulsion, as instinctual as a migratory bird’s, to return to the home nest. Last time I went, I parked my car by the pole that used to bring electricity to our house but now conveys power to the pivot sprinkler, keeping it clocking around the field. Irrigation circles are a quarter-mile across, and the center of this one lay beyond where our north windbreak had been, not a great distance over the empty ground, but in my early childhood, anything beyond the windbreak had seemed like the edge of the earth. The sprinkler wasn’t running that day, but sat stationery. If due north was noon, then the long line of its rigging and towers pointed to two-o’clock, toward where the sheep barn had once stood. A thousand ewes and their lambs used to churn and bleat in the corral when penned there for lambing or to be dipped for ticks, vaccinated and marked with chalk. They always ran in a circular motion, like soap bubbles at the bottom of a sink, but now it was as if all life, human and animal, had circled down the drain.
It was late May, and I walked down the rows of ankle-high corn examining the ground. I found a curved piece of white glass and a saucer shard with a faded orange flower painted on it. I examined both for a long time—this broken lip from the bowl my mother used to mix cakes in, this fragment of a plate my family and I used to eat from. I am always surprised by how a small scrap of the past can excite me, how alive the connection still is. Any discovery at all is like having a lucid dream, a direct link to the revelatory power of the subconscious. Along with the object, restored in memory, bloom images of my mother and father in their prime and all the life their union and work brought into being, including younger versions of my brothers and myself.
The object that most arrested my attention that day was the head of our old windmill. I found it lying on the ground in a tall clump of weeds near our pit silo, where we used to burn our trash and throw our junk. I must have seen it on previous visits, but in waking life, as in dreams, we fasten on those objects that have immediate meaning for us. I had recently begun reading, thinking and writing about the Ogallala Aquifer, and I could not imagine a more telling artifact.
The windmill head lay in a nest of bent vanes, some of them buried almost completely in the dirt. Inspired to take a rubbing of the embossed print on the gear head, as from a gravestone, I went to my car and grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper. Back at the mill, I had difficulty holding the paper flat as the wind whipped the edges. It would have been an unusual day on the Plains had the wind not been blowing. Even on relatively quiet days the well-greased reel had turned, the shadows of the vanes serenely revolving over the ground in my mother’s vegetable garden, irrigating our yard as well as providing water for us and our livestock. Now, in an odd seeming role reversal, my shadow fell across the rusted crankcase and twisted vanes of the bodiless giant. I rubbed the edge of my pencil back and forth.
I used to climb the tower. I liked to sit up there and gaze over our windbreak at the sunset. It excited me to think how magnificent the prairie must have been in its original state, to imagine buffalo instead of our sheep grazing the pastel hills above the Little Beaver, the dry, sandy streambed that meandered northeast through our sheep pasture, headed toward its outlet in the Republican River beyond the Nebraska border. I was always careful to brake the rotor before climbing the mill. I wouldn’t want to be sitting on the platform when the fan began turning, and even on quiet evenings, I never knew when a breath of wind might arise. The latent danger demanded my respect.
Now the tallest, most commanding object on our farmstead lay at my feet. The windmill’s corpse reminded me of the buffalo bones that I’d read had littered the Plains when settlers first arrived, on the heels of the hide men and soldiers. All that waste. It reminded me also that the destruction had never ceased.
As the historian Walter Prescott Webb pointed out in his seminal 1930s history of the Great Plains, until immigrants from Europe, the eastern U.S., and the Midwest were able to shed their preconceptions and meet our treeless and virtually waterless savannah on its own terms, it remained what the explorer Stephen H. Long had labeled it: The Great American Desert. The incessant wind blew many pioneer families back home before those who remained recognized its value, but gradually, homestead by homestead, as Webb put it, “primitive windmills, crudely made of broken machinery, scrap iron, and bits of wood” began to appear. These “were to the drought-stricken people like floating spars to the survivors of a wrecked ship.”
I have read that the Apache and Pueblo Indians emerged into their desert by way of sacred springs. We came into ours up the stems of windmills. I’m speaking figuratively, of course. The literal movement was downward, into the wells. Some of the earliest settlers hand-dug their wells, a dangerous enterprise, as the sides could cave in. Later, horses were employed to turn augers and then to hold the weight of casings as they were lowered. One pioneer descendant, quoted in the Sherman County history volume They Came to Stay, remembers her father being eased down a well on a swing with a sledgehammer in his hands. His job was to steady the casing while the men on the surface clinched the rivets connecting the next section. “I visioned the rope breaking or the case slipping,” recalled the daughter. “I was in control of the horses holding all that weight! As it got heavier, my horses began to strain.” By the time a fresh team was brought, hers “were stretched on their bellies.”
