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open space the great green desert Although our entire history in that place depended on farming within you will know what I mean. The land contains you, and the climate’s limits, my father, like his neighbors, had grasped on to you can’t really differentiate between what it is and who new technology allowing him to irrigate out of the vast but virtually you are. Yet you can leave, because your family will always non-renewable Ogallala Aquifer. I did the math and figured out that in be there, keeping you one with the land. You don’t realize less than a century, if our family continued pumping nearly 200 million they are performing this service or that you need them to. gallons every growing season, the water under our land would be gone. I may have gotten over the cowboy, but I hadn’t forgotten the desI left Kansas when I was 18, headed for excitement, I suppose. But ert’s wild beauty or Kansas when it the most exciting thing I did in San Franwas still wild enough for me to imagcisco was to leave it 12 years later for the ine Indians chasing buffalo across the Mojave Desert, to live alone in a remote prairies. Aridity had given the grass mountain cabin surrounded by more that stretched beyond our farmhouse than a million acres of wilderness. As this transfixing blue-green cast that for thrills, nothing beat taking icy dunks had perfectly complemented our pale on hot afternoons in a big windmill-fed blue, overarching skies. And although tank where a rancher stored water I didn’t have to live in the desert to for his cattle. Although I didn’t realize know this in my bones, I now knew it this at the time, I fell into that waterin my head: water is precious. worshipping, desert-loving groove beMy father wanted to train me as his cause I’d been born in it. successor—a great honor in a place My family’s western Kansas farm where ideas about men’s and women’s may not have been as dry as the work had always been rigid. But if my Mojave, but the 1820 Stephen H. Long land ethic were a line in the dirt like expedition across the High Plains the ones my toddler son loved to draw dubbed the region the Great Desert with a stick, it would be exactly perfor good reason. Were it not for the wapendicular to the one representing my ter our windmills pumped, we couldn’t father’s: make all the money you can, have survived there. And to make a no matter how much native grass you living, my father had to practice “the plow or how much poison you spray or science of farming where rainfall is dehow much water you pump. ficient.” The historian Walter Prescott Though it saddened my father when Webb should have added the words Until I grew up, I didn’t even I told him I wanted to go back to school, art and obsession to his definition of dryknow we’d had a drought during my he forked over quite a few irrigation land farming. My father nurtured the 1950s childhood that rivaled the dollars to help. And though it saddened moisture in his wheat fields so deftly me that he was farming unsustainably, and assiduously that, until I grew up, I Dust Bowl of the 1930s I thought I could accept his aid and didn’t even know we’d had a drought leave once again without a backward glance, still confident that, because during my 1950s childhood that rivaled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After jumping into 60-degree water on 100-degree days, the most thrill- our land would always be there, I would always be me. A little more than a decade later, my father died, leaving me part-owner ing thing I did in the Mojave was marry this charming cowboy with a drinking problem. I thought I could reform him. When it proved I couldn’t of what he’d considered a lucrative paradise and what I considered a and I became pregnant, I left him for the safety of home. Suddenly, in- travesty against the land’s natural gifts and character. Who was I now? If you were raised on a farm, then you probably know this too: the stead of floating on the crystalline waters of that stock-water storage tank, I found myself standing waist-deep in my father’s tailwater pit, a bull- chickens always do come home to roost. dozed hole in the ground where he caught runoff from his flood-irrigated fields. I did that only once. The tepid water was ecru, the color of dirt, Julene Bair is the author of The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckand, as I would soon learn, saturated with farm chemicals. oning, due out in March from Viking/Penguin. f, like me, you grew up on family land, then

6 4 onearth

spring 2014

illustration by michael glenwood


b y J U L ENE BA I R

OnEarth Spring 2014  

Hog Wild, by Ted Genoways

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