This firsthand account reminds me of the pioneers’ heroic accomplishments and perseverance, but lurking behind the story is an unremarked miracle, the water itself.
In 1899, when the geologist N. H. Darton named the rock formation containing the Ogallala, he was probably thinking of the southern Nebraska town of Ogallala and not the Oglala Sioux Indian tribe that once occupied the region along with other Plains tribes, most notably on my west-central plains, the Arapahoe and Cheyenne. He may not have known the meaning of the word in Sioux, which I have seen variously translated as “to scatter one’s own,” “she poured out her own,” and “spread throughout.” Yet no name could have been more appropriate. The water in the Ogallala is itself spread throughout the area its tribal namesake once roamed, all the way from South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle, 174,000 square miles.
If current day Plains dwellers and interested ex-natives like myself were mindful of our bioregion, we would call ourselves the Ogallala people, not directly after the tribe that lost its home to the Euro-American invasion of the Plains, but like this:
The name would cascade as water does, down stairs of years onto us.
I never heard the words “Ogallala” or “aquifer” in my childhood. Water was water. Even though it was hard to come by, no one in my family nor any of my teachers dwelled on the science or mystery of its origins. Not until enthusiasts began promoting irrigation, did the word “aquifer” enter the Plains farmer’s lexicon, as a limitless underground lake. In the aftermath of the 50s drought, the notion of engineered rain from a source so plentiful it would never run dry must have cheered farmers up quite a bit. The promise must have seemed like the fulfillment, finally, of the fantasy proliferated by earlier settlement boosters who promised that rain would follow the plows as pioneers moved westward.
If we had been aware of ourselves as belonging to a cherished place, one that we wished to leave intact for future generations, we might have reacted to the promises of irrigation promoters the way the Hopi Indians did in the 1970s, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to drill a well and install a water tower in Hotevilla, on Arizona’s Third Mesa. Their ancestors had been desert dwellers for several thousand years. The knowledge that flowed into them from these deep roots was far more persuasive than the government hydrologist’s promises. The elders reasoned that the ability to store thousands of gallons of water in the tower would engender a false sense of plenty. They knew that the tower would lead to waste and the pumping would dry out the spring where they’d gathered water for centuries. I’ve since read that the elders lost the battle against the tower. It was installed, but most people in Hotevilla refused to hook their houses up to it.
The pioneers and we descendants have always acted in the opposite manner, grasping whatever new technology would make our lives easier. As justification, we point to the hardships we faced. When I dared to ask one of my father’s old sheep buddies, as they liked to call each other, if he regretted our having plowed most of the prairie under, he said, “Hell no.” This man, like my father, had grown up in a sod house. “We had it hard. Baloney, good ol’ days. Outside toilets, freezin’ your butt off. Look at you, Julie. You’re sittin’ in a pretty nice chair, you’re not out in a teepee somewhere, weavin’ wool.”
Despite cold and a host of other hardships, the Indians, whether they wove wool in Southwestern hogans and adobes or tanned buffalo hides in Plains tepees, developed a different set of values. The Hopi are actually grateful they live in a desert. In too easy a climate, they were told by their maker, Spider Woman, they would fall into ignorance and irreverence, as they had in other incarnations in the previous three worlds they inhabited. The unreliability of the rains keeps them diligent in their rituals.
Without a spiritual tradition that recognizes the balance of nature and holds it sacred, our relationship to the land and its bounty is like a child’s in a candy store with no adult present to restrain us from gorging. We don’t identify ourselves as natives of ecosystems bounded by natural limits of land and climate but as citizens of countries, states and counties, and as owners of farms, places demarcated by lines on maps. We conduct ourselves within an economy that depends on the depletion and degradation of the real things—plants, animals, soils, air, water—that sustain us.
Today, people know that the Ogallala aquifer is not a lake, but a vast accumulation of gravelly deposits saturated with fossil water. These sediments washed down off the Rockies at the end of the Miocene epoch, five million years ago, and were deposited by streams that changed courses continually, braiding, unbraiding, and rebraiding themselves over the Plains. Glacier melt from the mountains collected in the deposits, but today little water from the mountains reaches the flatlands. The aquifer depends mostly on rainfall for recharge, and in the dry climate, most rain evaporates or is used by plants before it has a chance to seep downward. Today’s sprinkler irrigation systems are about twice as efficient as the gated pipe we flooded fields with when we first started irrigating, yet the Kansas Geological Survey reports a yearly pumping average of almost two feet, over 40 times more than the recharge estimate of one-half inch.
It has been only 50 years since “development” or mining of water became widespread in my region, but depletion rates are alarming. I have become accustomed to the funnel shape of the hydrology maps—wide at the top, where the aquifer underlies most of Nebraska, narrowing to a rounded tip just south of the Texas Panhandle. The shape is reminiscent of a whirlwind or dust devil, a common sight on High Plains fields, or the actual, more or less conical shape of a heart.
On the Kansas Geological Survey map, the western half of Sherman County where my family still farms is mostly solid orange, indicating declines of up to 30 percent. In southern Sherman County, Rorschach blots of brighter orange show depletion rates of 30 to 45 percent. A couple counties south of ours, large areas range from dark brown to almost black, for declines between 45 and greater than 60 percent. Studying maps from different years, I have seen how such dark areas of high decline in Oklahoma and Texas began as little freckles but spread like cancers into oblong or larval shaped blots. These gradually enlarged, indicating whole regions depleted below usable levels.
Our windmill pumped water onto my mother’s garden and into our house and stock tanks at the rate of only a few gallons per minute. Since my father’s death, I have been preparing our family’s water reports and have acquired a disquieting awareness of today’s irrigation rates, which range from 500 to 1,200 gallons per minute–and of how much water that factors out to over the course of a growing season. Each summer our farm’s five irrigation wells pump between 100 and 300 million gallons. Sherman County’s 886 wells pump between 29 and 50 billion gallons. By comparison, the city of Denver sends 70 billion gallons through its pipes. In one dry year, Sherman County’s 158 irrigation farmers use two-thirds as much water as used by the one million people served by the Denver system. And ours is just one of several dozen High Plains counties where irrigation farming predominates.
Farmers must file annually with the Kansas Water Office, reporting how much water they’ve used, but they have political clout and have so far resisted any serious curtailment of their water rights. Some minor restrictions have been passed. Existing rights have been frozen, no new rights will be issued, and a recent regulation requires all irrigators to install meters, making it more difficult for them to under-report the number of gallons they pump. But to date, the serious conservation measures proposed by directors of water control boards and state governors have not floated.
A plan called Zero Depletion, for instance, had the worthy goal of “sustainable yield” and would have set a future date after which no more water than what seeped into the aquifer would have been pumped out of it. One of our current farm’s neighbors, whose father worked for my grandfather as a young man, tells me, “If that Zero Depletion had gone through, you could have shot a bullet down Main Street and not hit anybody.” He is probably right. Plains economies depend on irrigation. But unfortunately, he was describing an inevitability, whether the plundering is stopped by regulation or depletion. As the desert writer Charles Bowden puts it, “Humans build their societies around consumption of fossil water long buried in the earth, and these societies, being based on a temporary resource, face the problem of being temporary themselves.”
My father’s old sheep buddy thinks he sees the writing on the wall. “You know Denver’s gettin’ so huge, where in the world are they going to get their water?”
“Where’s California going to get their water?” his wife put in.
Her husband resettled his cowboy hat, which he’d placed on his knee when he sat down to talk to me in my mother’s living room. “That’s where the water trouble’s going to come from, because all these legislators in the cities want water for their people. They’re not going to worry much about us out here gettin’ a little water or not. They’re going to try to tie up all the water they can.”
His wife said, “I don’t think the people in the cities have any idea about how important farm land is and what the farmers are doing. They’re not going to think about it and realize the importance of it until they look and the shelves are empty at the grocery store.”
When the environmental soundness of a practice is questioned, farmers and the ag industry often make this familiar argument. “How else would we feed the world?” they ask. The implication in this case was that if city people vote to curtail large-scale irrigation to secure their own water needs, a food shortage will result and people will be hungry. But as George Pyle, an editorial writer from western Kansas, argued in his book, Raising Less Corn, More Hell, the United States and Europe actually overproduce and undersell grain. They flood world markets with cheap, subsidized commodities. The shortage to worry about is in cash. Over one billion of the world’s people earn less than one dollar per day and can’t afford to buy enough food to eat even at the lowest prices. Like representatives of many countries who argue the point in the World Trade Organization, Pyle believes that U.S. and European farm subsidies exacerbate poverty and hunger in less developed nations, where farmers are forced off the land because they cannot compete in the artificially suppressed market.
Even if by some stroke of altruistic genius we came up with a means of feeding the world’s starving without charge, we could do so most efficiently if we grew corn for human use instead of raising feed corn to fatten cattle and hogs. Over half of each year’s corn crop is fed to livestock within the United States, as is much of the corn we export. By processing seven pounds of corn through a steer, we produce only one pound of weight gain, mostly in fat.
The chief irony in this waste is that we needn’t have disturbed one blade of grass in the first place. The most convincing study I’ve read estimated that the nation’s grasslands once supported around 40 million bison. The environmentally exhaustive practices that support the beef industry could have been almost completely avoided had we stewarded instead of decimated the original herds. We might not be eating as much red meat, but we would be eating meat better for us.
And were it not for the government Farm Program, we would not be growing much corn west of the hundredth meridian—the invisible rain curtain running through the middle of the Plains states and separating the High Plans from wetter, more easterly regions. The crop requires two feet of moisture in Sherman County, about a foot more than what falls out of the sky in the ideal growing season. On one 120-acre irrigated circle, where a sprinkler equipped with the latest conservation technology applies water even at an ideal efficiency of 90 percent, this translates into about 40 million gallons. The Ogallala waters one-third of the nation’s corn crop, and irrigated corn receives roughly that proportion of the $4.5 billion in annual corn price supports.
“They can keep their cheap food policy,” said my father’s sheep buddy. “We sold our souls when we started taking subsidies. If the government got out of farming now we’d all go broke.” The “cheap food policy” he referred to is farmer code for the government program designed to secure an inexpensive food supply. Government subsidized grain suppresses the price that citizens, when wearing their consumer rather than taxpayer hats, pay and that farmers receive for grain. To increase both their income from the sale of grains and their share of Farm Program payments, farmers turn to yield-enhancing chemicals, genetically modified seed, bigger farms, bigger, more complex machinery—and to intensive irrigation. They have no choice, given the low price of grain, but to maximize their returns through increases in production and scale.
I asked our neighbor, the one whose dad worked for my mom’s dad, what he would do to change things if he were boss of it all. “I don’t really want to tell others what to do,” he replied with typical Plains humility, then proceeded to outline his own four-year crop rotation system—one season of pinto beans, two of wheat, one of corn planted back into the wheat stubble to conserve moisture. The system relied less on water-thirsty corn, but more on “no-till,” a method that keeps weeds down with chemicals while reducing the number of passes a tractor makes through a field. He told me that Roundup, the chemical used more in no-till than in conventional tillage, “is only contact. It doesn’t go into the ground.” I hope he’s right, because as farmers are becoming more aware of the water’s limits and as the cost of fuel to pump the wells escalates, they are turning increasingly to this alternative.
But environmental thinkers looking at the bigger picture suggest that, in the face of our dwindling fuel and water supplies, with farm chemicals showing up in our drinking water and with nitrate run-off killing the coral reefs and threatening life in the oceans, we can no longer afford to underwrite agriculture as currently practiced. The emphasis needs to shift onto conservation—less rather than more reliance on chemicals; the restoration of our grasslands; more direct marketing systems that do not waste resources in shipping, processing and packaging; smaller, biologically diverse farms; and the return to dry-land agriculture on the Plains. Given increasing global competition, farmers might always require subsidies to stay in business, but the only practices that warrant taxpayer support are those that truly do secure our food supply and those that preserve the land, water, and soil, not those that waste or pollute resources essential to the nation’s future.
Instead of lobbying for revisions in the “cheap food policy,” farmers are too often duped into blaming environmentalists for their problems. When I worry about chemical residue building up in our soil and water or mention my regrets over the depletion of the aquifer or suggest that the Farm Program should underwrite conservation rather than depletion, our farm’s neighbors like to josh me about being a “greenie.”
“We’re the endangered species,” says the neighbor with the no-till plan. He and another farm neighbor spend winter nights plotting their vengeance. “We’re thinking of starting an adopt-a-prairie dog program for city folks. We could send them a picture each month. ‘What Your Prairie Dog Did Today.’” He cracked a lopsided smile. “They could all be the same picture.”
I had to laugh. But I also had to ask if he’d seen many burrowing owls lately. The odd little birds used to stand like sentry soldiers on our pasture’s prairie dog mounds, but I’d read they were now rare.
He continued to grin. “We try to take care of them too, because they and prairie dogs go together. They’re hard to shoot though.” He made a wave-like motion with his hands. “Cause of how they fly.”
He was both kidding and not kidding, I knew, getting my goat with the truth.
For my people, the highest value has always been production and yields, the unbridled use of whatever could advance these, the removal or suppression of whatever got in their way. Yet my grief over the loss and destruction is not, as my Plains friends assume, born of my life among urbanites. The environmentalists I met in college or in Colorado, where I now live, did not brainwash me. My conviction in these matters comes from my past on that farm. Had I not sat atop our windmill and gazed over what still remained then of the native buffalo grass, I would have no direct sense of what has been lost. I don’t know a farm kid who didn’t climb their family’s windmill and ponder the same things. What we saw sank into us. Most Plains-born people are not content in other landscapes. When I lived in the Midwest, going back to school, I hated not being able to see far, the humidity, the low and overcast skies, and the blatantly green grass. The term “greenie” attaches the wrong hue to my environmentalism. I like the shortgrass prairie as much in its winter-cured, yellow phase as in the summer, when the pale, variegated greens range into blues. The Plains are too intensely green now, almost every inch of the native grass gone, the sod turned and planted to non-sustainable crops made possible by wasting a substance to which we owe our own lives.
The water allowed us to live safely within shelterbelts and comfortably on lawns, the fragrance of domestic blooms floating around us, but we were also touched by wildness. June bugs slapped against our screen doors summer nights. Toads hopped across our porches to feast on them. Lizards skittered through yucca litter in our pastures. The ears of kit foxes sailed over ditch weeds. Coyotes yipped from beyond the corral fences. Jack rabbits zigzagged drunkenly ahead of our cars. Prairie dogs and burrowing owls perched on our pasture hills. We would not have known these creatures had the water not made it possible for us to live where we did and to, by consequence, become who we were, with our particular sense of aesthetics, definitions of beauty particular to that place. We wouldn’t have known the luminescent, high evening skies, the glorious sunsets over wheat fields and pastures, the soft pastels of buffalo and gramma grass, the brilliance of snow-covered fields. We would not be us.
FAIRBURY WINDMILL CO. From my father’s point of view, windmills were mechanical contraptions. He complained of the damnable amount of attention and servicing they required. The pump leathers had to be pulled and replaced every so often, the towers climbed and the gears greased. Yet to most of us windmills are romantic Western icons. They stand starkly on the remaining Plains grasslands. They seem to grow out of the ground like huge daisies, as if they are natural features, or emblems of humans as natural creatures.
One family, one tower, and some danger in getting what that family needed from the earth in order to survive. The difficulty constituted what I have heard called “right relationship.” Labor is expended, risks incurred that keep the supplicants mindful of their dependence on a resource, and the resource is not depleted, at least not seriously or rapidly. It is only tapped.
The rubbing still hangs over my desk. On its back side is a list of my mother’s certificates of deposit, the only piece of paper I could find in my car that day. The irony doesn’t escape me. It didn’t escape me then. Since my father’s death I had been helping her shop for competitive interest rates and keep track of her savings, money that had accumulated thanks to the Ogallala. Up the metal stems of windmills had flowed the water that made it possible for my family to establish a foothold, then a stronghold from which we further enlisted that resource for our personal benefit. For 38 seasons now, the water has gushed out of our wellheads. First, when we were flood irrigating, we channeled it down the furrows of row crops ranging from sugar beets to corn and pinto beans. Now we sprinkle it on from overhead, as if it were real rain. When harvesting these irrigated crops, we have been harvesting the water, transferring it from the aquifer into our own dark bank vaults. In inverse relationship to the draw-down of the underground water, the money grows in storage, although there is really no vault and no sheaves of bills.
Our words for money come from actual things. A buck was originally the name given to a deerskin, a common unit of trade during this country’s settlement. “Fee” comes from the German vieh, meaning cattle. We use the term “shell out” because Native Americans traded in shells. Salary comes from the Latin word for salt, because Roman soldiers were paid partially in this essential mineral. But today our financial system rests on several levels of abstraction. The more years that separate us from the days when all of us ate directly from land and soil—when we ate our own grains, dairy products, vegetables, produce, and meat instead of the processed, pulverized, packaged foodstuffs they are now turned into elsewhere—the higher we have built the tower. We’ve removed the supports as we built so that today our system floats on invisible perceptions. No stockpiles of gold back the dollar anymore. As the economist Milton Friedman says, “The pieces of green paper have value because everybody thinks they have value.” Most transactions don’t even require greenbacks. Our wealth is in name only, figures recorded, except on those occasions when we print them out, in binary code on computers.
My mind reels at how this transfer took place on the Plains. We went from actual wealth in the form of natural resources on which all past and future generations depend to the individual abstract wealth of a few generations of pioneers and their descendants. Actual substance that you can touch—real water from within real ground—has been transformed into binary code. We can’t transform any of it back.